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.

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?

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.

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.

Out of the field and into the collection
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?


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.



Have you searched our Online Collections yet?

by Mary Beth Rosebrough, Research Coordinator

Cataloging is a major activity here in the Collections Division of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. We do it almost all day, every day.  Cataloging means we record in our database, PastPerfect, all the information we have on the item in hand.  Who donated that newspaper clipping? Oh, it was William Boehmer of Brighton Reservation fame!  Did anything else come with it? Yes, as a matter of fact, it came with some black and white photos.  Right – all noted in the record. Recording the information keeps our accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums current and makes those materials available for research.  To access this blog page you clicked on a button at the top of our web page. But did you know you can access much of our collection from our website?  You can! – if you go to the dropdown menu under the Collections tab (right under the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki  logo), click on Online Collections, and then scroll down the page to “Online Collections connection”.   I’ve made it easy for you today:  our “Online Collections” search page is here:

Because of the diligent work done daily you have access to a large percentage of our collection and can research or “visit” our collection from your favorite comfy chair.  I hope you are sitting in it right now with your laptop and perusing a bit.  Try searching “patchwork” and you will get over 1300 hits.


That ought to keep you or any student, maybe a homeschooled high schooler? – busy for most of the afternoon.  Not only are you able to view a very good scan of the object BUT you can also read the information that accompanies it in the database – the description, the size and what it is made of.  Have a look:;id=8016704B-A69E-40F5-8054-560520439956;type=101

Interested in document research? How about this historic newspaper dated August 18, 1921?


Not only can you read the synopsis to determine the article is about a scouting expedition for the building of the Tamiami Trial, but you can actually read the clipping itself.  Great, right?  And you find out it was part of a notebook belonging to Francis Frost White, a BIA employee in Dania (Hollywood) in the 1930s and 40s. Our collections assistant, Tennile Jackson, very carefully took apart that notebook, page by painstaking page, wearing purple latex gloves, and cataloged each one, recording all the important details.


And so, because of that attention to detail, we deduce that Francis can provide us with some interesting history. We can use Francis Frost White as our search term and find what else she collected.  Let’s try it and see what comes up:;keyword=francis frost white;dtype=d;subset=300

What we get is 145 hits providing an interesting walk through time and the history of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Now you try it!  What are you interested in – guns, the War, beadwork, bandolier bags, baskets, dolls?   All are major holdings that can be searched and researched.  When you put in your search term, look to the right and see the different modules available:  All content (for searching all the modules), Objects (artifacts, not paper), Library (books, journals, and periodicals), Archives (paper documents), Photos, and People.  To refine your search check the most applicable one(s) so you aren’t having to wade through pages of items that don’t suit your purpose.

Goal 4_Collections

I hope you have enjoyed our walk through the online collections on the Museum’s website.  And hopefully you will enjoy the collection from the convenience of your own home – in preparation for your visit to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki  Museum!  Our exhibits highlight collection pieces to tell the story of the Seminole Tribe of Florida you won’t find in history books.  This month we have an exquisite exhibit, Struggle for Survival, on Seminole removal and survival in the Everglades being installed in the Museum.  It tells a story that has not been told before in this way.  Come and see how our Exhibits team has used our collection to tell the Seminole side of the constant conflict of the 1800s and learn the real story of the Unconquered!