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Ask an Archaeologist: Artifact Preservation

Hopewell culture artifacts at Ohio History Connection

Hopewell culture artifacts at Ohio History Connection

About once a week, the Ohio History Connection receives a call from an Ohioan who thinks he or she may have found an artifact—in a backyard or basement, from an inheritance or elsewhere. The calls are forwarded to the archaeology department, which, in addition to overseeing about 60 historical sites across the state, excavates at various locations prior to construction.

“What people don’t realize is archaeology is being done every day here in Ohio,” says Linda Pansing, OHC curator of archaeology.

Here, Pansing fills us in on how individuals can do their part for artifact preservation.

What counts as an artifact, anyway?

Pansing notes artifacts can sometimes be overlooked.

“It probably happens more than we know because unless you’re trained and know what an artifact is—for instance, a lot of people wouldn’t think a flint flake is an artifact, but it is. So it could be very easily passed over and not seen. Same thing with a gentle rise in the landform,” she says, referring to a clue for a possible earthwork.

Artifacts can also be everyday historical material.

“Anything 50 years old or older is considered an artifact,” Pansing says. “The old pull-tabs are now considered archaeological artifacts. Pieces of glass, pieces of pottery, nails, even, can be considered an artifact.”

Not sure if an item is an artifact? You can contact OHC, and they’ll help identify the item (however, they don’t do appraisals, Pansing says). They’ll ask you to email them photos with a scale so they can see the size, or you can bring the item to OHC so they can examine it in person.

Credit where it’s due 

In Ohio, an artifact belongs to the property owner of the site where it was found. Pansing cautions against taking anything from a place you don’t own, even on public property like a park.

“It could be considered theft, especially if it’s from state lands or federal lands,” she says. “That could be very problematic.”

Instead, she advises contacting the landowner, who can then decide whether to have the site and/or artifact recorded.

Preservations options

The owner of an artifact can choose to keep, sell or donate it to a historical organization like OHC.

“We do get private donations often,” Pansing says. “People just want to make sure the collection is preserved in some manner, and that’s why they decide to donate.”

Proper storage

A vital aspect of preservation is proper storage. You’ll want to be mindful of the types of containers you use, and your best bet is to purchase materials made for archival, such as acid-free paper and polyester-based plastic. 

“We’ve had people come in with artifacts in shoeboxes and paper towels,” Pansing says. “And we’ve been able to show them the bags that we use and archival paper.”

Keeping the story in context

When OHC receives donations, they ask for and record all known information about them. If it’s a collection of items from all over, the donation is added to OHC collection inventory. If it’s a group of items from one site, like a farm, it’s considered a site-specific collection, and the landowner can choose whether to document the location as a historic site through the State Historic Preservation Office. This documentation process includes an archaeological survey of the site.

In addition to designating ownership, the location where an artifact was found provides clues for piecing together the story of the item: to whom it may have belonged, potential uses, time period, etc.

“It’s very layered,” Pansing says of preservation. “Not only is it the preservation of the artifact; it’s the preservation of the story of the landform or location where the artifact was found.”

Emily Thompson

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We’ll explore Columbus’ ancient history of burial mounds and earthworks, as well as artifacts left behind by the Adena culture. Watch at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17 on WOSU TV.