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How to ... curate pipes

When an archaeological project is finished part of the end product should be a stable, ordered and accessible archive of the pipe evidence that can be transferred to an appropriate body for long-term storage with access for future researchers. The pipes themselves should all be clean, dry, labelled and in museum approved packaging (bags/boxes with acid free padding, if required). They should be stored in a logical order so that they can be easily accessed (e.g., with bags arranged in context number order) and cross-referred to any documentary archive. Digital files should be securely backed up and properly curated in an appropriate digital repository, with print-outs prepared on acid free paper as part of the site archive. Any codes or abbreviations used during preparation of the archive should either be expanded to their full form or a concordance of terms prepared. The author(s) of any archive notes, report or illustrations should be clearly identified and the integrity of the pipe archive maintained (including other specialist elements, such as clay analysis or thin-sections). All objects, papers, photographs and digital files should be properly listed and indexed so that the archive can easily be identified and accessed by future curators/researchers.

Selection, Retention and Discard All pipe fragments should be collected during fieldwork or excavation projects, since they cannot be properly assessed until they have been cleaned and dried. Particular care (e.g., sieving) should be taken to collect all fragments from contexts where there is a high potential for reassembly.

While often numerous, pipe fragments are generally small in size and can be stored compactly (and with no particular conservation implications) so that they only comprise a small element of most archaeological assemblages. They often have a high potential for future research and so the presumption is usually in favour of retaining all fragments recovered as part of an archaeological archive. As with pottery, the presumption should be that every pipe fragment has the potential to inform future research and a strong case has to be made for not selecting items for the archive (Barclay et al 2016, 2.6).

Where selective retention or discard is being considered a number of factors must be taken into account, for example: -

  • The potential for future research, education and display.
  • The need to retain evidence of previous communities in a locality.
  • Whether subsequent acquisitions, research or future fieldwork might lead to a reassessment of the significance of the material.
  • Whether the material provides evidence for a now defunct local industry.
  • Whether or not similar samples could be recovered from the same area in the future.
  • Whether the material forms part of broader pattern of production, consumption and use within the region.

The selective retention of material going into an archive should only be undertaken following discussions between the excavator/collector of the material and the receiving curator, and in consultation with a suitably qualified and experienced specialist. The Society of Museum Archaeologists recommends the following pipe material for retention (1993, 4.1.7): -

All complete pipes, bowls, decorated or stamped pieces; all fragments (bowls, stems, decorated, stamped and plain) from good context groups as identified by pipe specialists, especially where scarcity of bowls or marked pieces places greater emphasis on analysis of stems for dating (it should be noted than an otherwise poor, disturbed or contaminated context may still yield a coherent pipe group, worthy of total retention, and so it is especially important for clay pipes that selection is not determined entirely by the general nature of the context). Otherwise retain representative sample of stem types/dimensions. Pieces sampled for tobacco residues. In areas where the use and manufacture of clay pipes is scarce or little understood, total retention of all pipe fragments is advised.

Where any discard prior to deposition, or from existing collections is being considered, then this should only be undertaken in accordance with a written discard policy, approved by the curating institution, and in consultation with a pipe specialist. Any material to be discarded must be properly recorded in accordance with the policy and a record securely stored as part of the site archive.

Storing Pipes Pipes are generally easy to curate since they are normally stable and do not require special storage conditions. As with any other class of finds, they should have some sort of identification number written on each piece, which can be tied to an accessions register or site archive. They should be clean and dry and stored in labelled bags within archivally sound boxes, which also need to be clearly labelled so that they can easily be linked with the accessions register / site archive. It is also useful to print and store a copy of any catalogue or specialist report with the finds themselves, so that it is on hand to consult when the archive is accessed.

The main problem that can sometimes occur is when the fabric of the pipe itself is contaminated with salts or other chemicals, which can crystallise out over time, causing the fabric to spall or crumble apart. This can be a particular problem with finds recovered from marine or estuary environments. Soaking in regular changes of clean water for a period will usually remove any residual chemicals if deterioration in storage is noted.

Where particularly thin-walled bowls are present, or pipes with long surviving stems, then they need to be adequately protected/padded for storage and, in particular, if they are to be transported. Long stems are easily snapped if subjected to sideways pressure and so they should be protected by a separate box within a larger one if necessary. Likewise, even ordinary fragments can get damaged if too great a bulk is stored together and so particularly large assemblage may need sub-dividing with suitable padding where many hundreds of fragments are found together.

Where pipes have been partially or completely reassembled for illustration or display they will be particularly vulnerable and will need extra padding and/or specially shaped housings making for them. A small sliver of wood placed in the stem bore is recommended when stem fragments are mended, since this supports and strengthens the join. A short section of cocktail stick is ideal, whittled down slightly to fit if necessary (it should always slide in and be stuck in place, not forced into position). Any glue used should be approved for archive use and reversible (soluble) if necessary.

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