Archaeological Archive Flood Recovery Project
Meg Gaillard, DNR Heritage Trust Archaeologist
When asked by Jessica Irwin in March 2016 to write an article summarizing the Archaeological Archive Flood Recovery Project for this newsletter, I honestly did not know where to begin. I know this article will fall far short in answering every question related to our efforts, the methodology will be questioned, and critiques will be given. However, no one, that we are aware of, had ever been through a recovery effort like this before. There was no expert or source to turn to for a step-by-step guide. Yes, there are disaster preparedness books and workshops. I even participated in a workshop hosted by the SC Department of Archives and History about 10 years ago that served as the basis for our recovery efforts. But the unfortunate reality is that nothing can completely protect your archival facility from potential disaster. Even the books we study and workshops we attend provide general knowledge. In the end, it all comes down to preparing yourself, your staff, and your facility as best you can for potential disasters like what we experienced in October 2015.
Following the 2015 flood event that affected the Carolinas from October 1-5, 2015, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Heritage Trust archaeologists, along with volunteers, student and professional archaeologists worked to recover artifacts, photographs, and documents located in a facility next to Gills Creek in Columbia, SC. The entirety of the archive was inundated with flood water.
Approximately 1,500 boxes of previously curated artifacts, 100 cubic feet of documents, and 15,000 photographs, negatives and slides were recovered. An initial triage facility for the archive was located at the DNR Fish Hatchery in West Columbia, SC. Within two days, the recovered items, which were coming into the DNR facility in truck loads, exceeded the available space. This, compounded by the threat of another wave of severe weather, hastened the acquisition of a new facility for long-term recovery efforts to take place.
Lexington School District Two donated the use of their old Fine Arts Center in West Columbia to the DNR for the duration of the flood recovery. Recovery efforts took place at this facility from October 2015 to May 2016 with the help of 135 volunteers and six temporary part-time staff, in addition to full and part-time DNR staff. All available space in the facility was utilized, and although quite large, the layout of the recovery effort had to be transformed every few weeks in order to keep up with the changing focus of the work.
The recovery effort was organized into a phased approach. The recovery and restoration of the entire archive at one time was impossible due to its size and complexity of material culture. The recovery and stabilization of documents took first priority. Documents were sorted and sent to freezers. The freezing of documents stopped the growth of mold, and essentially stopped time until the restoration of those documents could take place at a later date.
The second priority was the cleaning and drying of photographs, negatives, and slides. Ideally, all of these items would have been laid flat to dry, on well ventilated surfaces; however, due to space and time constraints, the method of hanging photographs and negatives, while laying slides to dry flat was chosen. Approximately 3,000 images were cleaned, dried and stabilized each day over the course of five days. These images will be scanned and digitally stored with metadata beginning in July 2016.
The third priority was the washing, drying, labeling, bagging and boxing of artifacts. Nearly every bag of artifacts was inundated with water. In order to ensure that all artifacts were properly re-curated, every artifact went through the full curation process again. Diagnostic metal objects were stabilized through metal conservation by DNR archaeologist Tariq Ghaffar (Figure 8), while all other artifacts were washed with clean water and dried.
Safety of personnel during all phases of the project was a top priority. Volunteers and staff were required to wear gloves at all times. Depending on the task, protective masks, long 18 mil aprons, and protective eyewear were also available. Although the temperature was controlled, ventilation was aided using large industrial box fans and humidity was lowered using dehumidifiers.
There were numerous supplies purchased for and donated to the project. One of the most unique was the purchase of thousands of paper food trays – the same type that might hold a burger and fries. Since all of the artifacts washed during the project had already been curated and contained paper labels and/or information on their bags, the best way to keep them organized was to place cleaned artifacts in food trays and place the information (bag and/or tag) below the tray on drying racks. Once the artifacts dried, new tags and bags replaced the old, and the artifacts were stored in new boxes.
Another unique object was an outdoor washing station constructed by DNR archaeologist Sean Taylor. Made from a table screen typically used for volunteers to screen dirt in the field, this table served as a station for washing large pieces of pottery after industrial kitchen sprayers, foot pedals and plumbing were installed.
The complexity of the Archaeological Archive Flood Recovery Project has been greatly simplified for this article, but I hope to write and discuss the project in more detail in years to come. Much has been learned over the last eight months related to topics including disaster preparedness, curation practices, the deaccessioning of objects, and volunteer management. There needs to be open dialogue and serious critique within our professional community about these and many other related topics as we move forward from this disaster and prepare ourselves and our facilities for future disasters.