Created discovery? The role of conservation in “historic” discovery

Doug Currie


In 2000 a group of avocational archaeologists/historians informed the Connecticut State Archaeologist that a potentially important Native American archaeological site might exist in a rock shelter on state owned land. This potential was based on the significance of the rock shelter form, artifacts previously discovered at the site, and surface scatter artifacts presently visible. The State Archaeologist formed a team to investigate and document the site. The team included archaeologists from University of Connecticut, representatives and archaeologists from the two potentially culturally affiliated Native American tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan, and a conservator from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum to advise on preservation of possibly significant cultural heritage material.

Seven small pit features were initially identified in the rock shelter but only one was excavated during the first day of fieldwork. During excavation archaeologists noted anomalies in the soil and stratigraphic morphology that were inconsistent with the apparent type and age of the features and recovered artifacts. Artifacts included stone pipes, medallions, effigy figures, and an extensive assemblage of native copper medallions and beads. During the night after the first day of fieldwork all the remaining features were looted precluding further excavation.

The recovered artifacts were examined by the Conservation Department of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum for condition, preservation issues, and method of manufacture analysis. Through the use of PLM microscopy, SEM microscopy, x-radiography, x-ray fluorescence (XRF), and x-ray powder diffraction (XRD), the stones artifacts were shown to have been made with modern tools and the copper corrosion to be an applied material not an evolved corrosion product. Radiocarbon dates from charcoal samples found within the single feature ranged from 1200 bp to 2800 bp adding further interpretive possibilities.

The techniques used by conservators to assess condition prior to treatment can also yield significant cultural history information. In this case the examination and information gained was an important contributor to halting the misappropriation of history by unethical persons.

2007 | Richmond | Volume 14