A massive archaeological site in St. Clair County, Illinois, was excavated by ISAS for the Illinois Department of Transportation between 1998 and 2007 to make way for a new bridge over the Mississippi River. Now known as Janey B. Goode, this site was intensively inhabited and used by Native people living a millennium ago. ISAS archaeologists excavated some 7,000 discrete “features,” locations of trash-filled storage pits and houses, among other things, near the banks of the Mississippi River where people of “Woodland” and “Mississippian” cultures once lived. ISAS archaeologists are still working on the final report, but that’s not all.
Among the most important information retrieved from modern archaeological excavation concerns what people ate and what the natural environment was like in the past. This information is found in the bits of burned plants and cooking debris embedded in the dirt of a dig. Charred plants float in water, and even minute burned seeds, stems, and rinds of fruits, grains, and vegetables that spilled while being cooked can be recovered by archaeologists through a process aptly called “flotation.” Samples of enriched dirt from archaeological features are dumped into vats of water and all that floats is skimmed off. Settling to the bottom, and also collected by archaeologists, are fish scales, tiny pieces of pottery, and other minute and fragile bits of crafting and tool-making debris. And when there are 7,000 features at a site such as Janey B. Goode, there are a lot of seeds, rinds, fish scales, and material bits that need to be kept—curated—for future study. Paleoethnobotanists, paleoclimatologists, zooarchaeologists, and paleoenvironmental scientists of all types will treasure the Janey “flots” for generations.
However, appropriate physical space for proper curation can be both costly and scarce, so the ISAS Curation Section aims to assure that space in our IDOT Collection facility is used wisely. Eliminating wasted space is one of the best ways to do this, and one of the biggest sources of reclaimable space among ISAS-held archaeological collections is within its flot samples.
Historically, processed flots were stored in large glass jars and plastic pill bottles, which take up significantly more space than the artifacts within them. For this reason, flotations were targeted as a first step in reducing space following the transfer of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) collections into ISAS’ new IDOT Collections Repository late in 2022. Rehousing of the Janey B. Goode site was recently completed. With its whopping 286 boxes of flotation samples, rehousing resulted in a 64% reduction in space (104 boxes) and a 50% reduction in weight (2,069 lbs) simply from the removal of glass jars and pill bottles from each box!
Rehousing frees up room for future collections, leading to savings of thousands of taxpayer dollars each year for the Janey B. Goode collection alone, based on per-shelf-space facility costs. In ISAS’ commitment to a sustainable future, the tens of thousands of empty glass jars and plastic pill bottles resulting from rehousing are being recycled or finding new lives. Approximately 25% of the pill bottles have been sent to non-profits such as The Idea Store, Franklin STEAM Academy in Champaign, and local animal shelters, while about 5% are reused by ISAS’ ethnobotany lab. As archaeology shows us in more than one way, what comes around goes around.