Some Observations on the Smithsonian Institution River Basin Surveys Excavation and Reporting Standards and Conventions
Butler, William B., Plains Anthropologist
The Smithsonian Institution's River Basin Surveys (SIRBS) program was one of the most successful archeological salvage programs ever conducted in the United States. The success of the program was directly related to the field excavation and recording standards established early in the programs development. This paper discusses field and laboratory recording, cataloging, measurement systems, and other standards as a contribution to the history of the River Basin Surveys program, and to aid researchers in analyzing or reanalyzing SIRBS collections.
Keywords: Smithsonian Institution River Basin Surveys, field and recording standards and procedures
The Smithsonian Institution's River Basin Surveys (SIRBS) programs were one of the most successful archeological salvage programs ever conducted in the United States. Of the 92 sites listed in Appendix 1 of Donald Lehmer's classic Introduction to Middle Missouri Archeology (1971), final reports of various length and quality have been produced for about 64 sites. The 92 sites on Lehmer's list only included the sites he determined to be major excavations, i.e. the costs exceeded $2,500 (Thiessen, personal communication 2008). With few exceptions, they rarely included information about the SIRBS standards and conventions used for recording, excavation, or analysis. Lehmer (1971:13-18) provided a general overview of SIRBS practices, and the papers in Banks (1994), Jennings (1985), Wood and Hoffman (1994), and Thiessen (1999) should be consulted for background information on the overall SIRBS program.
This paper presents additional information gleaned from an analysis of the SIRBS excavated Benge Creek site in South Dakota (Butler 2007)1. The Benge Creek site collection and associated documents are referenced here as they are good examples of how the Smithsonian organized, conducted, and reported on field research along the Missouri River, and elsewhere in the nation.
The following observations are presented as a contribution to the history of the Smithsonian Institution's River Basin Surveys Program and to assist others who may wish to analyze or reanalyze the reported and unreported SIRBS collections. Included below are some of Lehmer's (1954, 1971) observations, information from the late J. J. (Jake) Hoffman who worked on many of the Middle Missouri sites for the SIRBS during this time period (see Johnson 2003), and information from working on the Fay Tolton site analysis (Wood 1 976), as well as with the Benge Creek collection. The observations of Hoffman (personal communication 1985) are very important to understanding and analyzing SIRBS collections as many conventions and procedures were never written down, i.e., they were informally developed and were passed on to others in the course of field and lab work. The history of the development of Plains ceramic taxonomies by SIRBS investigators is presented in Butler and Hoffman (1992).
SITE RECORDS AND RECORDING CONVENTIONS
The River Basin Surveys created many standard forms for site recording, including a General Feature form (used for just about everything), Burial, Photographic, Catalog, and Field Record Number sheets, and the ubiquitous Continuation form. These field and laboratory forms were created to insure that (1) certain observations were taken and that (2) recording was done in a consistent and standardized manner. One reviewer suggested that such forms be attached to this article as examples, but most archeologists have already seen modified versions as they were the basis for the state site recording and field forms now in use throughout the nation - another very important contribution by the SIRBS program.
The Smithsonian trinomial number is the key number for managing all records related to a site. As a historical note, it was Paul Cooper who came up with the idea behind the Smithsonian trinomial site numbering system that could be used nationwide when he was the director of the Works Project Administration for archeological work in Nebraska between 1937 and 1942 (Champe 1948; Wood and Hoffman 1992). …