Imagine Indiana Jones worked in Delaware. Imagine he found the Ark of the Covenant and donated it to the state, and that he questioned where it was and who was taking care of it. He would be told (as he was in the movie), “Our top people are working on it.”
Imagine that, and know that it has its basis in real life. Even in our small state.
On Friday, January 6, 2017, one of those “top people” opened the doors of the state’s vast and secure archaeological repository to invited guests. Paul Nasca, Curator of Archaeology for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, led a dozen or so members and friends of The Archaeological Society of Delaware through its multiple rooms on a four-hour tour.
Not unlike the warehouse seen at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with tall stacks of boxes fading away into semi-darkness, this place holds secrets.
We viewed Clovis projectile points from 10,000 B.C. and numerous other objects that are less ancient, but still old. Hundreds of cartons of prehistoric Native American tools and pottery lined the aisles, along with hundreds more of historic artifacts, all of which have been cleaned, organized, and documented. The work of many decades can be found here.
For instance, many artifacts of the sunken ship DeBraak are preserved in the climate controlled rooms.
Artistic rendition of the capsizing of the DeBraak by Peggy Kane, 1990.
It wasn’t archaeologists who took the wreck out of the sea off Cape Henlopen, the curator explained, but treasure hunters. No treasure of gold was found – that was a misconceived myth. Then the state stepped in to save what it could.
Nasca handled the artifacts with the utmost care. These included leather shoes, knit stockings, and woolen caps of British seamen of the 1790s which were studied and faithfully copied for “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” (That was the 2003 historical drama film starring Russell Crowe.) Group members were asked to try on replica hats, and go ahead and take selfies wearing them. These were the only photos permitted in the facility for security reasons.
Pair of woven socks recovered from HMS DeBraak now stored in special container.
In addition to those articles of clothing that survived in the silt, and the large iron objects (cannons and anchors – no iron musket or pistol barrels withstood the many years in a corrosive salt water environment), there were artifacts of ceramic, copper, brass, and pewter which don’t rust, and of course, some wood which did well as long as it was buried. The ship’s hull that had been lifted out of the water is preserved in conservation facility which is open to the public: http://history.blogs.delaware.gov/2014/09/10/a-seaborne-citizenry-the-debraak-and-its-atlantic-world-exhibit-at-the-zwaanendael-museum-2/.
Now, keeping in mind that this is just one shipwreck, that it takes up more than just a corner of the repository we toured, and that some of it is on display in Lewes and Cape Henlopen also, the DeBraak artifacts are but a fraction of the cultural resources saved by the Division and its curators.
We saw paperwork too. The scientific documentation, including excavation reports, drawings, photographs, and other records should (we were told) amount to information that far exceeds what the physical artifacts themselves contain, for once the object is taken out of the ground it loses its context, and all that is left is whatever the trowel- (and pen- and camera-) wielding archaeologist observes and records.
Nasca pointed out that the rows of fire-proof file cabinets were indeed expensive, but all the papers, and prints, and discs in them were priceless and irreplaceable. As valuable as an artifact on a shelf might be, it has little to say about the people who made it if no one knows where it came from.
Academic discovery may be thought of as fun and enriching, but the archaeology must be done when the past is being destroyed by development and expansion. Natural forces and human neglect take a toll as well. The role of the curator is to do battle with the present as well as to preserve the past. In Nasca’s words, “The purpose of archaeological curation is to preserve the material remains of Delaware’s past for future generations.”
In what could have been – but wasn’t – the driest few minutes of the tour, Nasca was opening large steel drawers and gently lifting pieces of early colonial cookware out of them to pass around (with both hands, please!), and he asked the question, “Why do you think the finer ceramics for the dining rooms and tea sets of the rich were imported while the coarser stuff used for cooking (by both rich and poor) was more often than not made locally?”
The answer was that merchants were willing to pack the hull of a ship with the smaller, lighter, and prestige-carrying ceramics that could bring a profit. Not so much with the generally larger, heavier, and cheaper things. With further discussion, this became clear: When the American colonists finally gained the technological expertise necessary for crafting fine china, they could compete better with those who shipped their wares over the Atlantic and from the far side of the world, and sometimes even make a political statement too.
This was a hint of some of the economic realities leading up to the American Revolution.
This connected us to the past because we can all relate to it today.
– Steve Cox