Burke Museum Home

Archaeology Collections

The Burke Museum began acquiring collections in the late 1800s. In the early days, little thought was given to provenience (where artifacts originally came from), but that has changed with time. As archaeology has become more scientific; collecting the provenience information for artifacts has become a priority. Some of the first artifacts donated to the Burke Museum were simply identified as coming from “Washington State”, but more recent artifacts can be more precisely pinpointed, sometimes to within a centimeter of their original location. 

The Burke Archaeology collections comprise a variety of materials including stone, bone, wood, ivory, and ceramic material. They come from locations as close as the city of Seattle, and as far away as Egypt and Papua New Guinea. The two points pictured here were found on the University of Washington campus in 1908 by Mattie Lavaque during construction for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition

Stone points found on UW campus.

Not all of the archaeology collections at the Burke Museum are owned by the State of Washington. The Archaeology Department also curates collections for government agencies (local, state and federal) and Native American Tribes. Since the collections are owned by another party, but managed by the Burke Museum, we call them held-in-trust collections. Though some collections have access restrictions, most are managed to allow full research access to interested parties. Please visit the Held-in-Trust collections to learn more about our partners and projects.

Researching the Collections

The collections are available for research. More information about how to access the collections and other research resources can be found on our Research page.

Accessing the Collections

Interested researchers should contact Laura Phillips, Archaeology Collections Manager, to learn about the collections that are available for research. Interested parties should also ask for information regarding the research process and to schedule an appointment to discuss their individual research plan. Once a plan has been developed all interested researchers must complete a Research Request form detailing their project and agree to all listed conditions of access.  A one-page description of the proposed research must also be submitted along with the Research Request form.  More information can be found on our Research page.

Curation and Cataloging - Preserving the past for the future

All of our one million artifacts and thousands of related documents, photographs, and maps require cataloging and curation. Curation means providing long term care and housing for artifacts and archives using high-quality, chemically-safe materials developed for museums to last as long as possible. Curation also includes describing and measuring objects in detail, cataloging in a computerized database, and monitoring the artifacts and storage environment over time.

With over a million artifacts, it will take a long time to catalog everything. Since we began entering objects into our electronic database in 1990, we have cataloged 30,600 objects. We prioritize our cataloging effort based on several criteria, including overall condition and the likelihood that a given collection will be researched or exhibited.

This ongoing preservation of the past for the future is accomplished through the dedicated work of staff, students, and volunteers, combined with the financial support of The Archaeology Endowment fund at the Burke Museum.

You can help!

From this...

To this!

About the Collections

The Burke’s Archaeology collections are comprised of artifacts from many places around the world. The collections can be subdivided into two categories:

  • Artifacts found by amateur archaeologists/general public – Since the Burke was established in the 1890s, people have donated their personal collections to us. These types of artifacts can inform us, in general, about how people may have lived in the past, and are often placed on exhibit because of their stylistic characteristics. However, they rarely provide specific contextualized data to help us interpret the past in a meaningful way. These objects are not the focus of professional research, but many of them are cataloged and accessible by appointment.
  • Artifacts excavated by professional archaeologists – Professional archaeologists excavate using a systematic method that allows for future work and the refinement of data. Most of these systematically-excavated objects are from Washington State. Some are owned by the Burke Museum, while others are held-in-trust. A list of these cultural materials can be found on the Collections locator, listed by official Smithsonian site number. Please be aware that this list has been developed primarily for cultural resource specialists.  Please contact Laura Phillips if you would like to learn more about these collections.

Comparative Faunal Collections

The Archaeology Department is in the process of creating a comparative faunal collection, with a focus on domesticated animals and small mammals to help supplement the extensive skeletal collections already available at the Burke Museum. Go to the Comparative Faunal Collections page to view these collections and find contact information for other collections at the Burke.