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MUSEUMS Lost and found again

In 1860, the string of Mary Jacob’s necklace snapped, scattering the multi-colored glass beads between the cracks of the kitchen floor. She was heartbroken—they had been her mother’s. When Mary died a year later, her will still listed the necklace among her possessions.

Fast forward 125 years. The kitchen site undergoes archeological investigations. The archeologists complete their surveys, catalog the finds, analyze the results, write a report, and file the artifacts and their notes at a local repository.

Fast forward 15 years. A living history interpreter needs inspiration to pull together an interpretive program about women’s lives. So little evidence remains about them—what they wore, how they lived, and what their families were like.

A curator suggests looking through the archeological collections. The interpreter digs through the boxes of cataloged archeological material. It doesn’t make much sense to her—what is all this broken stuff good for?

Then, among the bags of cataloged artifacts from the kitchen area, there they are—the beads. Immediately they grab her attention. The historical research includes receipts telling that Mary’s father purchased a beaded necklace in January, the month of her mother’s birthday. “Wow,” she thinks, “here are real moments in time—why aren’t we using these artifacts more?”

The broken artifacts were starting to make sense. The interpreter makes a story from the pushpins, buttons, hairpins, and broken ceramics. It seems to her that these things had repeatedly fallen through the cracks—first in the past, and again in the museum.

Case Studies

(photo) Alutiiq artifacts. (Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository)
Archeological collections are at the heart of everything at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska. For everyone who comes into contact with them, these materials weave essential links between the community and the history of the Alutiiq people. Artifacts help people to consider their own links with their heritage, to build respect for tradition, and to promote pride.  more +

Many different groups use the collections, from students in art and history classes, to artists, to families. Teachers use the artifacts in curriculum development, local organizations borrow items for ceremonies, and researchers from all kinds of fields use the materials for their projects.

The Alutiiq Nation encompasses the islands and mainline shores of the central gulf of Alaska. For at least 7,500 years, this has been the traditional homeland of the Alutiiq people. The heritage movement in Kodiak developed hand in hand with archeological research. Today, the archeological collections help Native peoples to revitalize their cultural traditions and restore a sense of dignity to communities plagued by social problems.

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(photo) Chaco Culture duck effigy. (NPS Midwest Archeological Center)
Behind the scenes, artifacts can't wait to tell their tales. An online exhibit by Chaco Culture National Historical Park gives some of the lucky ones the opportunity. Let them help you to explore the ancient lifeways of the Chaco Culture people.  more +

Chacoan culture is known for its pottery, but archeology reveals other kinds of materials that are unusual to find, such as cloth and cordage. Together with the ceramics, stone tools, bone implements, and other evidence, the collection enables us to put together images of what daily life was like.

Collections like this help us to gain an appreciation both for the past and for the work museum specialists do so we can learn from it. Take a look at the site—what grabs you?

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