Read the full report here.


Read the full report here.
Preserving our Cultural
History through Curation
An Internship with the Texas Historical Commission's
Historic Sites Division
Sandra Zwetzig
[email protected]
In the summer of 2012, I worked as an intern with the Texas Historical
Commission's Historic Sites Division. I was under the direct supervision of Kerri
Wilhelm, the Curator of Archaeology. The purpose of the internship was to learn
about the curation of archaeological artifacts, why objects need curation, how to
curate them properly, and the current state of many archaeological collections. I will
discuss the Historic Sites Division's mission, curation issues, conservation of
artifacts, and give an overview of a few of the sites.
Historic Sites Division - Mission
The Historic Sites Division, a branch of the Texas Historical Commission,
oversees 20 historic sites around the state of Texas. They seek to preserve these
sites and their artifacts for future generations. The Historic Sites Division (HSD)
recently obtained several of these sites from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division.
These sites include all of the associated artifacts, which have been moved to the HSD
repository. The repository now houses over 700 boxes of artifacts that need to be
brought up to THC curation standards. Curation is the proper care (including
packaging and storage) and documentation of artifacts. Once the artifacts are
properly repackaged and catalogued, a few of them may be selected to be sent out
for conservation. The conservation process will clean and chemically treat the
artifact to prevent further decay. These artifacts could eventually end up on public
display in a museum or a visitors center, generally located on the respective site.
Others will be stored for future research.
The work done at the HSD is extremely important to the cultural heritage of
Texas and the United States. Each site and its artifacts tell a unique story of the past.
The sites are interpreted by HSD from written records, oral stories, the site location,
and the artifacts that have been found during archaeological excavations. Every
artifact is important to the long-term vision of the sites, no matter how small. If the
artifacts are not properly curated they could be lost or damaged. The interpretation
helps to educate the public about a particular site. The curation work that HSD does
will extend the life of the collection and the documentation will provide the public
information that will last for generations.
Unfortunately, the Texas Historical Commission recently suffered severe
budget cuts. Their strategic plan document states that in 2011, "...our budget was
cut in half and our staff was reduced by 25 percent". They must now try to save
these sites under very restricting conditions.
The curation of archaeological artifacts is often overlooked during the
archaeological excavations. Recent laws, like NAGPRA, require a repository to take
an inventory of their collections to see exactly what they have. This and other
applicable laws have brought the curation issue to the forefront. However, the
backlog of items needing curation and the poor state of many collections is cause for
concern. Nevertheless, the THC website states that they are "... as committed as ever
to saving the real places that tell the real stories of our great state". Part of this
commitment can be seen in their new repository dedicated to the safekeeping of
their collections.
Historic Sites Division - Locations
The Historic Sites Division has a main office downtown and a repository
located in northeast Austin. The downtown office is where the majority of the
employees work. The offices are located inside of an old house that has been
converted for business. Donna Williams is the Director of Historic Sites and oversees
the entire Historic Sites Division. Working under her is Glenn Reed the Chief
Architect, and directly under him are Ellen Colfax and David Henners both working
as Project Design Assistants. Then there is Hal Simon, the Interpretive Planner for
HSD. Hal’s job is to tell the story of each site and provide a plan for the site directors
to follow. It is clear when talking to him that his job is his passion. The entire team
works together to create a plan within a budget for each site. However, working
with the current budget cuts has been a challenge for them. They must prioritize the
needs of a site and often several projects are cut. It is a difficult time, but they are
determined to make it work.
The repository building is where all of the archaeological collections are
stored. The building only has one full time employee, Kerri Wilhelm. Although, the
lab stays busy because she often has several interns working with her part time.
Another employee, Laura DeNormandie Bass, is also at the repository a few days a
week. Her historic furniture collections are stored at this location. She is the Chief
Curator, and Kerri's supervisor, for HSD. She spends most of her work hours
traveling to the different sites.
One of the important aspects of curation is providing a save place for the
artifacts. This includes both security and climate control. The new repository was
constructed with both of these in mind and a lot of thought was put into the layout.
The HSD repository includes a laboratory, kitchen, warehouse space, receiving area,
and several offices. The building is kept secure by having restricted access. Even
interns are only allowed keycards for the inside doors and not the outside. Video
monitoring systems are also in place should any theft or damage occur. The
repository also includes a sophisticated climate control system to protect the
artifacts as much as possible from degradation by temperature and humidity. The
warehouse area includes several sub-rooms where the climate can be modified
individually for the needs of specific collections. The output of both of these systems
can be viewed from monitors in Kerri's office.
