Conserving Pittsburgh's Hidden Treasures

Author: Rebecca Fitzharris

Walking down any street in Pittsburgh you can see trash cans scattered along the sidewalks. People discard materials into these cans every day without a second thought. However, would these materials, regarded as ‘trash’ to us, be perceived in the same way a hundred or so years from now? During my internship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), I was given the task of rehousing the organic archaeological material from the excavations for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG) headquarters in 1982. 

This excavation, which was conducted by the late Dr. Verna Cowin, entailed the discovery of thousands of artifacts that were discarded into wells and privies during the 19th century. From broken leather shoes to scraps of food (animal bones, peach pits, fruit skins), many artifacts that I handled, if not all, would have been regarded as mere trash back in 19th century Pittsburgh. 

Throughout my internship, which was overseen by Amy L. Covell-Murthy, Archaeology Collection Manager of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I made archival storage supports for these artifacts, which were comprised of mostly metal, wood, paper, and leather. I also formulated a plan for the organization of the material into a compactor storage unit and facilitate its entry into the CMNH's database. This internship allowed me to understand the importance of conserving artifacts, and how to maintain each artifact according to its individuality. 

At first glance, these objects may not register to people as typical artifacts that one sees in museums like ancient sculptures or mummified human remains, but nonetheless, they tell equally rich stories. If you were to look more closely at such materials, we are able to see how Pittsburghers in the past lived, and even what they wore, ate and drank.  

When I was conducting this work, I kept being reminded of something my one professor said once: "We [archaeologists] are the garbagemen of the past." Though he said this to be funny, I believe this to truly be the case for archaeologists. So, next time you go to throw away a crumbled-up piece of paper, a half-finished soda can, or a broken pencil, remember you might be leaving behind something that will one day be a glimpse into the past. 

Rebecca Fitzharris, Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Fall 2021 

Constellations Group