Central States Archaeological Societies
Central States Archaeological Societies


Elmer A. Guerri
Central States Archaeological Societies 2001 October Journal
Terre Haute, Indiana

  I will carefully catalog my collection. I will number each specimen and write all I know about it Ð who first found it, when, where and all other details I can find on it. If necessary I will write many letters to obtain this information. Virgil Russell’s Resolution #6 for Artifact Collectors.  

As collectors, we are only interim caretakers of an irreplaceable resource that has survived the passage of time and countless generations. We owe it to the memory of those magnificent ancient people who created our collectibles to accurately document and describe the artifacts for which we are responsible.

As one evolves in the hobby, learning about ancient people, their cultures, their subsistence styles, and their interactions becomes the most important goal, surpassing the mere possession of the artifacts themselves.  The true value of any artifact lies in what we know about it and what it tells us about the habits of those marvelous people of the past.

Site Records

Accurate documentation of broken artifacts is equally important, diagnostically, as is that of perfect specimens. The total collection of site-specific items reveals clues about the culture, site extent, material sources, and travel or interaction of ancient people. Samples of lithic materials, such as flakes, cores, and blanks, are also valuable sources of information.

In addition to documentation of artifacts and lithic materials, specific site locations should be recorded accurately. Topographic maps, plat books, gazetteers, and modern GPS records should be a part of every collector’s documentation system. Records or files should include names of site owners, permission slips (some states require these), dates of visits, photos, etc. The nostalgic naming of sites by collectors is a most interesting aspect of the hobby. From the most simple, such as Sam’s, High Line, High Rise, Big Mound, Celt Site, Dad’s Site, Dea’s Field, etc., to the most unusual and thought provoking, such as Dead Cow, Pee Point, Round House, Pig Pen, etc., those names add valuable memories to the record.

In the early days collectors kept accurate records of when fields were plowed. It was quite surprising how, from year to year, those dates varied by only a few days.


Most collectors have heard the word ‘provenience.’ A quick trip to the dictionary will reveal, first of all, that it can be ‘provenance’ or ‘provenience,’ and that it simply means ‘origin, derivation, source.’ To a collector it means even more. It also means the ‘trail’ or the ‘tracking’ of everywhere a piece has been, since it has been found, including place found, previous collectors of the piece, and publications in which the item has appeared.  In fact, ‘provenience’ is everything we can learn and record about the piece.

The history of each prehistoric piece is most important to the collector. The hobby is far more than simply collecting ‘rocks.’ It often bothers this writer to hear fellow collectors simply refer to artifacts as ‘rocks.’ They are much more than that! Each artifact has a past of its own, most of which is undiscoverable - a ‘forever’ mystery. The collector is responsible for documenting what has been discovered and what is known about each piece.  Typical documentation information includes:

- artifact number
- description
- date found
- county and state
- exact location found
- found by
- date received
- received from
- material
- previous collectors
- certificate of authenticity

Collectors with computer skills have additional possibilities for documentation methods, including the use of scans of artifact images as part of the record.

The Story


The KOH-I-NOOR R RAPIDOGRAPHR pen with 3x0 point is excellent for making India ink labels

For nearly every piece there is a ‘story’ which accompanies the artifact. Most of the ‘story’ is simply hearsay; however, it should be written down as part of the collector’s records. Each ‘story’ can be qualified by simply listing the person who told the ‘story,’ the date of its telling, and the collector’s own impression about the teller or the ‘story.’ It is remarkable how much information is so very quickly lost with the passage of time.  While few, if any, collectors or archaeologists will place much credence in many of the ‘stories,’ they become a part of the world of collecting, a part of oral tradition.


Physical Methods

There are as many ways of physically logging artifacts as there are collectors. Some collector documentation techniques have become trademarks of the collectors themselves, and their techniques become a valuable part of provenience.

The most popular method of cataloging lithic materials is to apply black or white India ink onto a thin film of dry clear nail polish, applied directly to the surface of the artifact. A second light coating of clear nail polish over the dry ink provides a durable record without damaging the artifact. The label can be removed, if desired, using clear nail polish remover. For those who may have artifacts with ink applied directly to the surface, India ink remover solvents are available at most drafting supply stores to aid in removing unwanted labels.

The KOH-I-NOORR RAPIDOGRAPHR pen with 3x0 point size (.010 in. or .25 mm) is an excellent device for labeling artifacts with India ink. The cost for the pen is about $20 at most drafting supply stores.  This pen is superior to nib pens or to felt tip permanent markers.


Archaeologist William C. Meadows uses a private designation code for artifacts found on non-recorded sites.



Pressure sensitive or ‘lick and stick’ labels are inexpensive, easy to use, and popular; however they are likely to become lost over time. Use a thin coat of clear nail polish applied over paper stickers to protect the information and to prevent loss of the labels.

White India ink is the format used by Forrest Fenn of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in labeling his collection



Several commercial clear tape label makers are available at office supply stores. Two reliable devices are the Brothers ‘P-touch’ TZ Tape SystemR and the Plus Corporation WR-401 Tape PrinterR. Such systems are highly portable, battery operated, and easy to use with both black and white lettering formats. As with paper stickers, the clear machine-made labels may be coated with clear nail polish to prevent loss.

DOCUMENTATION- THE COLLECTOR’S RESPONSIBILITY LABELLINGFormat used by William C. Meadows for artifacts found on documented sites identified with the Smithsonian Museum identification system feature the state, county, and site number designation.


