Uncovering a Lost Archive: The Story of VCU’s Unknown Archaeological Collection

Sign labeling the VCU-ARC Collection
Sign labeling the VCU-ARC Collection

In 1998, the VCU Archaeological Research Center (VCU-ARC) was being shut down for good. Much of the archaeological work in the past that was bringing money in for the college and putting to work archaeologists in the program, such as Cultural Resource Management (CRM) and historic preservation projects, were now finding archaeologists through private companies rather than universities. That meant the program, and the research center associated with it, were not generating enough money for the school. The VCU-ARC program, originally founded in 1978 by Dan Mouer, provided many field school opportunities for university students, and conducted a lot of interesting archaeological investigations in Richmond and elsewhere in Virginia. Presently, there is no Department of Anthropology at the school, rather, there are individual archaeologists teaching as faculty in the Anthropology Program within the School of World Studies.

When the program was shut down, the research facility that provided for the continual conservation of artifacts (located on the 1300 block of West Broad St, now the VCU Student Health Center), closed as well. Now located in a surplus warehouse in Shockoe Bottom, the approximately 1,500 boxes of artifacts, dating back to the late 60s and 70s before the VCU–ARC program was even formed, have been through several ordeals. Hurricane Gaston in 2004 flooded the facility, leaving many artifacts exposed to water and dampness. This forced the collection to be moved to the Department of Historic Resources temporarily, so that the facility could be cleaned. The boxes of artifacts, however, were later reorganized by warehouse staff, leaving some contexts and information about boxes and bags of artifacts unknown.

Now, tucked away in the corner of VCU’s surplus storage facility are the remains of multiple excavations, that mostly stay untouched and unnoticed, surrounded by gym equipment, popcorn machines, dentist chairs, and other items that VCU has to store. This blog will hopefully generate interest in the public to recognize the importance of this collection, outlining ways in which this storage facility could be better used to house the boxes upon boxes of important artifacts, some of which are deteriorating away because of lack of conservation. With interest, RVA Archaeology could possibly continue work at the facility to organize the boxes of artifacts and better stabilize the conditions.

Looking at the collection from the entrance
Looking at the collection from the entrance

What is Stored in the Collection?

The importance of these artifacts can be clearly seen through the history of the locations from which they were originally found. In each of aisles of the storage facility, there is at least one box full of artifacts labeled “Curles Planation,” an area that was excavated by Dan Mouer and the VCU-ARC program starting in 1985. During the 11 summer excavations that occurred, a lot of information about the plantation’s history was learned. The archaeologists were able to identify the outlines of four main plantation houses, and an additional eight or nine buildings, including slave houses, from the time period in which Nathaniel Bacon (Bacon’s Rebellion) lived on part of the plantation. Bricks outlined the area in which chimneys once stood. Some of the more unique finds included ceramics dating to the late 1600s, an Elizabethan six-pence piece dating to 1573, and clay pipes that dated a site on the plantation to before the Powhatan Uprising of 1622.

Artist's reconstruction of Curles Plantation Manor house in the 18th century
Artist’s reconstruction of Curles Plantation Manor house in the 18th century. Henrico Historical Society.

According to an article in the Henrico County Line from 1987, the VCU excavations led to the discovery of over 100,000 artifacts. If all these artifacts are located in the storage facility, they might be in danger due to the lack of conservation and proper storage conditions, losing a lot of valuable physical information about the plantation and the many different groups of people who lived and worked there.

Rocketts, 1860s
Rocketts, 1860s. National Archive.

In 1992 another important archaeological excavation took place through VCU-ARC at Rockett’s Landing. This town, occupied during 18th and 19th century, was a fascinating neighborhood, where many groups of people, including merchants, free black and hired-out slave laborers, domestic slaves, mariners, innkeepers, and captains all lived and worked. Many of the artifacts were found in their original contexts, providing information about the lifeways of the people living there. The artifacts found during this excavation are located in the VCU storage facility. Many features were also excavated, providing information about the construction of buildings during this time, who constructed them and who lived in them. In Mouer’s report, he states that more than 30,000 individual artifacts were recovered from this site. An artifact analysis is included in his report, detailing specific artifacts of interest.

