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The Archaeological Research Lab: Curating History Through Archaeological Discovery

By Nichole Stevens

One might assume that the University of Tennessee Archaeological Research Lab, located away from the hustle and bustle of every day university life off Middlebrook Pike, would find it difficult to get the volunteer help it needs. However, the lab has started a new program, called Volunteer Day, held every third Friday of the month, where students and the public are invited to help out with the day-to-day operations of archaeological work.

By the first Volunteer Day in January this year, volunteers were already signed up through April.

“We’ve been slightly overwhelmed by the positive response,” said Kandi Hollenbach, who directs the lab. “A lot of people very interested in helping out with it, that’s been really good.”


The Archaeological Research Lab utilizes volunteers like Mickey Alexander (back) and students like Stephanie Hacker (front) in their day-to-day operations./Photo by Nichole Stevens

“Although I am a nuclear engineer,” said public volunteer Mickey Alexander, “I’ve always enjoyed archaeology.”

Alexander retired from the TVA and currently puts in part-time hours at ORNL, but he wanted to do more with his time. For the past 18 months, he has been coming to the ARL every Friday to help catalog and sort artifacts for the researchers.

“I wanted to do something enjoyable, yet would give something back,” said Alexander. “I think they need some resources here in the laboratory.”

Alexander said that for his current project, he has 4,000 implements logged out of what eventually may be 10,000.

“This is a big job. It’s going to take a lot of hours to do what we’re doing,” Alexander said.

Student and community volunteers help prepare artifacts for curation, a process of preserving and sorting, and go through hundreds and hundreds of boxes in the lab for re-bagging. Many of the artifacts volunteers handle at the ARL were excavated during the 1970s and 80s – a time when using acid-free boxes or curation-quality plastic bags to store artifacts was not in practice. Volunteers also record the contents and other pertinent information in a digital file.

ARL bone pin

A bone artifact from the Mississippian era. Researchers believe it could have been used as a hair pin, or a clothing tie, due to its smooth and refined surface./Photo by Nichole Stevens

“It stabilizes the collections for long-term curation so that they don’t fall apart, and they retain that information that’s on the outside of those bags,” said Hollenbach. Creating a digital record also makes the artifacts more accessible to future researchers. “Volunteers really like handling these sorts of things,” Hollenbach added.

Artifacts within the lab include prehistoric ceramics and pottery, arrowheads, debitage (fragments of arrowheads, spears and other pointed objects), plant remains, soil samples, and even a bone pin, possibly used as a hair pin or clothing tie. Some artifacts range from 2,000-5,000 years old, and are sent to the lab for curation from many various excavation sites.

Hollenbach said a lot of their field work is relatively local, with excavations held at Townsend, Cumberland Gap, sites in Middle Tennessee, Obed Wild and Scenic River rock shelter, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, sites in downtown Knoxville and different agricultural farms in Knox and Blount counties.


Artifacts from the 1970/80s were stored in brown paper bags. Most of the bags and rubber bands securing the contents have deteriorated and risk losing the valuable information written on the outside./Photo by Nichole Stevens

ARL does collaborative projects outside Tennessee, including Monticello in Virginia, areas along coastal South Carolina, Mississippi historic Choctaw sites, Central Alabama and many others.

The lab works on multiple archaeological projects simultaneously, drawing upon academic and other individuals with expertise ranging from paleoethnobotany, or the examination of plant remains, to geoarcheology for the study of natural physical process. Hollenbach specializes in the study of archeological plant remains. She and her colleagues are currently partnering with another private archaeology firm to conduct the Everglades project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine tree island formations in the Florida Everglades.


Artifacts are transferred to acid-free, curation friendly plastic bags and catalogued in a digital filing system for future researchers to use./Photo by Nichole Stevens

“Most of what they do, especially the public volunteers, is help prepare artifacts for curation. A lot of them are in paper bags that are falling apart with old, crummy rubber bands,” said Hollenbach. “Some of the student volunteers, depending on their interests, help us with some of our different specialized analyses.”

Stephanie Hacker, a graduate student focused on archaeobotanical studies, works in the lab analyzing and interpreting food and plant artifacts. She became interested in archaeology when she was an  undergraduate in anthropology, working with samples taken from a Monticello excavation. The archeobotanical samples tell a breadth of information about the Southeastern environment and the people who lived there.

“I just absolutely loved it, and started doing work at the Obed for the National Park Service. And just got really interested in it and shifted gears into archaeology,” said Hacker.

Volunteers work in three-hour sessions from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1-4 p.m. Between Noon-1 p.m., the ARL coordinates a guest speaker to talk with the volunteer groups. Previous speakers included individuals from TVA archaeology, the UT Department of Anthropology or researchers within the lab. Volunteers learn about what local researchers are currently working on and how it helps the different studies and what the lab does for the public.

ARL Volunteer Opportunities occur on every third Friday of the month. Upcoming volunteer days include: Feb. 20, March 20, April 17, May 15, June 19, July 17, Aug. 21, Sept. 18, Oct. 16, Nov. 19 and Dec. 18 for 2015.

The Archaeological Research Center was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.