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Vol. LXIV, No. 15
July 20, 2012
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NIH Artifacts from All Eras Have Their Own Laboratory Experience

On the front page...

What research complex has a walk-in X-ray room, anaerobic chamber, gigantic freeze drier and “dirty” and “clean” laboratories? Hint: its pastoral setting outside of Washington, D.C., is gently brushed by breezes from the Patuxent River. Wait, it isn’t NIH? Nope, it’s another fine scientific facility, the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

At the MAC Lab, as it’s nicknamed, scientists research and protect more than 7 million artifacts from Maryland’s archeological past. Its federal collections curator, Sara Rivers-Cofield, has been working with the staff of the NIH Stetten Museum to bring the archaeological collections held by the museum in line with current storage practices and to make them available for researchers.

Before a building is constructed on campus, federal regulations require an archaeological survey of the area to be sure there are no significant cultural remains on the site. Digs on the NIH campus have turned up signs of more than 3,000 years of human occupation, from projectile points made by Native Americans who camped and hunted here, to pieces of plates and equipment used by 19th century farmers, to car keys lost by a surely distraught late-20th century NIH employee. After a dig is finished, boxes of materials and their documentation go to the NIH Stetten Museum.

Continued...

A move to a new storage facility enabled better access by museum staff to the archeological collection. In the course of inventorying the few dozen boxes, they contacted Phillip Neuberg, NIH historic preservation officer responsible for ensuring NIH’s compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, to learn more about the digs.

Pieces of earthenware await conservation in the clean lab. They will get numbered, catalogued and described. Sara Rivers-Cofield is the curator of federal collections at the MAC Lab.

Pieces of earthenware await conservation in the clean lab. They will get numbered, catalogued and described.

Sara Rivers-Cofield is the curator of federal collections at the MAC Lab.

During their discussions, the museum and Neuberg decided to contact the MAC Lab for professional archaeological advice. Rivers-Cofield surveyed the collection and identified boxes that needed re-housing because of their age. NIH’s Office of Research Facilities funded the project, which took about 4 months to complete.

A tobacco pipe stem made from kaolin clay, also found on campus, was manufactured in England and shipped to America during the Colonial period.
A tobacco pipe stem made from kaolin clay, also found on campus, was manufactured in England and shipped to America during the Colonial period.

The MAC Lab is where state-of-the-art science and history meet in an extremely physical encounter. The artifacts that NIH sent to the MAC Lab took many of the same laboratory stops that other artifacts dug up from around the state take on their journey to being properly conserved and documented.

The MAC laboratories are not just spacious, they are big enough to handle objects such as cannons, screwpiles and segments of ships. Cranes are required to move some items.

A walk-in X-ray room for metal and composite objects helps conservators assess deterioration levels and identify objects. For example, what seems like a lump of rock really encases a filigreed piece of an 18th century fireplace screen. An anaerobic room pulls the oxygen out of the air to kill insects and other organisms that can eat an organic artifact.

An entire room is devoted to washing objects. Large vats surrounded by a foot-wide grated moat fill another room; they are used to soak objects such as ships, to stabilize them.

After an organic object—for example, something made of wood or leather—is cleaned, it gets soaked in polyethylene glycol to keep it from drying up and shrinking out of shape. After it’s soaked, it goes into a large freeze drier where the liquid is transformed into a gas and the object dries but keeps its natural shape.

The freeze drier, where artifacts are treated to keep their shape; the zombie mask resides in the drier when it’s not being used. A tobacco pipe stem made from kaolin clay, also found on campus, was manufactured in England and shipped to America during the Colonial period.
The freeze drier, where artifacts are treated to keep their shape; the zombie mask resides in the drier when it’s not being used. The jigsaw puzzle of a Native American storage vessel found in Montgomery County

Once treated and cleaned, the artifact goes to the finishing laboratory, or conservation clean room, where earthenware jars are reassembled like intricate jigsaw puzzles and metal artifacts are treated with tannic acid and coated with B72 (sort of an archival clear nail polish) to protect them from contaminants.

Another laboratory holds scores of animal skeletons, a reference collection that can answer many questions: is a bone of human origin (if so, there are many legal issues to consider)? What were people eating? What time of year was the site occupied? What animals were common?

This Selby Bay projectile point was found on the NIH campus. Named for the settlement around the South River in Maryland, this artifact dates to about 700-900 A.D.
This Selby Bay projectile point was found on the NIH campus. Named for the settlement around the South River in Maryland, this artifact dates to about 700-900 A.D.

The NIH artifacts ended their MAC Lab journey in the research room, where they were identified, labeled by technicians with incredibly tiny handwriting, checked against the catalog and put in archival containers. In the research room, drawers held collections of similar artifacts so that researchers could compare them and their use over time. Other collections included bags of brick fragments waiting to be counted and weighed so that they could be sampled. Most of the brick gets discarded—you can’t keep it all.

What objects the MAC Lab does keep are stored in boxes on rolling metal shelves, if the artifact is small enough, or on pallets on the floor, if they are large like a 19th century steamship paddle wheel. This is also where federal collections that are stored under contract with MAC Lab are kept.

The NIH artifacts were returned to the Stetten Museum, however. All of these collections will be entered into the museum’s database, with Rivers-Cofield’s professional advice, so that researchers can use the web to locate them. Links between MAC Lab and other Maryland history web sites will make the collection better known to archaeologists—and to the person who lost the keys to that Mercury.


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