THPO Comparative Collection

By Domonique deBeaubien, THPO Collections Manager

What is that?” It’s one of the most common questions we ask ourselves when working with archaeological artifacts.  Most of the artifacts that come into the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) Archaeological Lab are highly fragmented pieces of animal bone that were left behind by human activity at archaeological sites.  We call these tiny pieces of animal bone faunal remains.

Capture1
Collections Assistant Patricia Rodriguez pondering the identification of a tricky faunal bone. 

People often wonder why we spend so much time studying what is essentially, trash.  But you can learn a great deal about an archaeological site by understanding the remnants of what was left behind.  A trained analyst (or bioarchaeologist) can look at a pile of broken up pieces of animal bone and construct an elaborate picture about the people who created it.  For example: what were people eating?  How far did people travel to get their food?  What animals were the most valuable for nutrition and tool making?

Capture
Faunal material excavated from an archaeological site.  Can you identify any animal species?

In order to answer those questions we first need to understand what we’re looking at, and that’s why we have the THPO Comparative Collection!   This is essentially a reference collection made up of many different animal skeletons that help us identify the fragmented faunal remains that come into the lab.  Since the fauna of Florida is extraordinarily diverse, we have a wide collection of creatures ranging from alligators to armadillos and stingrays to snakes; we endeavor to have an example of most of the major animal species that live in our domain.

You may currently be wondering where these skeletons come from.  I’ll be the first person to admit that you don’t go into bioarchaeology if you’re squeamish.  There is a pretty high level of ick factor when acquiring comparative specimens, and it requires a serious level of dedication from our Collections staff.  Most of our specimens come from road kill, where they are collected and then buried in a discreet corner of the museum parking lot. Most people endearingly refer to this location of our campus as the Pet Cemetery.   Burying the animal allows the organic matter to decompose naturally, while leaving the skeletal remains behind. Other researchers use different methods like dermestid beetles to clean their specimens, but this process works the best for our environment.  It is also significantly friendlier to the eye (and nose) since everything is placed underground. After a number of months (sometimes years!), each specimen is carefully excavated and all of the bones are cleaned and organized anatomically.  We’re extra careful to gather all of the smaller bones, as these are often what survive the best archaeologically.

Capture3
THPO staff Josh Ooyman and Domonique deBeaubien excavating a faunal specimen

Whenever a new specimen is brought into the lab, our goal is to ensure it becomes a valuable asset to our collection, so every individual bone is identified by skeletal element, labeled, and stored accordingly.  That way, when students or interns come into the lab who aren’t familiar with comparative anatomy, they have a vast resource right at their fingertips.

Capture4
Out of the field and into the collection
Capture5
A small sample of archaeological faunal bone from a site on the Big Cypress Reservation

Let’s take a quick look at the comparative collection in action. This photo is a classic example of what comes into the lab: tiny little pieces of mystery faunal bone!  Our job is to take those tiny fragments, and identify what they are by comparing them with intact bones from our comparative collection.  Can you tell what kind of animal bone these might be?

Capture6

If you guessed alligator, that is correct!  The archaeological fragments pictured above belong to an alligator scute.  A scute is a piece of bony armored plating that runs down an alligator’s back.  Alligators have hundreds of them, and they fit together to form a protective layer of osseous body armor.  As you can see, they are approximately the same size, and share the same markings as the alligator scute from our Comparative Collection.  Even though we just had a few tiny pieces, our amazing lab staff was able to accurately identify what animal species the fragments came from!

For us, each fragment of bone tells a different story; whether it’s a family meal shared hundreds of years ago, or how far hunters journeyed for their catch.  Each story is unique, and thanks to our comparative collection, we can help bring that story to life.

 

Advertisements

Tribal Historic Preservation Office: Collections Division

The Tribal Historic Preservation Office’s Collection Section plays many roles in the preservation and care of the Seminole Tribe’s archaeological collections.  From carefully cleaning artifacts as they come in from the field, to cataloging and housing the objects through archival methods, the Collections Section works hard to uphold the highest standards of safeguarding the archaeological collections. 

Left: Katy Gregory, Right: Kate Redente working in the conservation lab.

One of the most important aspects of the Collections Section is the lab.  The lab is where most of the work takes place including the cleaning, sorting, identifying, cataloging, and accessioning of the objects.  Below is an explanation of the life of an object once it enters the lab.

Most of the objects come from the archaeological excavations done by the Tribal Archaeology Section and primarily consist of animal bone and ceramic fragments.  Once excavated, the objects are brought back from the field to the lab.  Depending on the material and type of object, it is gently cleaned in order to remove any excess dirt and sand.  Cleaning is done to prevent future damage and deterioration to an object.  However, it is important to know that not all objects are cleaned especially if the historic or cultural integrity of an object could be affected or destroyed.  Most of the time cleaning can be done by using a soft bristled toothbrush and distilled water.   

After the objects have been cleaned, they are left to dry on the drying racks.  It takes about a day or two for the objects to completely dry. 

Once the objects are dry, they are carefully sorted into like groups and cataloged.  Each group of objects receives a unique number which helps to identify the object as well as link the objects to their records.  Keeping track of each individual object is important and helps keep the collection organized and as well as allow for easy research access. 

Object Sorting

The final stage of preparing the object for storage is to place the objects into archival bags.  Each bag has an identification tag which is also printed on archival paper.  However, because some objects are too fragile to house in bags, custom boxes and supports are sometimes made to help prevent damage and deterioration.

The Collections Section is excited to be a part of the preservation of the archaeological collections.  It is great to be able to preserve these objects so that we might have a better understanding of the past!