Another important aspect is to inspect new pieces coming in for mold or bugs
so that they do not contaminate the rest of the collection. The small receiving area in
the back of the building allows objects to be brought in and cleaned before being
stored with other collections. There are also small freezers in the back so that some
artifacts may be frozen to rid them of any bugs. This is common for textiles, which
often contain bug infestations. Once the pieces have been cleaned and it is
determined that they are free of bugs, mold, or other contaminations, they are
moved into the main warehouse with the other collections.
The Sites
During my time with the Historic Sites Division, I worked on projects from
four different sites. I worked briefly on large collections from the Magoffin House
and the Landmark Inn. However, I mostly focused on two sites, the Varner-Hogg
Plantation and Fort McKavett. These two sites I will describe in greater detail.
The Varner-Hogg Plantation is located in West Columbia, Texas. It is about 50
miles south of Houston and sits next to the Brazos River. Martin Varner first settled
the land in 1824. However, the mansion was not built until 1834 when Columbus
Patton purchased the land. Patton had the mansion built by his large slave
population. The slaves made all the bricks by hand and they also constructed a sugar
mill, smokehouse, and even built their own living quarters. Columbus Patton died in
1856 and the family sold the plantation in 1869. The plantation then went through
several owners, none of which had much success on the land. Then in 1900, a
hurricane ripped through the area and destroyed most of the buildings. In 1901, a
former governor of Texas, James Hogg, bought the plantation. He purchased the land
because he thought there was oil in that area. He had several oil derricks put on the
land. Some of these derricks are still there today. During his time on the plantation,
large quantities of oil were never found. However, after his death, his family found
vast amounts on the land and became very wealthy. After that, the family did not
reside on the plantation but used it for parties and vacations. Eventually James'
daughter, Ima, donated the plantation to the state of Texas in 1957.
The plantation today sits on only a fraction of the land it once did. The other
portion is now a golf course. There are several buildings on the plantation grounds
and plenty of pecan and magnolia trees with Spanish moss hanging from them. One
of the old buildings has been converted to the main visitors center. Visitors can stop
here first for information about the plantation and they can schedule a tour of the
mansion. Most of the plantation is a self-guided tour, except for the mansion.
Figure 1. The detached kitchen from the Varner-Hogg Plantation mansion. (Photo by S.Zwetzig)
The Hogg's upgraded the mansion in 1919. They covered the original brick
exterior with concrete, giving the building a distinct look. The inside of the mansion
is currently decorated in the style of the time Governor Hogg lived there. The
kitchen (Figure 1) is detached from the main house to keep the heat and dangers of
fire away. The food was brought out through a breezeway and into a butler's pantry
before being brought into the main dining area. The dining room is set up complete
with the Hogg's good china. The mansion has three floors that include a sitting
room, several bedrooms, and an attic area. Modern air conditioning has been added
to help keep the objects safe from the heat and humidity.
Unfortunately, the old slave quarters on the land were torn down. The
remnants of the old buildings are marked with a small sign on the site. Written
records show that at one time, the plantation had almost 80 slaves. So far, only
traces of three dwellings have been found. The HSD thought that there must
certainly be more buildings to house that many slaves. They recently surveyed the
land and found several anomalies. The anomalies match the shape and size of the
known slave quarters. Little is known about the life of the slaves on the plantation
and excavating these areas would help piece it together and give the slaves a voice.
The Varner-Hogg Plantation gets its name from the first and last owners of
the land. However, the Patton's were one of the most interesting families to live
there. Columbus Patton ran a successful sugar business using a large slave labor
force. Eventually, He grew very fond of a female slave named Rachel. At the time,
this was a very serious issue and his family was not pleased with this. He developed
a long-term relationship with Rachel and made no secret of it. She even thought of
herself as his wife, even though it would have been illegal for them to marry. Many
years later, his family had him declared legally insane and put in an asylum. This is
not thought to have anything to do with his relationship with Rachel, but possibly a
brain tumor. After he passed away in the asylum, his family tried to have his will
overturned. The reason being, his will stated Rachel should be freed upon his death
and that his estate would provide her with a yearly stipend. His will was eventually
honored and Rachel was set free and financially compensated. She later moved to a
free state and continued to accept the money from the Patton estate.
Fort McKavett is a military fort in west Texas, near the town of Menard. The
fort overlooks the San Saba River and was established in 1852 by the 8th U.S.