Tape or stick-on labels should not be used with ceramics, as they may damage surface materials over time or when removed.


Photographs of artifacts provide an additional excellent documentation method.  Photographic documentation is very helpful for insurance purposes and for identifying stolen artifacts. Photographs and videotapes are used increasingly by collectors, not only for their own artifacts, but also for studying artifacts in other collections.

Photographs of site locations, especially using seasonal formats, become a valuable part of the collector’s records. They make excellent aids for publications and speeches, and they help professionals to locate and study ‘analogs,’ modern locations with characteristics which likely proximate those experienced by ancient people.  

DOCUMENTATION- THE COLLECTOR’S RESPONSIBILITY  TAPE This writers current format uses the Brothers "P-touch" TZR Tape System indicating the EG artifact number, authenticator initials, and the location the artifact was found.

There are some collectors, such as Tom Westfall of Wray, Colorado, who make excellent ‘in-situ’ photos of artifacts immediately when they find them, before they remove them from the soil or from the stream bed. ‘In-situ’ shots help capture the excitement of ‘is it whole or is it broken?’ magic moments.

Site Specific Displays

The writer prefers to display artifacts according to a site specific format.  12’ x 16’ Riker frames provide convenient frames for keeping all tools from a specific site together. Each Riker frame is labeled with the site name. A half-envelope glued to the back of each Riker frame contains a card with the record of larger items from the same site, such as axes, celts, pestles, grindstones, etc., which are curated on shelves and in drawers.  The site-specific display format permits the artifacts to be loaned to students or professionals for in-depth studies.


Records containing names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc., of fellow collectors are a valuable part of the hobby. Artifacts are only a very small part of the collecting hobby. The real treasures are those people one meets along the way. Keep in touch with them, and take the time to thank them for contributing to your hobby.

The Collector’s Obligation for the Future

Collectors have the additional responsibility to prudently plan for transferring their collections, to pass them along to others who will respect and care for them. Even with careful planning, with competent legal advice, several horror stories come to mind, where the wishes of collectors were ignored.  

Brothers "P-touch" TZR Tape System

The Brothers "P-touch" TZR Tape System prepares self sticking labels which adhere well to most lithic materials. Labels are clear and can be coated with clear nail polish.

An Indiana collector of Americana objects, including several Indian relics, reportedly bequeathed his entire life’s work collection to a state university with instructions that the entire collection be kept together for enjoyment by future generations. The university eventually offered a large portion of the collection for auction to the public, an act which caused untold numbers of future patrons and benefactors to reconsider plans they may have had for that university!

Equally disconcerting and frustrating are situations where museums or institutions (fearing regulations such as NAGPRA and objections raised by special interest groups) are simply reluctant to accept collections containing Indian artifacts, whether or not culturally sensitive items are involved. They often use the excuse of costs involved to store and care for the collections (some ask for trust funds to support such storage and care) or fear of future challenges by landowners, ethnic groups, etc.

Similarly, stories abound of collections willed or bequeathed to universities or museums, where the collections were hidden away, never again to be seen or studied.

The writer can recall collections which, following the deaths of the collectors, resulted in hardship, friction, in-fighting, and litigation among remaining family members. Responsible collectors should, at the very least, consider some sort of will or codicil, carefully written, to insure the integrity and well being of the collection following the collector’s death. Don’t leave it to others to do the ‘right’ thing!

Perhaps the saddest story that comes to mind involved a very dear friend who was forced to sell his lifetime collection as a result of an unavoidable financial urgency.  Partly due to the trauma experienced with the loss of something so cherished, the young man failed to consider anyone might care any less than he had for the meticulously catalogued artifacts and site-specific organized frames.

As he finished helping the out-of-state buyer load the frames into the buyer’s van he asked, in sad reflection, ‘What are you going to do with my collection now?’

The answer was perhaps even more devastating than the loss of the collection itself. Without even looking at the already distraught collector, the buyer replied, as he hastily stepped into the van, ‘Well the first thing I’m going to do it take off all those ‘*&%#@*’ little white stickers!’ Enough said!

Do It Now!

As a youngster, this writer grew up by adhering to Dad’s three rules.  First, if it’s important enough to do, do it right!  Second, do whatever you do in such a way that you would sign your name to it - then sign it! And third, do it now!  It was standard, required, and eventually it became a deeply ingrained habit, for all artifacts to be gently washed and logged immediately upon returning from the field. There were no exceptions! To this day, over fifty years later, those same lessons from Dad are rigidly applied. Even today, at times, I can seemingly feel him peering over my shoulder, sharing the excitement of a new piece, making sure I do it right, enjoying with me the excitement of momentarily stepping back through time - pausing to appreciate the privilege of caring for a part of our prehistoric past.  

Avery gummed labels

Avery gummed labels were used to record this writer's father's first artifact find (#11), and the author's first find (#12). Both were found on February 18th, 1955.

The writer’s logging system includes the initials EG, an artifact number, a location code, and, if appropriate, the initials of the authenticator for purchased pieces. ‘Logging in’ of any artifact is an integral part of obtaining the piece and of the responsibility for its proper care. Do it now!


Russell, Virgil Y.

     1962, Indian Artifacts, Johnson Publishing Company  Boulder, Colorado. Pp.59-60.


Copyright © C.S.A.S.I.