There are many more reports and stories in the collection, approximately 20 sites in the city of Richmond, and close to 200 sites outside of the city. Being able to go through the artifacts and organize them would be the first step in recognizing the projects that took place, and with only little research, much could be learned and spread throughout the public about these important archaeological sites.

Current Conditions and Conservation Techniques

Currently, the storage facility seems to have no temperature or humidity control unit. The artifacts are located in the corner of the building, on 3 shelving units. Most of the artifacts are bagged and placed in boxes, and some of them were rebagged in new plastic after Hurricane Gaston by Jolene Smith at the Department of Historic Resources. However, there are a few artifacts from multiple sites, mostly the larger iron pieces, which are located on top of the artifact boxes and seem to have no sort of conservation methods being applied to them.

Ceramic pieces
Ceramic pieces

Iron artifacts are tricky to conserve. They usually start corroding right as they are being excavated, and are easily affected by changing temperatures and relative humidity (RH) levels. J.M. Cronyn’s The Elements of Archaeological Conservation, a great source for a basic outlining on conserving the differing multitude of artifacts, explains ways of passive stabilization for iron artifacts in storage facilities. The most repeated suggestion, for all artifacts really, is the controlling of temperature and relative humidity levels. Even pieces of ceramic, some of the least problematic artifacts to conserve, can be negatively affected by fluctuating temperatures and RH levels. As of present, I, and members of RVA Archaeology, have not had the opportunity to look through every box and bag in the storage facility, and there might be some very unstable artifacts, such as wood, leather, or textiles, that are located in the boxes. Since many of these excavations occurred around twenty years ago and have experienced wild swings in temperature and RH levels since then, these objects are most likely severely deteriorated.

Iron artifact with no protection
Iron artifact with no protection

Another important factor of conservation and for storage, especially in cities and industrial areas like the storage location, would be to control the pollution levels. If sulfur dioxide and other industrial gases are able to seep into the storage facility, the artifacts, especially those that are uncovered, can deteriorate much further, and quicker. The uncovered artifacts are also victim to dust and other particles that may be harmful.

What Can Be Done in the Future

This next section will consist of suggestions, with the help of Cronyn’s book and information from a class about archaeological conservation located at the College of William & Mary taught by Professor Curtis Moyer, for what can be done to help better conserve these artifacts. The author has not had extensive study of the conservation of artifacts, but with these basic suggestions, the hope is that the deterioration of these artifacts could slow down immensely.

Boxes of artifacts, with the shelves breaking
Boxes of artifacts and cleaning supplies on a warped shelf

The first most obvious step is the organization of these artifacts. Organizing, however, can be done in more than one way. These artifacts and their associated boxes could be organized by their sites and when they were excavated, making cataloging and labeling (if need be) easier. However, because of the abundance of artifacts, and their differing degrees of deterioration and necessary storage conditions, they could be organized by what they are vulnerable to, and whether these vulnerabilities are physical and/or chemical. This would allow the conservation of these artifacts to be more successful.

Controlling relative humidity and temperature levels that the artifacts are exposed to is also an important step. Currently, there is no way at the collection facility to assess what the temperature and humidity conditions are, and doing some examination of current conditions would be an important first step. This can be done with a thermometer, hygrometer, and humidity indicating cards. Without any environmental controls in the building, however, reacting to these conditions is challenging. Some adjustments to relative humidity can be created by including conditioned silica gel with some of the artifacts. However, the best step for these collections in general would be for them to be provided with housing more appropriate for significant archaeological collections.

A lot of work is necessary to get these artifacts organized and in a stable environment. However, these artifacts contain a lot of knowledge and information about important sites in Richmond and surrounding areas in Virginia, that could be easily lost if conditions do not change. The closing of VCU-ARC was an immense loss for archaeology in Richmond and the surrounding areas, and for anthropology students interested in archaeology at VCU. RVA Archaeology hopes this blog post creates some interest in the public about the program and the now merely abandoned storage facility, possibly igniting a research project dedicated to providing these artifacts with better storage conditions.

Closing of VCU ARC program:

Curles Neck:

Mouer’s (1992) “The Archaeology of the Rocketts Number 1 Site (44He671) Lot 203 in the City of Richmond, Virginia”