Coaxing artifacts into giving up their ghosts

by Meghan Smith, Conservation Specialist

In 200 years, what kinds of everyday objects will illustrate our lives for archaeologists and historians? Perhaps iPads or cell phones will be the most compelling emblems of 2012. But looking back two centuries, things were undoubtedly simpler.

This month, our state historic site at New Harmony unveils a new exhibition featuring objects from the daily lives of its early citizens. Most of the artifacts come from archaeological digs, and look a bit worse for wear after spending so many years in the dirt. Metal objects, in particular, tend to suffer; environmental factors like oxygen and water cause damage. When they come out of the ground, these metal artifacts are covered with a hard crust made up of corrosion and matrix (which is a fancy term for the dirt around the object). While the damage can never be completely reversed, some of the crust can be removed so that the object underneath is a lot more recognizable.

But getting the corrosion and matrix to give up the ghost isn’t easy. When the objects for this exhibition first came to our lab, some of them were barely recognizable. “Wait, that’s a fork?” I asked, pointing to a lumpy-looking thing. “Yup,” said Bill Wepler, our archaeological curator. “It’s in there somewhere.” That fork and the accompanying knife, pictured below, were the most challenging artifacts we worked on for the exhibition.

Image of the knife and fork prior to treatment.

Removing the matrix and reducing the warty corrosion layer while preserving  the underlying object is tricky, time-consuming work. The unsightly corroded metal surface often detaches along with stable surface layers below, so we have to get as close as possible without actually removing any of the desirable surface of the object. Most of the work is done with scalpels, pin vises and brushes. Magnification and powerful lights are necessary in order to see in as much detail as possible. Still, as careful as we might be, things happen. Minute cracks in the object will cause one area to weaken while a nearby spot is worked on. Wicking adhesive solution into the crack helps stabilize the object, but bits will inevitably fall off. When they do, we carefully re-adhere them to the object.

During treatment, the fork’s bone handle came apart. Not to worry, fork: there is an adhesive treatment in your future.

Once we’ve removed as much of the matrix and corrosion as possible, the last step is to apply a thin layer of consolidant to the whole surface of the object.  The consolidant used is a specially formulated acrylic coating that stops any more corrosion from building up because of exposure to moisture; it also helps prevent any more pieces coming loose.

So, after a lot of hours spent peering through a magnifier and picking away bits of dirt and rock, the knife and fork look a lot more recognizable! You’d never mistake them for something out of your own cutlery drawer, but that’s part of their history. They’ve been indelibly marked by many years spent in the Indiana soil.

The finished product, on display in Community House No. 2.

And now the knife and fork, along with dozens of other archaeological objects, are on display at the New Harmony State Historic Site! It’s a beautiful place to spend a day or two, so head on down to discover another chapter in Indiana’s story.

Searching for context

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

[Continued from What is this stuff?]

Digging at New Harmony's Dormitory #2

What do archaeological artifacts tells us? What do they mean? These are the most important questions a museum historian can ask. The reason is because if we don’t relate the past to the present, then our artifacts just amount to a lot of stuff without any real meaning. Without the relationship between the past and the present, then the past exists in isolation, without context and without meaning. In the case of New Harmony’s Dormitory #2, we’ve found thousands of artifacts that reflect the daily lives of people who lived and worked there between 1817 and 1940. This is why these artifacts are so important — because they tell us about people. What we find is that people then were just like people now — they worked, they played and they lived their lives with an eye on a better future for their families.

So who were these people and what were they like? The first settlement at New Harmony was founded in 1814 by George Rapp and his group of Lutheran separatists who had first lived in Harmonie, Pennsylvania, the previous decade. Believing that Jesus Christ would return in their lifetimes, their goal was to live a pure life that would prepare them for the Second Coming. With self-sufficiency necessary to survive in the wilderness, the Rappites bought 7,000 acres of land along the lower Wabash River and set about the task of creating a religious based utopian community. They established orchards, vineyards, farms and began to build the town that still exists today. Within the town they established a sawmill, a brickyard and various shops and businesses to serve the needs of their growing population.

Dormitory #2

One of the buildings the Rappites (or Harmonists, as they are sometimes called) built was a community building called Dormitory #2.  Dormitory #2 is the focus of our decade long archaeological dig. Built between 1817 and 1822, it was framed in heavy wood timbers and then finished out with bricks fired on the property. Dormitory #2 served as a community building for the Harmonists while also sleeping between 40 and 60 people on the first floor. As this was a celibate community, there was little concern with men sleeping in the same building as women. Discouraged with the lack of adequate trade with eastern cities, the Harmonists sold their community to Robert Owen in 1825 and returned to Pennsylvania.

