Article by Wendy Goldstein
Every artifact in a museum has a story. Every painting once was the intense focus of an artist somewhere, being inspired to put paint on a brush. Every mineral was formed somewhere within the Earth. Every single spear point was crafted by a man or woman, probably working in a special spot set aside for the task. Where did they find the raw material? Or was it a traded commodity? These are the stories museums try to answer because these stories create links from the past to the present. From the person who sat and crafted that spear point to the child who wanders, hand in his mother’s hand, through a museum, fingers on the glass, gazing at its wonders.
Oftentimes, the items in a museum are silent. Perhaps the farmer who picked up the spear point along a hillside didn’t realize how important the location of that hillside was to its story. Parts of the story get lost along the way, and the artifact becomes quiet, with only a short description in a catalog, noting the type of stone and perhaps the name of the person who found it.
This past week, Sam Coffman, Research Archaeologist at the UA Museum of the North, visited the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum at Prince William Sound College and brought with him a technology to help give some of our artifacts a voice. Part of his research includes the non-destructive portable X-ray Fluorescence (pXRF) geochemical sourcing of different materials, specifically rhyolite and obsidian. Over the course of two days, Sam painstakingly aimed the hair dryer-sized ray gun and scanned 53 spear points, which were either obsidian or rhyolite. Each scan took several minutes and resulted in a computer readout of all the elements and their percentages in or on that point. From these elemental signatures, he can research from which known sources of obsidian and rhyolite each point likely originated. In other words, they can tell us where they came from, thereby adding a little bit more to the story of the Maxine Whitney collection.
It will take a little while for us to receive the results of the research, but initial data points to the possibility that these particular points were collected in the Lower 48 prior to the Whitneys’ travels to Alaska. Elsewhere the technology has been used to identifying the pigments used on Old Masters paintings and to analyze the elements found in ancient bones to help determine where people or animals were born, based on the groundwater elements of possible locations. Thankfully, thanks to evolving technology, every artifact can still tell its story, if we only know how to truly listen.