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Billings Curation Center – 2008

Presently Preserving the Past

story and photos by Ann Boucher, Montana State Office

There are treasures in the Billings Curation Center, clues to our collective past. By themselves, they’re just pieces, but together, they tell a story – a story that must be pieced together through painstaking study and research. 

The BCC houses a wealth of cultural materials that were collected from public lands, primarily in Montana and the Dakotas. It also holds photos, drawings, and other historical documents. The oldest items stored at the BCC date to about 12,000 B.P. (before present).

Many of these artifacts arrive at the BCC neatly stashed in labeled boxes, but the individual items are often not catalogued in a way that allows for research and reference.

Recognizing an opportunity to accomplish BLM goals while providing hands-on work experience, Museum Curator David K. Wade sought out volunteer interns who are pursuing degrees in cultural sciences. Through carefully placed job announcements, Wade selected four very qualified volunteers to work in the Curation Center this summer.

Jeanne Zeeck
Jeanne Zeeck – Colorado State University, Fort Collins

Jeanne Zeeck is a second year graduate student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, focusing on archive management and museum studies. 

Her project at the BCC this summer is archiving the Thomas H. Lewis collection, an assortment of notes, drawings, and files assembled by a professor of psychiatry and neurology from 1965-2005. While serving in the Navy, Lewis was sent to Pine Ridge, S.D., to treat members of the Lakota-Sioux Tribe. While there, he furthered his theory that the “medicine men” of the tribe actually suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. 

“I think the most interesting part of this collection is his Lakota-Sioux research,” Zeeck says. “He left medical files and oral histories that really give a different perspective.”

After he retired, Lewis returned to his home state of Montana where he pursued his interest in Native American rock art. He located numerous rock art sites and even traced some of them onto large pieces of plastic.

Lewis passed away in 2007, leaving his numerous boxes of research files stacked in his small cabin in Boyd, Mont. His sons donated much of his collection to Georgetown University and the Navy, but many items of archeological interest came to the BCC. Zeeck is organizing the slides, transcripts, medical files, notes, and drawings so that an archeologist can locate the various sites and properly catalog them.

Zeeck says the project fits well with her goal of becoming a museum curator. She is a native of Billings and may volunteer again during her winter break. 

April Farmer
April Farmer -- Ohio

April Farmer sits at a table, a box of artifacts at her left and a stack of catalog cards in front of her. She’s cataloging items that were collected from the Twitchell Site in McCone County, Mont., in 2005. 

First she identifies what each artifact is---a piece of bone, an arrowhead, ceramics-- and enters that information on a museum card. 

“This one is easy,” she says. “Whoever found these things was really good with drawings and descriptions. Some of the other ones, I’ve had to just figure out myself.”

The card also notes where the item was found, where it is now stored, and a number unique to that artifact. This information will be added to an online database so that it’s available to other researchers. 

 Cataloging is no small task. There are about six boxes of artifacts from Twitchell Site. Another one of her summer projects, the Stark Site in Musselshell County, had 27 boxes of items to examine and catalog.

April has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Kenyon College in Ohio, but her real passion is archeology. She volunteered for a weeklong dig in Ohio a couple of years ago, but says she prefers the cataloging to the actual digging. She would like to pursue a master’s degree in archeology. 

Michael Mathews
Michael Mathews – Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green

Michael Mathews is a graduate student in folklore and anthropology at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. He applied for the summer position to fulfill an internship requirement. 

Like Farmer, Mathews has spent his summer cataloguing and organizing artifacts gathered from various sites. Sorting through items found at the Keaster Site near Zortman, Mont., he identified bison bones and lithics, which are arrowheads and other stone tools fashioned and used by humans. Pouring out the contents of one envelope, he could tell that bone fragments had been cracked open and burned, indicating that the bone marrow had been extracted.

Cataloguing artifacts is a methodical process. The individual pieces are in small envelopes, numbered by the archeologist who collected them. Mathews’ job is to identify, count, and re-number each piece according to the BCC’s numbering system, then place each piece into a labeled zip-lock bag, and back into the box. Details about each item, including its location when found, are also noted on a catalog card. Information from the card is later entered into an online database where it is accessible to other researchers.

In addition to the Keaster Site, Mathews also catalogued and organized artifacts from an unnamed site near Miles City, and for the Museum of the Rockies. 

Shane McCarten
Shane McCarten – Montana State University- Billings

This is Shane McCarten’s third summer as a volunteer in the Billings Curation Center. 

His current project is creating a website with pictures and detailed descriptions of projectile points used throughout history. He has already gathered about 17 points representing different eras, and through partnerships he is pursuing with other agencies, he hopes to get a few more. 

Part of his research involves determine each point’s approximate age. The oldest point stored in the BCC is the Clovis, which is about 11,000-12,000 years B.P. Points found at the Twitchell Site are estimated to be about 1,000 years B.P. The final step will be photographing the points and creating the website, which will be a valuable tool for researchers. 

“I like anything historic,” McCarten says. “But my main interest is in the Native Americans of the northern plains. “

Pursuing that interest, the Bridger, Mont., native has traveled extensively in the region looking for Native American rock art. He went with Glade Hadden, former Billings Field Office archeologist, to see many known sites, and has even discovered a few on his own.

Shane is a student in environmental studies at MSU-Billings. He plans to pursue a degree in anthropology/archeology at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, with the eventual goal of preserving archeological sites.

A Fair Trade

Curator David K. Wade is very pleased with the work done by interns this summer. 

“They’ve done an outstanding job,” he said. “They’re getting more done than I expected. This is an exceptional group of volunteers.”

And the interns have made a huge contribution toward making the BCC’s artifacts more accessible. While the BCC isn’t a museum with exhibits, one of its primary functions is to loan out items to enhance the exhibits of other facilities. Artifacts from the BCC have been displayed in county historical collections as well as national museums. Some items are not significant from a research standpoint, but they can be handled and are useful for demonstration and comparison purposes. Having more of the collection cataloged and accessible will greatly enhance its usability.

Credit goes to Wade for recognizing and acting on a win-win opportunity. By drawing in highly qualified volunteers, he maximized a limited budget while providing students with some outstanding hands on experience. 

Credit also goes to the Montana State Office for its active role in meeting its legal obligation to care for cultural material found on public lands. The roughly 10,000 pieces that were added to the BCC’s database this summer will contribute to a greater understanding of the rich cultural history of Montana and the Dakotas.




Last updated: 06-28-2012