Since my last blog post I have changed gears from archaeology to entomology. Over the past two weeks I have been working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum. What this means is that I have been working with bugs, spiders in particular! The E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum is one of the oldest museums at the University of Alberta, being founded in the mid-1920s in what was then the Department of Entomology. The Department of Entomology was merged with five other departments in the 1990s to create the Department of Biological Sciences.
While in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, I had the chance to work with assistant curator, Danny Shpeley. What Danny has been getting me to work on is a very large donation of spiders that was donated to the Museum in 2017. This is a donation of about 26,000 spider specimens, from all over the world. Most of these spiders were collected in Canada, but there are also a great number from the United States, Mexico, Israel, and even more exotic places like Tanzania and Australia. I am taking a spider world tour from the comfort of my office chair! I have been slowly, but surely, making a dent in the donations, having completed work on around 400 specimens at the moment.
My job has been to refresh the alcohol, add an accession number into the vial, and database the information that is included on labels which are within the vials. These specimens are in vials that are filled with alcohol in order to preserve the spiders. Alcohol is used over pinning because spiders are soft-bodied, if they were pinned the spiders would shrivel up! So even though most of these spiders were collected in the 1960s, they look the same as the day that they were collected! The databasing is perhaps the most important part of my job. This is done on an Excel spreadsheet which will be uploaded to Mimsy, the University of Alberta Museums database. What makes these specimens valuable to the Museum is not necessarily the specimen itself, but the data. The data is what gives each specimen scientific importance. Information like where it was collected, the elevation, the habitat, and when it was collected can give researchers important knowledge of the species that they are looking at.
The reason for databasing is, much like my previous experiences in Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, to upload this data into an online database. This allows the public and researchers alike to learn more about a species and all that is involved with it. The most interesting part of the Virtual Museum for me was that you are able to see the distribution range of a species. Location is a crucial part of the databasing that I am doing, and the final product of thousands of data entries is a map where you can see the range of a species.
This data entry might not be the most glamourous work that I will be doing this summer, but it is perhaps some of the most important and valuable. Talking with the curator of the collection, Felix Sperling, he said something which has stuck with me, “On one hand this work is incredibly boring, but on the other it is incredibly important.” Databasing is a huge part of museum work, and this saying is probably the most accurate representation of it!
My time here at the E.H. Strickland is drawing to a close today, and I must say that I loved my time here! I have a newfound respect for bugs, and everything creepy crawly!
Since posting my last blog post I have had to opportunity to come work for two weeks in the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. This is a teaching collection which has a large variety of archaeological material. For example, lithic material such as stone tools, pottery shards, and faunal remains. I have been helping to digitize some of the vast collection. This is the process of adding collections into digital databases so they are easily accessible. This allows researchers, museum staff, and the public to find certain items and browse collections. Digitization allows museums to make their collections accessible worldwide. At this point they have actually completed around 90% of the digitization project. I am helping to take photographs of some of the final items that are remaining. This involves taking pictures of items in a photo studio and then touching them up in Photoshop.
Photoshop, a popular computer program for editing photographs, has been the biggest learning curve for me these last few weeks. The difficult thing is that a camera lens does not see the world the same as a human eye. This means that for every image, I have to alter it to make sure that what you see on the screen looks like what you would find if you were looking for the artifact in the collection. What I have been able to do with Photoshop in just two weeks has astounded me! You are able to change anything and everything just by playing with the image. In the current digital climate, having a skill such as Photoshop will he very useful to me. Many museums worldwide are currently in the process of digitizing their collections. A working knowledge of Photoshop is a marketable skill for any future museum work I may be interest in!
Primarily I have been working with Shirley Harpham, the archaeological technologist for the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, which contains the Ami Collection. This is a large collection that was donated to the University of Alberta by Dr. Henri-Marc Ami. Dr. Ami did an excavation in France in 1925, mainly the site at Combe-Capelle, where he was able to excavate a total of around 300,000 artifacts, 100,000 of which he saved, from the Lower Paleolithic to Neolithic periods. This is a time frame of around 3.3 million years ago up to about 4000 years ago. I am primarily working with specimens from the Upper Paleolithic, which is about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Ami Collection was scattered to different Canadian universities with the University of Alberta being one of the recipients. The U of A has 1,876 specimens from Dr. Ami’s collection.
What I am mostly engaged with is a lot of lithic material, or stone tools, such as hand axes, scrapers, projectile points and hammer stones. It blew me away that after 50,000 years all of these flakes and tools as still sharp! You need to be careful, I have nearly cut myself a few times!
The highlight of these last two weeks for me has been being able to see more of the Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection. As an anthropology student I have had some time in the collection through class work, but to actually be able to see it and look around with Shirley and on my own has been fascinating! Looking at artifacts from a woolly mammoth’s tooth, to Acheulean handaxes originating from some of the original dig sites around Saint-Acheul, France has been this anthropology student’s dream come true!