Katherine Singley, AIC-CERT
On Saturday October 17, Alex Klingelhofer and I drove over to Columbia SC for the day to advise and help in the recovery of archaeological collections that had been inundated during the flooding in Columbia two weeks ago.
At the time of the flooding, an archaeologist on contract to SC DNR was using the collections to prepare research reports, and this work was being done at his home office. The collections, with a variety of material from prehistoric and historic sites in SC and NC, were stored in about 2,000 banker’s boxes. Each box had been packed solidly with artifacts in zip-lock bags, with provenance and identifying information marked with Sharpie on the bags’ exteriors. Floodwater got into the zip-lock bags, even ones that had been packed bag-within-bag. The banker’s boxes had collapsed, making removal difficult. There were also approximately 100 cubic feet of associated paper files and photographic records.
Meg Gaillard, the South Carolina DNR Heritage Trust archaeologist, is the point person for the recovery. Luckily Meg had attended two training sessions: on archival processing (taught by Jeannette Bergeron) and emergency preparedness (taught by Sharon Bennett). This training has been critical to what has been achieved by Meg over the past two weeks. Kudos for Jeanette and Sharon, their handouts, tip sheets, and web links. Meg pulled the class binders out and went to work.
The paper records were addressed first. These are now frozen, to be processed in batches. Greg Wilsbacher, the Curator of Newsfilm Collections at USC, is ready to help Meg with the recovery of paper and photographs through the USC library. Meg also has sought help from area archivists, and digitalization of the paper records is planned.
The 2,000 boxes have been removed from the flooded house and have been placed in a redundant building in West Columbia. The building has HVAC, and the temperature is kept low. Fans have been provided to stimulate air movement. The building can be secured. This recovery work is expected to continue through the winter.
A multipurpose room is being used to process the collection: rewashing the artifacts, and repacking them once dry. There is clean water on site. The room has been divided into clean and dirty area. The soggy collapsed boxes have been sorted and placed around the perimeter, arranged by site. Long tables have been set up for workstations. There is a check in station.
Supplies are organized. There appears to be enough equipment borrowed, bought, or donated to do this: PPE, new U-line bags, Sharpies, paper toweling, brushes, basins, drying racks, paper trays, etc.
And all of this in 2 weeks, based on a training course. Remarkable.
What Meg says she needs now is labor. On Saturday about 20 volunteers made a good dent in the processing, perhaps washing the equivalent of 10 of the 2,000 boxes. Meg was pleased with the progress, but realizes it will be hard to keep volunteers for the long haul. Most of the volunteers on Saturday were other archaeologists and their spouses, and members of the Georgia Archaeological Society: in other words, individuals who are familiar with archaeological processing and the importance of the associated labeling and information. This transfer has to be done multiple times and is tedious and exacting. All old packing materials are being discarded.
Alex, Greg, and I talked about the possible toxicity of the fine silt film that now covers the artifacts and bags. Sewage in the floodwater also has been a problem; Columbia’s boil water advisory has not been totally lifted. With re-washing in clean water, the silt is brushed off wet and trapped in the wash water. But not all of it may not be truly removed. I feel that Meg needs to have her superiors at DNR understand the possibility of toxic exposure to pesticide residues, chemicals, and bacteria. The SC DNR needs to get that silt analyzed. Greg felt that Meg may be too overwhelmed to fight that fight.
While a final rinse in isopropanol is a possiblilty, this will require a lot of volume as well as another stage of manipulation. At the very least, children should not be encouraged to help with washing.
It was encouraging to see a well-executed triage site with staff who had taken the paper knowledge they had and translated into a well-organized, if bare bones, operation. With archaeological recovery, it is clearly the zip-lock bag that is paramount. Preserving provenance information as well as the artifacts will contribute to the further study of the archaeological heritage of South Carolina.
Websites consulted for information on the SC recovery