Robert Owen was a Welsh social reformer and an early advocate of socialism and the community movement. His main goal was to continue the development of a utopian community with education as the basis rather than religion. During the next century, the building was used for many purposes. Its first use was as a school and Masonic lodge, both established in 1825. In 1826, the famous “Boatload of Knowledge” arrived and headquartered in the building. Organized by Robert Owen and William Maclure, scientists and educators traveled down the Ohio River to New Harmony in the winter of 1825 with the idea of organizing a utopian socialist community based on an educated population that placed the needs of the community ahead of the needs of the individual. The community failed for a variety of reasons and, in the late 1820s, Robert Owen deeded the entire town to William Maclure.

Maclure continued to use the building as a school but also set up a print shop, one of many that would exist in the building over the next several decades. At about the same time, a blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop and a shoe store were also established. By the 1830s, the building began to be used as a hotel and a rooming house. Prince Maximilian Neuwied, the German explorer and scientist, and a group of scientists even set up a laboratory in the building in 1832. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, various businesses moved in and out, constantly providing an array of shops and services for the town, including everything from taverns to churches to schools. Other businesses included a telegraph office, a post office and a Knights of Pythias Hall. Prominent local officials and businessmen also lived in the building from time to time before the building was sold to the state in 1940. Since that time, the state has used the building for a variety of purposes. Currently, we are renovating Dormitory #2 to accommodate a climate control system and an elevator. When the renovations are complete, there is no reason why the building won’t be around to welcome visitors for the next 200 years or more!

What is this stuff?

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

[Continued from Uncovering the truth]

There are two questions that a historian asks at this point: What is the material I’m looking at and what does it mean? In other words, what does this material tell me about the world of the past? How does it help me to understand how people lived their lives? By retrieving and analyzing this material, we can learn how people lived, what they ate, the kinds of materials they made and used, the kind of work they did and how they played. Science finds the material and history tells us what it means. And you would be surprised at what we’ve found over the years.

Bone fragments tagged and bagged.

What we find generally falls into five different categories: faunal, glass, ceramic, metal and (what I call) “everything else.” Faunal material consists of various animal bones, teeth, snails, mussels, egg shells, seeds and anything else organic. This material helps us understand what people ate nearly two centuries ago. Diet might not seem very important, but by analyzing what people ate, we can determine part of the general state of their health. Continue reading

Uncovering the truth

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

I’ve always loved history. As a little boy, I would read history books and go to museums with my parents because I wanted to see cool things and I wanted to learn about the past. Even then I realized that the past must have something to do with the present. I went to college, got two degrees in history and learned how to be a professional historian. It’s no surprise then that I ended up spending the last 27 years working in museums. But it is a little odd, or so I’m told, that I would end up being the Science and Technology Collection Manager at the Indiana State Museum. Many scientists and historians don’t think they have much in common; but they actually do because they both seek the truth. They just do it in different ways. Nor are the differences that big. If this sounds simplistic, well, it is.

To me it is simple because we all seek the same truth. Whether we’re talking about 50 years ago, 5,000 years ago, or five million years ago, both scientists and historians want to know what happened and why. One of the reasons we do it differently is because scientists, especially archaeologists, use the human made remains of the past such as buildings, pottery or personal adornments. Historians use primarily the writings of the past. So our source material is different, but there is nothing wrong in using each other’s raw material if we’re both going in the same direction. That is what I try to do here at the Indiana State Museum.

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Golden Troupe on Parade

golden_troupe_view1The Golden Troupe collection is now available online for all to enjoy and research. This collection is a definite must-see for anyone who loves theatrical costumes and props. The collection contains over 664 objects that range from quite elaborate complete costumes to many wigs, shoes, hats and musical instruments.

The troupe was based out of New Harmony, Indiana, and toured the Midwest, Southwest and South between 1875 and 1891. This theatrical company was consisted mainly of members of the Golden family including Martin Sr., Bella and their children (Martin Jr., William, Grace and Frances). Local citizens from the New Harmony area also played supporting roles as well in many of the troupe’s productions. Their costumes, backgrounds and props were described as elaborate and elegant. These are the objects that today make up the Golden Troupe collection that is now being housed at the Indiana State Museum.

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