Construction crews digging into Seattle-area highway projects find more than just dirt below their work zones. They find artifacts — century-old bottles, shoes, and other everyday objects — that tell a story about the regions long-buried past.
To house a growing collection of artifacts unearthed by highway crews, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is funding an expansion of the Burke Museums offsite storage facility on Sandpoint Way.
WSDOTs $342,000 contribution will create storage space for 4,600 new boxes and add a new climate-control system to aid in the preservation of sensitive collections. The Burkes storage facility is about to reach its capacity of 2,350 boxes, said Steve Denton, Burke Museum archaeology project manager. The new storage space will be in the form of compactors, moveable shelving units that minimize the need for aisles.
“The storage expansion project will result in the best care and curation of archaeological objects found by the state and ensure accessibility for research purposes,” Denton said. “This particular project really improves our storage conditions at our offsite facility. It triples our capacity, and thats very exciting to myself and the rest of the archaeology staff.”
WSDOT has a staff of archaeologists who work with “mega projects” to assess and identify materials found during construction. The Burke Museum was identified as the only state-approved institution that would be qualified to curate all the potential materials expected for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and SR 520 projects.
“By caring for this material, our community can better learn about our past,” said Kevin Bartoy, cultural resources specialist for WSDOT. “Future generations can conduct studies about aspects of our local history that arent typically recorded, particularly communities underrepresented in the historical record but key to the development of our present, such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, and the working class.”
Bartoy said in the case of the Viaduct project, “What were finding are sites largely from the 19th and early 20th centuries,” and much of it in the south end of the project. No Native American sites are part of this project, he said.
Most of the found items have long since broken into small pieces, he said. Theyre not attractive for museum exhibits, “but each of those little pieces form part of a data set that tells us what people were doing. Even though theyre broken they do have important information.”
And often, its not the individual item thats of interest so much as the site itself, he said. “Its where the objects are found, and what theyre found in relation to.” The rules pertaining to how such artifacts are processed come from the National Historical Preservation Act, passed in 1966.
The UWs Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture holds more than 14 million objects in its collections ranging from plants and mammals to fossils and cultural objects.
Denton said, “One of the joys of working at the Burke Museum is that every time you open a cabinet its always something new. There are fabulous things that have been in the museum for 125 years, and new things coming out and being delivered to us fairly regularly, and its always fun to see whats coming in.”