Lost and found: artifacts to be housed in new University facility

February 19, 2013

Hundreds of thousands of ancient artifacts, chronicling 12,000 years of human history, will be housed at a new centre designed to solve a problem which has troubled researchers for decades: how to track and preserve vast collections.

More than 90 per cent of archaeological excavations in Ontario are carried out by private consultants who unearth countless items of historical significance.

“Those artifacts often end up scattered in basements, offices and storage lockers,” says Aubrey Cannon, director of McMaster’s new facility, Sustainable Archaeology: McMaster, and its principal investigator.

“These kinds of materials, still rich in information, are ultimately lost to researchers,” he says.

The $9.8-million project is a joint venture with Western University. Each institution has set up its own repository and labs and both will share a database.

A massive warehouse and lab facilities located at McMaster Innovation Park are designed to process, preserve and digitally document artifacts including stone tools, historic metal items and animal remains.

The collection features pieces such as an arrowhead fragment dating back more than 9,000 years, ancient ceramics and the skeleton a 16th century Iroquoian dog, believed to have been infected with tuberculosis.

“This kind of facility will allow researchers from all over the world to have access to materials and data across hundreds of sites and thousands of years,” explains Cannon.

“Anyone can conduct a comparative analysis of artifacts on an unprecedented scale. For example, we can study climate change by examining changes in the chemistry and growth structures of deer teeth over many, many years,” he explains.

The McMaster facility has the capacity to house up to 30,000 boxes, each containing up to hundreds of artifacts.

While the sheer volume of pieces may be daunting, radio-frequency identification technology (RFID) will be used to manage the collections.

“This is a new way to organize, manage and curate Ontario’s archaeological resources,” says Meghan Burchell, operations manager and PhD candidate in anthropology. “We can track every movement of every box: when it leaves the warehouse, enters the lab or exits the building, both here at McMaster and at Western University”.

First Nations communities will be key partners in the management and operation of the facilities, ensuring Indigenous researchers have access to their own past.