The Navy's Novelties
UM researchers are elbows-deep in crates of U.S. Navy
artifacts that date to the founding of the republic
University of Montana anthropology Professor Kelly Dixon has spent most of her career reminding people that archaeologists don’t traipse around the world like Indiana Jones, with bullwhips and a nose for treasure. Like many professionals, they spend a lot of time indoors.
“For every one day in the field,” she explains, “you need three to five in the lab cleaning, sorting and analyzing artifacts to get them prepped for long-term curation. The essential step of curation is all too often left out of Hollywood and documentary portrayals of archaeological discoveries.”
But now Dixon and her students find themselves in the unique role of curating the vast historical collection of the U.S. Navy. The collection includes a fastening bolt for the USS Constitution that was hand-forged by Paul Revere; the gold-hilt, sharkskin-handled sword of Spanish-American war hero Adm. George Dewey; and the commissioning documents for Revolutionary War sailor John Paul Jones.
While these and other objects are on exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and the Cold War Museum in Washington, D.C., until recently, the bulk of the Navy’s collection was stored in a World War II-era warehouse in Cheatham, Virginia.
The Navy’s curation staff realized that warehouse was not a suitable home for the greatest repository of U.S. naval history. Starting in 2014, the Naval History and Heritage Command relocated the collection to a 300,000-square-foot building in Richmond, Virginia. Now that the artifacts are in an improved storage facility, the Navy wants a comprehensive catalog of the collection – something that has never been done. For that they turned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which recently awarded a $45 million five-year research cooperative agreement to UM. The University received the contract to assist with cataloging this collection through this agreement. Dixon learned about it while she was in Southern China with a delegation from Stanford University.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Dixon says of the project. “The U.S. and the world have a curation crisis when it comes to artifacts.” Analyzing, cataloging and preparing artifacts for long-term conservation doesn’t have the glory of fieldwork, she explains, so it’s been an underfunded area of archaeology for decades.
But Dixon sees this project with the Navy as a good omen. “The fact that the Navy has invested in their collection on this level makes a very important statement about the future of historical collections,” she says.
And it can’t be done alone. Early this year Dixon, who is associate director of the UM center administering the Army Corps of Engineers grant, hired a team of more than 20 people who now are sorting through artifacts in the Richmond facility and at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy.
“From my perspective, I am a professor first,” she says. “My role in all of this is helping to facilitate educational opportunities for UM students and alumni, as well as the general public.”
It’s a prime teaching opportunity, and it’s also opening up career paths for UM students and alumni. Kyle Burke, for example, is just wrapping up a double major in history and anthropology. His interest is military history, and he’d like to enroll in a graduate program for underwater archaeology.
Dixon worried that the lack of underwater archaeology courses at UM might make it difficult for Burke to get into these competitive programs. When this project began, Dixon’s team hired him and sent him to Washington to help curate the artifacts at the naval museum. Thanks, in part, to that firsthand experience, he’s already been accepted into several graduate archaeology programs.
Ayme Swartz, a UM graduate student from Philipsburg, also is working at the naval museum. The assignment is helping Swartz earn her master’s in anthropology. Her knowledge of gemstones, thanks to her previous job in Philipsburg, already has helped the team identify an artifact with rubies from Myanmar and sapphires from Sri Lanka.
Another UM anthropology alumna, Katie Stevens Goidich, is working in the project’s Montana offices. Goidich served 14 years with the U.S. Navy in Iraq and elsewhere, and Dixon says she helps the team “learn how to speak military.”
Every team member is vital, because the scale of the cataloging is massive. The Navy collection includes more than 300,000 accessioned artifacts. Some of those pieces, such as dental kits, contain many different parts.
“The number of individual objects is astronomical,” Dixon says.
The teams in Richmond and D.C. spend their days carefully unpacking crates that may not have been opened for decades. They analyze the contents item by item. They photograph the artifacts, inspect them for signs of damage, research the history and provenance, and type this information into a massive database.
“If you were to print it off,” Dixon says, “it might take up an entire wall. Each object has its own story. The crews have to tease out information about them and make it searchable.”
But Dixon sees a bigger picture in the works, too.
“What we’ve done with the Navy’s NHHC team is follow the Navy’s Curator Branch guidelines on the care of the collection,” she says. “We could only hope to extend this for the next couple of years so that we could get as far along on the project as possible.”
Ideally, after the catalog is complete – and that may be after UM’s involvement with the collection ends – the Navy will have a searchable database of its artifacts. Museums around the country will be able to request loans of these items. After all, the ultimate goal of the collection is to share U.S. naval heritage with the public. And the catalog is an important first step.
“These things can’t go on the road and be loaned out unless you have all of this information and all these ducks in a row first,” Dixon says.
In the meantime, Dixon’s team is immersed in some fascinating objects of U.S. history. They’ll document the desks of famous admirals and the furniture of the USS Sequoia presidential yacht. They’ll inspect the submarine that U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard used to dive to the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point, for the first time. They’ll inventory and catalog the contents of the hut U.S. Navy Officer Richard Byrd used during his exploration of Antarctica. They’ll catalog an atomic bomb shell – nonexplosive, of course.
They’ll also spend time with a gun from the famous USS Maine, the sinking of which, in a Cuban harbor in 1898, invoked an era of sensationalistic “yellow journalism” and triggered the Spanish-American War. The gun soon will make a journey to Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, South Carolina. It will be scanned with an electron microscope to determine its earliest paint color. The lead will be removed, and it will be stabilized and conserved as close as possible to its original condition.
“The University of Montana is helping facilitate this,” Dixon says. “Who would’ve thought that we would be involved in such an important component of U.S. history? I’m really honored and proud that UM has a leading role in the long-term stewardship of objects that are entirely relevant to our American heritage.”
Dixon says UM students and graduates are proving themselves as professionals on the job. “People from small towns in Montana are getting experiences we never could’ve predicted a few years ago,” she says. “And the Navy benefits because they are among our brightest and best. We hope that this project can become a model for dealing with such massive collections.”
— By Jacob Baynham