Recovering the Uncovered: Exploring the Importance of Collections-Based Research

As archaeologists, if we are not excavating in the field, up to our elbows in dirt, can we still carry out original archaeological research? Of course! Archaeology is not just about digging! Contrary to popular perceptions of archaeology in the media, there is plenty to do after excavations end, and this work is tremendously important. This post on collections-based research is designed to provide insight into the types of work archaeologists do immediately, and sometimes decades after, excavations end. Currently, researchers underutilize many of the archaeological collections housed in museums, archival repositories, and university or CRM collections. With an increased awareness and investment in collections-based research, archaeologists, historians, and the public can benefit from the knowledge recovered from investing time and resources into conducting collections-based research.

The Unearthing Detroit project is a collections-based research initiative. Collections- based research (CBR) is the analysis and sometimes the re-analysis of archaeological assemblages. The collections we are currently investigating are housed in Wayne State’s Grosscup Museum of Anthropology. One of our two focus collections, the Renaissance Center site, has been stored in the museum for 40 years. These artifacts were excavated from an area spanning 9 city blocks by Wayne State archaeologists in 1973 and 1974 in advance of the Renaissance Center’s construction. The second focus collection from Roosevelt Park is more recent, having been excavated in 2012 and 2014 by Wayne State archaeologists. These artifacts come from 7 different 19th-century houselots in the Corktown neighborhood that was demolished in 1918 to make way for the park.

Both of the collections contain primarily 19th-century material culture. The Roosevelt Park collection contains more than 10,000 artifacts and is still undergoing initial processing and cataloging. The Renaissance Center collection contains over 20,000 artifacts, the majority of which have not been digitally processed, catalogued, or previously studied by archaeologists. The recent Roosevelt Park collections and the decades-old Renaissance Center collections have allowed us to compare information from early urban Detroit.

Through CBR, archaeologists analyze and sometimes reanalyze artifacts using new techniques to piece together the daily life of the past. Through this integrated approach, we are working to interpret the artifact assemblages in the context of corresponding historic properties and past occupants. We are also re-establishing the bigger picture of these two Detroit neighborhoods by returning to the archives to map the changing demographics of the Corktown and Riverfront neighborhoods. In other words, CBR helps us to re-assemble the stories behind the artifacts in our museum. The data we are gathering from these collections help us in three ways:

  • Giving the basis to determine what the site was used as historically (i.e. home, school, business)
  • Exploring who once inhabited the sites through archival records
  • Allowing the analysis of demographics of these crowded, working-class neighborhoods

A great example of a synthesis of information produced from our CBR is Samantha Malette’s research into the large quantity of shoes recovered below what is now the Renaissance Center’s central tower.

Throughout the past year and a half of the Unearthing Detroit Project, graduate students, volunteers, professors, and undergraduates have devoted their energies to researching the Renaissance Center collection. Our project team, led by Dr. Krysta Ryzewski, has specializations and interests ranging from archaeology and digital media to history and biology. The diverse interests of our project team are showcased in previous blog posts on this site, including Mark Jazayeri and Don Adzigan’s digital photo documentation of artifacts, Sarah Beste and Slava Pallas’s faunal analysis, to Samantha Malette and Kate E. Korth’s archival explorations. In bringing together these individual contributions within the scope of Unearthing Detroit’s research objectives, we are gradually developing a narrative archaeological history focused on Detroit’s development from the 18th-century to the early 20th-century.

The Unearthing Detroit project isn’t the only project employing CBR. In fact, across the US several universities, museums, and other institutions are conducting CBR on archaeological collections. The ability to bring new life to old collections and reanalyze the narratives they represent through evolving and advancing technologies is a rewarding experience for our team and other archaeologists. The following four examples apply CBR in slightly different ways and all have been influential in developing the approaches we use on the Unearthing Detroit project:

The Market Street Chinatown Archaeological Project uses CBR to investigate an urban collection unearthed in the 1980s. Through reorganizing, analyzing, and reanalyzing these artifacts, Stanford and affiliates are learning more about the lifestyles of past Chinese immigrants in this historic area. Research is shared via progress notes and reports on an incredible website, and in previous years through a contemporary art installation, City Beneath the City.

The Mount Vernon Midden Project utilizes CBR to reinvent the way archaeologists present collections. Along with their own research, this project showcases a large interactive database of their artifacts allowing visitors to explore “George Washington’s trash” themselves.

The Council of Virginia Archaeologists (COVA) enacts CBR to inventory and track archaeological collections on a statewide platform. COVA assesses potential research values in discovering their state’s past as a whole, making sure that no collection is orphaned.

The Boston City Archaeologist creates excellent learning opportunities for researchers and volunteers alike. Joe Bagley, Boston City Archaeologist, has inspired us with his effort in making archaeology available to the public.

Collections-based research is an important part of the archaeological recovery process and just one way to address the current curation crises that many museums face. The curation crisis stems from the fact that many collections contain an abundance of archaeological materials that have not been fully researched due mainly to financial, time, and resource constraints. This surplus of unexamined or unattended archaeological materials has fueled debates among archaeologists and museum professionals about how best to manage collections. Some individuals have even argued that excavations should cease entirely until archaeologists can catch up with the backlog of processing or address conservation needs in their current collections. In an era when many museums face challenges to curating and maintaining extant collections, CBR can help to keep collections active and to debunk the myth that storage rooms are where artifacts go to die.

The Unearthing Detroit project is extremely fortunate to have access to the Grosscup Museum of Anthropology, which contains over a dozen substantial collections of 19th-century materials from Detroit, making ours one of the largest and most diverse repositories of early urban archaeological collections in the Midwest, if not the US. Not only does this collection allow us a glimpse into historic Detroit as a whole, but as our CBR progresses, it will eventually provide an invaluable comparative resource for understanding the development of 19th-century cities across North America.

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