“Everything in its right place.”

I have been a collector of things. Comic books, action figures (of various sorts), photographs, role playing dice (you know the many sided, funny shaped ones), cassette tapes/compact disks/digital music files (different media, same principle), very small rocks. I have also been an organizer of things, a tendency that may or may not have been borne out of the previous condition inclination. Certainly the one goes well with the other. Comic books — in plastic sleeves with paperboard protectors — organized by title and number, photographs ordered by time and place (or perhaps season, or subject, or event…), that sort of thing . Music can be tricky as there is a lot going on; by genre (often somewhere between difficult and useless), by band, by year, by media type, alphabetical? This, along with many other interesting life questions, is addressed in the great film with John Cusak, High Fidelity, but that is another story. At one time in my teens I could pick a given cassette tape from my collection of over 200 tapes in the dark because I could visualize the order. Because of this I both love and hate iTunes for too many reasons to go into here and now.

So really it makes some sense that I ended up working in the museum world.

“Don’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good.”

I heard this quote yesterday and can’t help but think it will be a problem for me — a slightly OCD, idealistic procrastinator — to fall in line with. I mean if I am going to organize a collection of something it either needs to be done or not. It does not should not get done part way. CD’s for example. If I am going to go ahead and order them alphabetically by artist, then it should naturally follow that if there are multiple selections of a given artist that those should be in order by release date right? For the moment we will ignore the ascending vs. descending order question because it can get weird…

Anyway, as I noted, it is these qualities that make me a sometimes perfect fit for working in a museum-like setting where “best practice” standards require things to be strictly organized. It is also good to know that when in such an environment, one is in good company.

For several years in the not so distant past, I worked for a university museum’s archaeology department, first as a student assistant and then as a research technician (with a few different “titles” thrown in at various points). I would quickly discover that this was a near perfect place to be in many ways. For example, one project I was tasked with was to “re-house” a collection of lithic (…i-t-h-i-c, meaning stone) artifacts that had been collected many years before. It was a fascinating exercise in almost completely pointless organization taken to a mindboggling extreme.

Actually, let me unpack this for you a bit as in order to make sense I will have to give some background.

During an archaeological excavation, ideally everything is highly organized and tightly controlled as the science of it requires paying strict attention to context; that is the relation of all things to all other things in physical space. Before an excavation begins, a fixed point — the datum — is established to which everything is related, in a geo-spatial sense; provenience is the term. These relationships are established through tightly controlled measurements in order to record each and every find in three dimensional space. In this modern, techno-fancy world we live in, highly sensitive GPS units are often utilized to record these data and if done correctly the site can effectively be “recreated” in a digital realm. It can be pretty cool. But anyways, I digress.

As the excavation progresses, all of the sediment that is removed is passed through a screen to retrieve any artifacts that may have been missed during the actual excavation. Out of context as these objects are at this point it is still important to make some attempt to be able to relate them — as close as is reasonably possible — to the place in the excavations from whence they came. Remember, context. The remaining pile of “backdirt” is ideally, now sterile of artifacts. However, this of course will depend on many things, principally perhaps the size of the mesh screen that is utilized. Should one use garden variety chicken wire, one might not expect to capture very much. Industry standard is often 1/8 or 1/4 inch, which can catch very small objects; fish scales or tiny little micro-flakes.

So, short story long, getting back to the rehousing effort that I mentioned… There was this collection of lithics that were stored in a series of “old school” metal film canisters (which are really cool things by the way and great for storing very small rocks…) My task was to sort through these little cans, capture all of the data that was written on them, inventory the contents, and place the artifacts in new housing; in this case small plastic bags.

This particular collection of objects had been collected via re-screening the back dirt pile, which in itself is a curious thing. Yes, they used a finer mesh and so could likely find things that were missed the first time around, but at that point the provenience is pretty poor. But you know that is cool, whatever. The REALLY interesting part is what happened next…

Once an excavation is complete, all of the artifacts are — ideally — brought back to a lab and processed for analysis and storage. There are many ways to go about this and I will not go down that rabbit hole just now, except to state once again, that context and provenience are paramount elements here and so very strict organizational controls must be employed. Everything is cleaned, organized, cataloged, labeled, and housed in a sensible, safe, and stable manner and location for perpetuity. That is the museum way.

OK, OK, get on with it, I know.

