What Happens to the Artifacts?

With the cataloging of the Annapolis sites almost completed, it is an ideal time to address the question of what happens to artifacts after we’ve completed our initial work. Many artifacts are kept in organized boxes, stored in the lab, as we’ve shown in previous posts. These are part of the Archaeology in Annapolis collection, and may be used by students for future research or put on display in exhibits. Legally, the ownership of the artifacts belongs to the homeowners, on whose private properties the objects were collected, and the final decision about the artifacts’ use rests with them. This can at times lead to conflicted feelings among the archaeologists, whose research relies on the analysis of these finds.

Tobacco leafe pipe bowl found at the Pinkney House. Source: Ben Skolnik.

Tobacco leafe pipe bowl found at the Pinkney House. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

Over the past few weeks, AiA archaeologists have returned two artifacts to a homeowner on request–a molded pipe bowl and an ironstone jug from Pinkney Street. We can date the tobacco leafe pipe bowl to a 1720-1750 range because of the 5/64” diameter of its pipe stem hole. The size of the holes changed so consistently throughout time, that a mathematical formula developed by Louis Binford allows archaeologists to accurately date the pipes. The undecorated jug was used as a serving pitcher for beverages and has a maker’s mark printed on the base. Before returning the artifacts, it was important to thoroughly photograph them from every angle so that, even without the physical object, we still have a digital record of each feature of its surface.

Even so, giving up the control of artifacts can be uncomfortable for archaeologists. In a discussion with a fellow graduate student, she explained that having artifacts in the lab collections allows for continued research and benefits future scholars. In giving the artifacts away, the analysis of the objects is limited to only those questions that can be asked right now, ignoring the advantages that future technologies or perspectives may bring. Photographs are no replacement, and do not allow the possibility of chemical analyses and tests on the physical materials, such as clay source identification for ceramics.

What do you think? Who should own the rights to archaeological finds?

1 Comment
  1. I find that many folks are only too happy to hand over most artifacts to the archaeologists. If there are items they want to keep, they deserve them in exchange for allowing us to dig on their land. Unless of course they are native american artifacts, in which case too bad so sad they belong to native americans!

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