Infantry. It was set up to protect the settlers of west Texas and served as a rest stop
for immigrants traveling to California. Unfortunately, it was abandoned only seven
years later. Eventually, it reopened in 1868 due to an increase in hostilities with
local Native American tribes. When the infantry abandoned it again in 1883, local
settlers moved in to the buildings and started a town there. People were still living
in the buildings until the 1970s. The fort was designated a historic site in 1968.
Figure 2. The Fort McKavett Hospital and Visitors Center. (Photo from THC website)
Currently the old hospital serves as the site's visitors center (Figure 2),
complete with exhibits about the site's history. Fort McKavett has 19 restored
buildings on the site that visitors can view at their own pace. All four of the famous
Buffalo Soldier regiments made their home at this fort. The Buffalo Soldiers were
the name given to the African American soldier regiments at that time. Several
objects have been found that are directly linked to these soldiers, including an ID
tag. The objects found here and at other sites are very significant and must be
treated with great care and respect in the lab.
In The Lab
Each site has a collection of artifacts stored in the repository. The collections
are often broken up into sub-collections based on excavation year or specific
location. This allows them to be smaller and more manageable. All artifacts from
storage must be properly prepared and documented for either long-term storage or
for public display. The majority of the 700 boxes acquired from the Texas Parks and
Wildlife Division have not yet been through the curation process. Most of these
boxes have not been opened since they were excavated, which in most cases were
the 1960s and 70s. Many of the boxes still contain the original paper bags from the
excavation. To be properly curated, each bag must be opened and the items sorted
by type of material into separate bags. The new bags must be special plastic bags
that do not negatively affect the artifact. Each item must have its own tag with the
site number, site name, lot number, item count, and analytical category of the
artifact. The objects are then transferred to a new, acid-free plastic box that will not
harm the artifacts.
Figure 3. In the lab transferring collections to new boxes. (Photo by K.Wilhelm)
It is important that the artifacts are always handled appropriately. Gloves
must be worn at all times and objects should always be held over a table. When
working with the artifacts and handling them, a tray or box lid should be used so
that the object will not roll off the table and fall to the floor. Each item is carefully
taken out of its current bag and examined. A file is made on the computer to enter
the information about each artifact. Color, size, description, and any text on the
object must be noted in the file. An accurate description is important when others
are researching artifacts in the future. Occasionally, objects are unidentified and
research must be done to discover the item's use.
The Fort McKavett sub-collection consisted of six boxes, half of which had
already been conserved by the Conservation Research Lab (CRL) at Texas A&M
University. The conservation process cleans the artifact and chemically treats it to
prevent further decay. The conserved objects already had accession numbers
assigned and only needed to be repackaged and documented. Accession numbers
are unique numbers assigned to all artifacts. The second set of three boxes had not
been conserved and needed to be assigned accession numbers. They also needed to
be packaged correctly, tagged, and documented. These boxes were later taken to
CRL for conservation when they were finished being processed.
The Fort McKavett artifacts were very interesting and consisted of several
bottles and bottle fragments. There was also a high concentration of U.S. Cavalry
artifacts, including belt buckles, horse bits, and cavalry buttons. Several of the U.S.
Cavalry items needed to be researched so they could be more closely identified and
dated to a specific time. The horse bit required a lot of research because the U.S.
Cavalry issued several versions, each only slightly different. The one found at Fort
Mckavett seems to be the 1859 edition. After the research, a full report is written for
each item, including images and links to where the information was found.
The Varner-Hogg Plantation sub-collection consisted of fourteen boxes. Many
of the artifacts were similar to the Fort McKavett items, but included items that are
more personal. This was a site where people lived for long periods and the artifacts
reflect that. This specific sub-collection was collected from the area of the slave
quarters on the plantation. The HSD specifically wanted to see what they had from
this collection and if it could help tell the story of the slaves that lived there. This is a
very interesting site with a long and rich history. The artifacts included multiple
ceramic pieces, utensils, doll parts, bottle fragments, slave made bricks, and several
other items. It is still being determined if any of these objects will be useful in
reinterpreting the site or if they can be used for display.
Working with the artifacts gives a good idea of how the site was used and
who lived there. Curating these artifacts will allow them to be available in the future
for any new research. Curation is vital to keeping our history alive. Sullivan and
Childs say that "when curatorial practices are poor or nonexistent, everyone loses:
Archaeologists suffer loss of irreplaceable research data, the general public suffers
loss of an expensive and valuable educational resource, and those whose heritage
may be linked to the collections lose that part of themselves". The importance of
curation cannot be overstated; it is our history that is at risk.
