December 16, 2011

Archaeology at an Insane Asylum

Imagine the Archaeology Department’s surprise when they got a call from the WA State Archives requesting help with 12 boxes of artifacts from the Insane Asylum of Washington Territory. 

Turns out that along with the historic hospital records from what has become Western State Hospital in Lakewood, WA, some artifacts were also transferred to the State Archives. The State Archivist realized these collections belonged in an appropriate repository, and contacted the Burke Museum.

But why are there artifacts coming from the Western State Hospital, the State’s psychiatric hospital? Due to the proposed construction of a new wing in the 1980s, archaeologists from the Office of Public Archaeology on the University of Washington campus were called in to investigate the land that is part of the Fort Steilacoom Historic District. 

Archaeologists identified, among other things, remnants of a wooden structure dating to circa 1850-1890 and a privy dating to circa 1850-1920. This site was originally a Steilacoom band winter settlement site. In the 1830s, the site was occupied by Joseph Thomas Heath, who ran a Hudson’s Bay Company farm. It was taken over by the U.S. Army in 1849 when Heath succumbed to measles. The U.S. Army established Fort Steilacoom which housed a military hospital and surgeon’s quarters. The fort was abandoned in the 1868, and was purchased by Washington Territory, in part, to establish a facility for psychiatric patients.

This Fall, a group of UW Museology students from Museum 581: Preservation and Management of Collections, has been working with the Burke Museum's Archaeology department to rehouse and catalog the artifacts found at the site.

The artifacts include glass bottles and fragments, nails, clay pipes, ceramic sherds, metal buttons, bricks and a favorite here in the Archaeology lab, a leather shoe with shoelaces intact. This project provides a learning experience for Museology students in terms of the depth and breadth of archaeological collections, as well as the practical experience of organizing such a varied collection.