Objects & Archaeology: Where Does the Story Take You?

Bow section of Ada K. Damon
Bow of the wreck. Site protected by law.

[This should have been posted MONTHS ago. Sorry for the delay!]

I feel pretty lucky to still be connected to some of my undergraduate professors. Not only have they become my friends, they let me know when something interesting is happening at Salem State. Back in March, I found out about the first-ever Maritime Archaeology Field School that would be held during a week in July. Holy crap was I stoked on this! I signed up as soon as it was possible.

The class was broken down into 2 days of classwork, and 3 days of field work. Our first day of field work was spent at the Friendship in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, where we practiced taking offset measurements from a baseline, and learned a bit about the ship. This was also my first time ever being on that ship, even though I had lived in Salem for 3 years AND my roommate at one time used to work at that park site! It was awesome to be able to check out the ship and learn about her construction.

Day 2-4 was spent on site. We were working on Steep Hill Beach at the Crane Estate, which is managed by the Trustees of the Reservations. The wreck we were working on is most likely the Ada K. Damon, which was wrecked during a Christmas storm in 1909 while she was carrying sand from Plum Island to Pennsylvania. The story is really quite sad; the owner of the ship sunk all of his money into the ship, and she wrecked on her first voyage. That’s rough. You can still see the wreck if you visit the beach at low tide, but keep in mind that the site is protected by law, so please don’t try to take anything from it!

We dug, a lot. Day 3 it poured on and off for most of our time on the site, but that didn’t stop us from digging up the port side and taking offset measurements. In fact, I think day 3 was probably the best day; we all laughed through the rain, and really got to know each other while digging with the outgoing tide crashing against our backs. We had 3 instructors – Dr. Calvin Mires, Captain Laurel Seaborn, and MA State Underwater Archaeologist Victor Mastone – and 2 Ph.D students with us to help us take measurements while working around piles of sand and the fact that none of us had ever been on a dig before. We really had to work as a team to make sure our measurements were correct, we weren’t getting in each other’s way, but most importantly we were helping each other figure out what we didn’t understand (scale? huh?). While day 4 was a bit of a wash – incoming tide meant we took sketches of features on the starboard side before they were buried by the water – we DID get an awesome tour of the Crane Estate and learned how to do trilateration measurements. Day 5 we spent at school, creating a site map that will be kept in the public record. How cool is that!? Our work will be the basis of future research done at the site. So flippin’ sweet.

Working in museums and being a collections gal, something Calvin said on day 1 really stuck with me. He talked about what archaeology is and isn’t, but what he made clear was that “shipwrecks are stories about failure.” Shipwrecks are STORIES. He emphasized that archaeology is an examination of past human existence based on objects found at the site, and that maritime archaeology is concerned with all aspects of material culture. Wrecks are cool, but what can they tell us about the people involved with them? The time period? The culture? While this course focused primarily on the how-to’s of maritime archaeology, Calvin made sure we all understood that beneath it all, what is important is what we can learn about a person, a group, or a place from the wreck site and any artifacts found.

We didn’t find any artifacts. In fact, we were told on day one that we wouldn’t. This wreck has been buried for over a century, and had been picked over after wrecking for resources (wood, iron, etc.). But that didn’t diminish our insane enthusiasm for what we were doing. To be able to work on a site and become part of the site record, to be encouraged to dig deep and get messy, was an opportunity that doesn’t come around every day. It was a great learning experience and I think all of us came away from the dig with a better appreciation of the work that goes in to an archaeological dig, and that even the smallest, seemingly insignificant task contributes to the larger picture in a big way.

Office Lens 20151117-095501
Word cloud I sketched out during class over the summer. These are just some of the stories that can be connected back to one wreck.

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Objects & Archaeology: Where Does the Story Take You?

Collections Storage Tour at the Peabody Museum

Last Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology‘s collections storage space as part of my class on collections management. It was such a great experience! We were split in to two groups, one led by the collections manager (also our professor) and the other led by one of the curatorial/conservation assistants. The first place my group went was the offsite storage facility, which I believe houses the majority of the PMAE’s collection. It was incredible. Three stories full of objects from all over the world, all within arms reach. At one point we were even allowed to hold an Acheulean flint axe head. This object was made by homo erectus, our ancestors, and is somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 years old. UM, WHAT? The oldest thing I have ever held in my entire life. It was a little ridiculous.

After the offsite storage we were brought up into the attic by the curatorial assistant, who showed us the different methods he and his co-conservators use for rehousing and storing objects in the collection. I know this employee from working at the desk at the Peabody occasionally, so it was really cool to be able to see him in his element, instead of in the front hallway. Plus, he recognized me! I (half-joking) asked if I could come hang out with him when I was on my break sometime, and his response? “Give me a few days heads up and you can come check storage out all the time!” My jaw dropped. For real? Ok, great! I also learned from the collections manager that the Semitic Museum is always looking for collections volunteers – BANGARANG. As much as I love the Waterworks Museum, I need to have experience with another collection under my belt, and the Semitic Museum’s archaeological collection would be a perfect new addition.

Tonight we’re going to be discussing repatration, specifically related to NAGPRA and the NMAI Act, which I’m becoming more and more interested in. It’s certainly a global discussion at the moment as more and more countries are requesting (sometimes demanding) that artifacts be returned to their rightful owners instead of remaining in the museums that acquired them centuries ago. Maybe I’ll post about it.


Collections Storage Tour at the Peabody Museum