One of the downsides to archaeology is that it is a destructive science. This
means that when digging a site it is often destroyed in the process. Sometimes the
site is destroyed after excavation due to new construction of a road or a building.
This means that it is especially important to properly document and care for the
artifacts from a site. Curation is often an afterthought when preparing for a large
excavation. Many archaeologists are mainly concerned about getting the dig started
and finding the artifacts that will answer their questions. They fail to think about
how and where the rest of the information will be stored long term. This is where
the repositories come in.
The archaeologist must coordinate with a repository to organize and store
the objects from the site. It is extremely important that a repository have the space
and climate control for the artifacts. While an archaeologist is in the field, he has
little time to analyze each item. Generally, the objects are put into paper sacks and
the information on where they were found is written on the bag. This provenience
information is very important and must always stay with the artifact. However, the
artifact should not stay in that condition because it will degrade quickly and the
artifact could be lost.
The curation process will label each item, catalogue it, put it in the proper
packaging, and store it with the original documentation in a climate-controlled
space. The type of packaging is very important and curators must know what to use.
Proper curation will protect the collection from loss or degradation. It will ensure
that the cultural heritage will live on. It will also provide a place for researchers to
quickly view what is in a collection and if it can be of use to their current research.
Unfortunately, there is not enough time, money, or resources to properly curate the
enormous backlog in a timely manner. However, progress is being made.
Sometimes artifacts being curated are selected for conservation. For
conservation of artifacts, the Historic Sites Division contracts out to the
Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) at Texas A&M University in Bryan, Texas.
The conservation process stabilizes the artifact and protects it from further
deterioration. The CRL developed a silicone oil treatment that protects the artifacts
from the degrading effects of temperature and humidity. This chemical process even
allows the artifact to be touched with bare hands and not be damaged. The lab
specializes in archaeological material from underwater sites but also works with
terrestrial sites as well. One of their big responsibilities was caring for the objects
from the La Belle shipwreck in Matagorda Bay.
Figure 4. The Conservation Research Laboratory at
Texas A&M (Photo by K.Wilhelm)
Figure 5. Helen showing the interns how they make
molds for the firearms. (Photo by K.Wilhelm)
The CRL's busy lab area constantly has several works in progress out in the
open. Not only do they conserve artifacts but they also make replicas of artifacts.
This allows several museums to have the same display at the same time. Another
specialty of theirs is making molds and casts of missing pieces. They have several
rifles from the La Belle shipwreck whose metal portions had been lost due to being
underwater for so long. They can fill in the missing metal pieces using molds and
carbon fiber and recreate the original look of the firearm. These pieces can then be
used for public display.
Not all objects are viable for conservation. The chemical processes used
would destroy some objects and others are more valuable in their current state.
Some objects simply look more desirable with a layer of patina on them. Many
artifacts are not in their whole state and it often is not worth the money to conserve
those objects. This includes things like broken glass pieces and metal shards. The
staff at HSD must decide which artifacts would benefit from the conservation
process and if there is enough funding for the pieces needed.
This internship at HSD not only taught me valuable skills in the lab but also
helped focus my career objectives. Working in the lab showed me how to handle
artifacts and the proper procedures for curation. I became familiar with the inner
workings of the agency, learned how sites are interpreted, and the challenges of
working within a budget. The people I worked with had vast amounts of knowledge
to share with me and were passionate about preserving our cultural heritage. I was
able to work with artifacts from a wide array of time and cultures.
I also worked on projects in conjunction with other agencies during my time
at HSD. I briefly worked with the Texas Archaeological Research Lab at the
University of Texas. This allowed me to see the workings of another repository. I
found that they had similar budget and curation issues. In general, the majority of
the public is not aware of these issues and it is barely discussed in archaeology
courses. Sullivan and Childs claim that "curated archaeological collections are highly
significant pieces of the human past. We need to preserve that connection to
peoples' heritage because it reminds us from where we came and who we are". This
is very true and steps must be taken to educate the public of this dilemma.
Unfortunately, many of the students being trained in archaeology are not
even aware of this issue. More classes should be incorporated into the discipline to
make students aware of these problems and show them how multiple disciplines
can work together to solve them. These students are our future archaeologists and
curators and they will be responsible for our cultural history.
Sullivan, Lynne P., and S. Terry Childs
Curating Archaeological Collections. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek,
Texas Historical Commission
Texas Historical Commission Strategic Plan