A Hands-On Archaeological Experience For All

Colleen McCartney, a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, wrote this week’s post.  For the past two years one of Colleen’s principal responsibilities at the Museum has been the upgrade of the Hands-on Archaeology Lab.  When I became the Director of Chucalissa in 2007, I wanted to develop a hands-on experience for visitors to explore archaeology.  Over the past 9 years some 20 or so students and volunteers have contributed to various aspects of the project that first opened in 2008.  As I wrote about last week, the most recent iteration of the lab officially premiered on April 16.  Below, Colleen describes the upgraded facility.


The BADLab at the C.H. Nash Museum

by Colleen McCartney


2007 Lab Space


2008 Initial Hands on Archaeology Lab Project

The hands-on archaeology lab at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa began its first iteration in 2008. In that initial project, under the direction of Museum Director, Robert Connolly, after clearing out a room used at the time for storage, the space was transformed by graduate assistants, led by Jennifer Graham to create a hands-on learning experience. The room had several stations filled with deaccessioned educational artifacts that visitors could handle and observe. However, after a few years the room needed an update to incorporate lessons learned from the initial project. As a result, the current lab renovation began in fall of 2014.

I signed on as the project coordinator when the most recent renovation process began. In the first few months we gutted the room, which included ripping out cabinets, replacing the floor, painting the walls, and moving file and map cabinets to the repository. Designing the layout of the room was completed during the clearing out stages.

My fellow graduate assistant Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and I planned out several features for the new lab. With the guidance of our Collections Manager Ron Brister and Robert Connolly, our ‘Big Idea’ or theme was From the Field to the Museum. We wanted visitors to understand and experience the process of excavating artifacts to storing and exhibiting the materials in a museum.

Over the last two years we have worked to create the current manifestation of the hands-on lab. The influence of Ron Brister has been instrumental in developing not only the lab, but several other projects at the C.H. Nash Museum. As a result, we have officially renamed the exhibit, the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab, or as we lovingly call it, the BADLab.

When you enter the BADLab you begin with our stratigraphy wall to the right. The wall features sediment panels from the excavation trench at Chucalissa. There are also text panels and high-definition photographs of the trench by Katie Maish. To learn more about this feature, see Robert Connolly’s post from last week.


Sifting and Sorting Table

As you continue through the lab you reach the sifting and sorting tables. These tables demonstrate the process that archaeologists use to gather and analyze artifacts after excavation. By sifting through buckets of sand with artifacts visitors get a hands-on experience of an archaeological process. Then the visitors take the artifacts they sift and move to the sorting table where they analyze their artifacts at the lab station.  This activity includes completing analysis forms that each visitor takes home. These stations also include banners that describe why archaeology is important, the methods archaeologists use, different pottery types, a timeline of Chucalissa and other information.


Type collection created by MAGS members.

Continuing through the lab visitors come to a weapons wall that has hands-on replicas of prehistoric Native American weapons. This display is next to cases containing type collections created by the Memphis Archeological and Geological Society (MAGS).  The collections include prehistoric ceramic and stone tool types along with historic bottles that can be examined by visitors. Above the cases is a didactic panel that describes the process of cataloging collections in a museum repository. It is significant that the type collection was created by MAGS.  The avocational organization was initially founded in the 1950s around archaeological interest in the Chucalissa site. MAGS continues to be active at Chucalissa in not only volunteer work but also in financial support. For example the type collection cabinets were purchased with a very generous $2000.00 MAGS contribution.


BADLab Food exhibit

Next to the MAGS collection cases is an exhibit focused on cooking and food of the prehistoric people of Chucalissa. Developed by Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza, this exhibit features tools and vessels used to hunt, gather and cook the food of prehistoric Native Americans along with examples of the various food types.  Intern Jessica Johnson painted a prehistoric house mural as a backdrop for the exhibit.

The fourth lab wall features a sensory bookcase. Each section of the bookcase features specific types of furs, feathers, shells, dolls and tools. This bookcase is very popular with children and offers teaching opportunities for all ages. This final lab section also contains a work desk for the graduate assistants and information binders on everything from ceramic and lithic analysis, archaeological processes and more for the visitors to gain detail about archaeological collections and processes.

A highlight of the BADLab is “pull out” exhibits designed for quick set-up on a rotating basis or for special group interest. These more portable exhibits cover topics such as ceramic analysis, trade and exchange, and lithic analysis. Created by two of our interns this past semester, Emily Woolsey and Gabriel Short, the exhibits provide a more detailed discussion of a specific topic. For example, with the lithic pull out exhibit, visitors are able to handle artifacts containing sickle sheen, trace of use wear, as well as different tool and raw material types.


Colleen McCartney at trench house floor exhibit

The Brister Archeology Lab is a unique opportunity for visitors to have a hands-on experience of archaeological processes in a museum environment. By going through the lab visitors get an appreciation of the process of an artifact moving from the field to the museum, deepening their understanding of archaeology and museums. We attempt to use authentic artifacts as much as possible drawing from our deaccessioned educational collections.  When you are in Memphis, stop by and visit our new exhibit!

Colleen McCartney can be reached via email at: cmccrtny(at)memphis.edu

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