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Museum Mondays: the art of dirtless excavation

March 31, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Everyone knows that archaeology takes place outdoors with hardy individuals braving the elements, digging holes, and finding “treasures.” At least that’s what movies and TV show us, because who would pay money to watch Lara Croft or Indiana Jones stare into a microscope, do library research, or fill out forms on a computer? Yet every hour of exciting fieldwork usually requires five or more hours of lab work.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Beloit College had an active archaeological field program in several parts of Illinois and Wisconsin. Hundreds of students dug in the summers, returning to Beloit with large artifact collections.

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Students catalogued most of the material, but in line with the practices of the time (and the near absence of funding to support collections work), artifacts were often housed in whatever ad-hoc containers were available: cigarette packs, fishhook boxes, even lollipop wrappers. Several of the excavations were written up in theses and publications, and the artifacts were stored away in cardboard computer punch-card boxes (ancient artifacts themselves) awaiting new generations of researchers.

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The “future” has finally arrived for these objects. Visiting Curator of Archaeology Sara Pfannkuche (pictures below) is examining the field school collections, identifying artifact types, creating detailed inventories, entering the collections into the museum’s database, and rehousing the objects. Processing the collections in these ways helps preserve them and makes them more easily accessible to students, faculty, and outside researchers. Sara’s work follows up on the museum’s NEH-funded rehousing project of 2006-2008.

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To spur research interest in the field school collections, Pfannkuche and other Logan Museum staff members have presented papers at the Midwest Archaeological Conference. The museum has also developed exhibits about Beloit’s early field schools in Algeria in (Splendid Work: The 1930 Algerian Field School, fall 2010) and New Mexico (Ancient Whispers: Objects and Stories from the American Southwest, open now at the Logan). The collections are being used in classes, and graduate students have used them as well.

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Pfannkuche’s favorite artifact (this week, anyway) among the 91,000 objects collected during Dr. Robert Salzer’s Northern Lakes Project field schools (1966-1968) is a projectile point that combines two different styles. The base of the point is similar to that of a “Waubesa” point, but the blade resembles that of a “Snyders Cluster” point. Although most Waubesa points are slightly older than most Snyders Cluster points, the two types were both utilized about 2,000 years ago. It’s possible that this point started out as a complete Snyders Cluster point and was reworked into a Waubesa, or perhaps the point was originally made as blend of the two types. What makes the point even more unique is that it is made out of Knife River flint, which is only found in western North Dakota. Somebody about 2,000 years ago brought the raw material or the finished point over 650 miles to where it was found in northern Wisconsin. This is the only Knife River flint point recovered from the 88 Northern Lakes Project sites.