Lori Bowers shares her experiences of working with the Archaeological Collections at Auckland Museum. Material from archaeological excavations is diverse and has to be curated and recorded in a consistent way. Because of the quantity of material, the task can be repetitive but there are always interesting things to discover.

Working in the field is perhaps the most well-publicised aspect of being an archaeologist. We are all familiar with the images of the intrepid explorer: all kitted out in a fedora and cargo shorts, trowel in hand, and (on a particularly intrepid day) coated head-to-toe in dust. Less familiar, but still recognisable, is an image of the analysis undertaken after the excavation: brushes and magnifying glasses, ancient artefacts scattered across a wooden workbench. Today, however, we will briefly explore the role of a different kind of archaeologist. I will touch on the highlights of the last few months I have spent working at Tamaki Panga Hira, Auckland Museum, discuss a few of the more unique aspects of the work, and how archaeology ties into the museum sphere in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In February 2018 I joined the Collection Readiness project in the role of Collection Technician Archaeology Māori Material. The team that I work in consists of several technicians who are cataloguing the Human History and Archaeology collections in preparation to be moved to new locations within museum storage and the records uploaded to collections online.  My role deals specifically with material from archaeological sites across New Zealand, spanning the entirety of human occupation. The assemblages largely consist of stone flake and tools, food waste such as bones and shells, and occasional bone, stone, or shell artefacts such as fish hooks (matau), bone awls, bird spear points (tara), and adzes. As the Archaeology Collection, like so many others, was aqcuired by Tamaki Paenga Hira over a long period of time, the state of object records vary vastly across the different sites. Some records have minimal detail, or are incomplete, and some objects do not have records at all. These are some of the problems that the Collection Readiness project was designed to rectifiy.

 

Lori Bowers examining a bag of greywacke flakes from Motunau Bay, Ponui Island

Obsidian flakes packed into a Virginia Tobacco tin is not an uncommon occurrence.

As this role is concerned with the objects contained within the archaeological collection, it makes sense for archaeological methodology to play a large part in the analysis. My prior training in archaeology has armed me with the knowledge to enhance the records by describing each object to a degree of detail that much of the collection doesn’t currently possess.

In celebration and promotion of Archaeology Week 2018 I have chosen to highlight several notable and fascinating aspects of the collection. Some of the more interesting finds in this collection so far have actually been old and unusual modes of storage, rather than any one item.

An archaeological collection from Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf contained an assortment of bird bones that had been identified to species in the 1970s, and then individually wrapped in several hundred foils from the inside of old cigarette packets. That’s not the only example either – midden samples and stone flakes stored in tobacco tins and numerous rat bones neatly packed into matchboxes continued what appeared to be a running theme amongst that particular collection. Archaeologists and identification experts were clearly smokers with a seemingly inexhaustable supply of tobacco-related products.

Although the packaging is part of the history of the collection, it is inappropriate to continue storing objects in these materials. Each object has since been carefully separated from their antiquated housing and given a new home in museum-grade acid-free storage. Rehousing the objects in bags, boxes, and nests that won’t damage them long-term is a large part of the work that we do. Not only does it keep the taonga safe, it also reduces the amount of space required to store them. Four museum boxes of bones bundled up in cigarette foils will fit nice and neatly into one box of carefully ordered, labelled, and numbered minigrip bags.

Perhaps my favourite task that has cropped up in this job so far has made good use of my archaeological knowledge. In a collection from Ponui Island, hidden amongst an abundance of little bags of obsidian flakes, are a few sneaky little intruders.  Fragments of green bottle glass from the historic layer on this site have found their way into the bags of obsidian. For a trained archaeologist the difference is immediately obvious. Flaked obsidian or even glass have several tell-tale features that set them apart from fragments of smashed glass. Each of these intruding fragments are identified, separated and catalogued under a different record. This is done so that when each record is made available online it is in its most accurate state – no record sneakily contains an item that doesn’t quite fit.

From Ponui Island again comes our last little peek into the museum’s New Zealand archaeological collection. One of the more uniquely interesting objects I have discovered so far is, surprisingly, a single bone. More accurately a tympanic bulla, or whale ear bone. A remarkably solid, heavy, and oddly shaped object, it was not immediately obvious within the box full of stone flakes and piles of fish bones. Nonetheless, as a rare and highly valuable resource often used for creating tools like fish hooks, this was a fascinating object to find hidden amongst an otherwise reasonably homogenous collection of stone flakes, small bones, and little fragments of green bottle glass.

Working as an archaeologist in a museum has led to many of the same feelings, highlights, and frustrations as any other aspect of archaeology. The thrill of discovery when you find something you had no idea was there; the curiosity that leads you to research more and learn things you didn’t know before; the confusion of untangling the decisions and methodologies of people who came before you - and every so often, you’ll experience a renewed burst of awe for the sheer size and scope of the long and tangled histories that lie just below our feet.

A tympanic bulla from unknown cetacean species. This example is broken transversely (left of image) and along the more fragile ridge (top of image).

 

Post by: Lori Bowers
Lori is a Collection Technician for Human History at Auckland Museum.
May 5 2018