Archaeological and Historical Collections: A National Crisis
by Nicholas Bellantoni, Ph.D., Connecticut State Archaeologist
reproduced with permission of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation

A few years ago, the phone rang and the caller told a story of her father’s passing. In finalizing his estate she found a “ton of boxes with rocks” in them. The father was a known collector of Indian stone tools, and even tried his hand at knapping arrow points himself. She informed me that the boxes were going to the town dump unless my office wanted them. Not knowing anything about the collection, we ran over to the house to inspect the artifacts. We only had the time to go through a couple of boxes and really saw nothing impressive; however, we decided to take the materials back to our Museum of Natural History and Archaeology Center and see if any of them could be used for educational or exhibit purposes.

As students and volunteers from the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology began cataloguing and identifying the artifacts they discovered about ten finely carved stone knives and projectile points that were more than 11,000 years old. These represented Native American cultures from the western portions of the continent—significant and one-of-a-kind items.

This incident illustrates how archaeological collections, including Native American and Colonial artifacts, are being lost every day, when collectors die without making provisions for the materials. The family views the collection as a personal hobby and do not think that it could be of importance—unless, of course, they perceive a monetary value. But, usually the collection is simply perceived as “boxes with rocks” and goes to the town dump.

When the office of the State Archaeologist was established by state legislation in the late 1980s, one of my initial efforts was to create public awareness that there was professional and scientific archaeology happening in Connecticut and that it was significant and could contribute to our understanding of our cultural heritage.

And, as importantly, worthy of preservation!

What is important is not simply the artifacts themselves, but also their context. 'Context' in archaeological collections refers to the precise location where an artifact is found on a site and its relationship with other artifacts, such as its position in the soil layers of an excavation. This is a crucial aspect of archaeological artifact analysis and is an important dimension of the significance of archaeological collections. The loss of provenance and context in archaeological artifacts seriously diminishes their value as sources of information.

When we have good context for a collection, it can be very useful in research projects and the solving of hypotheses about our cultural past. But even collections that lack specific information about context and provenance, can be used for comparative purposes or for educational exhibits. So, every collection can contribute to our understanding of history.

Since the success of the PBS series, “Antiques Roadshow,” people have become more attuned to the potential of monetary reward for historic items. We all love the program, but it does a disservice to historic preservation efforts when items of Native American, Colonial and Historic origins are seen as being merely worth money. Appraisals of furniture and paintings are one thing, but appraisals of Indian pottery, Revolutionary and Civil War artifacts, and other significant American cultural items that can be recovered from archaeological contexts only hurt preservation efforts. Revolutionary and Civil War soldier burials have been vandalized in Connecticut to recover buttons, buckles, swords, guns, etc. that could be sold.

Archaeological sites and collections are like an endangered species: once lost, forever lost. They belong to all of us and should be maintained in appropriate repositories and available for educational and research purposes.  We do not want to see them lost or vandalized due to attitudes of insignificance or profit.

The Office of the State Archaeologist is available to evaluate legal and ethical considerations in assuring that private archaeological collections are preserved for future generations, and can provide suggestions for owners of collections to use in their estate planning. We can help make the collections accessible to the public and assure that crucial data about where the objects were collected is not lost. Please do not hesitate to contact me or other museum curators for assistance.


For more information, contact Nick Bellantoni at (860) 486-5248 or by email to:  nicholas.bellantoni@uconn.edu.

This article first appeared in the July/August, 2011, issue of Connecticut Preservation News.