Each little tin contained potentially dozens of tiny micro-flakes; miniscule fragments of stone that are the result of a long dead person “knapping” out a stone tool (well, they were probably not long dead when doing it just, you know… knapping). Prehistoric archaeologists deal with a lot of these and ideally they can be useful. Think about whittling. You take a chunk of wood and use a knife to gradually reduce it in size and shape until you have the object you desired as an end result; the shavings are just waste. BUT if those shavings were to be put back together in the correct order, one might be able to identify the thing that was made… even if that thing is nowhere to be found. Not only that but one might be able to identify the process and even the tool that was utilized in the making. It is pretty cool in a sense. Nearly impossible and often mind-numbingly dull in practice… We call it “refitting”.

Flakes, not the ones in question, but just to give you an idea. The scale bar is in centimeters.

Flakes, not the ones in question, but just to give you an idea. The scale bar is in centimeters.

So yeah, dozens and dozens of tins led to hundreds of little micro-flakes. No big deal, I had rehoused LOTS of them at this point. So what the hell am I getting at here? Well, let me tell you, really I am trying to get there…

Upon closer inspection, I discovered that each of the flakes had been numbered. This is not uncommon and is in fact generally required, but in this case it was largely unneeded; wholly excessive actually. Remember the provenience for these was “the back dirt pile” thus one might say the context was “the 1969 excavation” which is kind of less than helpful. But, my task was to inventory them. Which of course meant that I had to put them in numerical order first… because they had been numbered… keeping in mind some of the things I mentioned above.

It gets better.

So, yeah, they were all numbered, as in very tiny numbers had been physically written on each tiny little micro-flake. Someone had very steady hands, and I doubt that someone was a Phd… for a whole host of reasons. Anyway, that was marvel enough. BUT, when I started to put them in numerical order it became clear that the person with the steady hand, had organized them… first by color, and then by size. When they were all laid out in order they were a marvel to look at really; as a collection. An almost completely pointless, but marvelous collection… and there were dozens and dozens of them. Each little tin contained one of these crazy, freakishly OCD little collections. It took me days to sort through them, I have no idea how long it must have taken to first organize and process them. But I loved them all the same.

Remarkable.

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2 thoughts on ““Everything in its right place.”

  1. Your first para, “Music can be tricky as there is a lot going on; by genre (often somewhere between difficult and useless), by band, by year, by media type, alphabetical?” is a little one dimensional. I have a favourite wine website where their complete wine inventory is organised by 6 categories simultaneously – region / wine style / vintage / price point / brand / grape variety. You can re-sort, select and filter any way you wish. OK, in the wine shop they can only be ordered one way on the shelf, but in a virtual world there is no limit.

    And your final para, “first by color, and then by size”. This quote is from “Oscar and Lucinda” (Peter Carey):
    Oscar had a little wooden tray, divided into small compartments. It was intended to house beetles, or shells. Oscar kept buttons in it. They were his mother’s buttons, although no one told him it was so. They were not his father’s buttons. There were small round ones like ladybirds with single brass loops instead of legs. Others were made of glass. There were metal buttons with four holes and mother-of-pearl with two. He drilled these buttons as other boys might drill soldiers. He lined them up. He ordered them. He numbered them. There were five hundred and sixty. Sometimes in the middle of a new arrangement, his head ached. On this Christmas Day, his father said: “You have reclassified your buttons, I see.” The buttons were on the window ledge. It was a deep sill. Mrs Williams had put the buttons there when she set the table.

    Oscar said: “Yes, Father.”
    “The taxonomic principle being colour. The spectrum from left to right, with size the second principle of order.”
    “Yes, Father.”
    “Very good,” said Theophilus.

    I run a website for collectors, so am very familiar with the mysteries of cataloguing. Happy organizing!

    Regards,
    Philip

  2. […] There is a concept in archaeology called chaîne opératoire, the literal French translation of which is “operational sequence”. On a very rudimentary level it refers to a series of structural, and perhaps predictable steps or stages involved in the acquisition, creation, and eventual disposal of functional items; specifically in an archaeological sense, stone tools. It suggests a particular mental template that is inherent based on the social norms of a given culture or society and thus can be used as a means to analyze and interpret past human behaviors based solely on concrete material remains… such as lithic debitage, which I have discussed briefly elsewhere. […]

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