Examining Material Culture

If you have ever seen the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, then you can understand what I do here. I started working at Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center in August and was tasked by Jennie Davy, the Burger Archives Specialist, with identifying artifacts that had yet to be cataloged (meaning the artifacts were patiently waiting for an identification number and description so they could be accessible to the public). Some of them were newly acquired, but others had been waiting in a backlog of unprocessed artifacts. After cataloging, the artifacts are entered  into the Education Collection, which is now fully accessible on the Special Collections Database. So, what are some of the artifacts that I have been examining?

Everyday has been exciting. I never know what type of treasure I will find. The artifacts I have had the opportunity to look at have ranged from early 17th century relics to memorabilia purchased this year from the William & Mary Bookstore. One of the most significant finds, at least in my eyes, was a white ceramic English tobacco pipe from the 17th century. I recognized the style immediately from my time working with the curatorial staff at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. The 17th century wax seal of William Claiborne, a well-known character here in Virginia, caught my eye. Are you more the fine dining type? Then maybe you would be mesmerized by a mid to late 19th century bone china tea cup and saucer with gilded gold leaf and a beautiful floral design or a late 19th century crystal goblet. I was.

There are some fantastic coins and commemorative medals in the collection as well. There is a Franc from 1811, a number of mid 19th century United States (U.S.) coins, and an Irish Free State coin set. There are three commemorative U.S. half dollars. There is a commemorative medal from the Charles Lindbergh flight to Paris from New York, one from the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the office of president in 1933, and a set of Sir Walter Raleigh medals from the late 19th century just to name a few.

While cataloging artifacts takes up most of my time, on occasion I have helped in other areas. I have lent a hand to Amy Schindler, the Acting Marian and Alan McLeod Director of the Special Collections Research Center and University Archivist, and Jennie Davy when they were installing the Tribe Pride: William & Mary Sports Photography exhibit. I helped Jennie Davy install the enthralling exhibit on the 1862 fire to the Wren building entitled “A Campus Greatly Scarred”: The Wren Building Fire of 1862 as well. Also, I had a chance to take photos of so the On The Road: Words, Pictures, and Artifacts of Pilgrims exhibit so it could be uploaded to SCRC’s flickr page.

I have gained invaluable experience working here whether researching or just picking the brains of the staff. And the whole staff could not be any more welcoming and helpful. Where else would you get the opportunity to research so many wonderful artifacts and work with such great people as a graduate student?*

James Tolj is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2012-2013 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.


*Editor's Note: We don't ask the graduate students to say nice things about the staff in Special Collections when writing blog posts. We swear.