Midden Madness and Other Tales from a Summer Spent at Bishop Museum


Guest blog by Marty Kooistra, Archaeology Collections Summer Intern

Reflecting upon my summer as an Anthropology Collections Intern for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, I’m left with countless memories I will cherish for a lifetime. As an intern, I enjoyed a variety of responsibilities, such as: scanning reports, sorting midden, cataloging fishhooks, and re-housing artifacts (coral and urchin abraders). Some assignments were punishing, for example sorting midden. This is a task dubbed “midden madness” for obvious reasons. Imagine a large zip-block bag full of different colored sand. Now imagine sorting these sand grains into piles by color and you will begin to understand the madness. Our midden piles consisted of urchin, shell, fire cracked rock, fish bones, fish scales, coral, and charcoal, but it’s essentially the same concept. After a week, however, you develop a sense of camaraderie among fellow interns and sorting midden becomes entertaining, even therapeutic, as some would later describe it. In fact, I wish I were sorting midden right now!

During my first few weeks as an intern, I was tasked with reassigning fishhooks into the Hawaii Archaeological Survey (HAS) database. Bishop archaeologists, Dr. Emory and Dr. Sinoto, excavated these fishhooks between 1953-1959 at South Point (Ka Lae) located on the Big Island of Hawai’i. My work involved swapping out the old HAS identification numbers and assigning new HAS identification numbers, along with noting the material used to construct each fishhooks by either invertebrate (shell) or vertebrate (bone). Additionally each fishhook was assigned a field catalog numbers during excavation, a second identity of sorts, this number was also recorded. For example the numbers on the fishhook in the second photo are H1-G7-24. H1 is the site designation, G7 the excavation unit, and this particular fishhook was the 24th artifact from that unit. Once you get a rhythm going it’s quite fun.

Occasionally, disintegrating tags or microscopic writing make deciphering these numbers a challenge. The first number, H1, is predictable, since all fishhooks were from South Point, but it’s sometimes hard to read the other two numbers. Fortunately, each fishhook was drawn to scale and cataloged meticulously in one of several reference binders. For example, I came across a fishhook with two numbers: H1-G13-1 and H1-H12-19, so I looked these numbers up in the reference binder. Interestingly, this particular hook was broken at the time of deposition. If you look at the dates, one drawing is from 8/2/1954 and the other is from 3/5/1955. So the pieces were excavated a year apart, from different excavation units, and later pieced together. The ability to review 60-year-old notes, and uncover the journey of each particular fishhook was quite amazing. For a split second, I was a time traveler and instantly reminded why I chose to pursue a career as an archaeologist.

During our last week, Mara invited us to meet the eminent authority on Polynesian fishhooks, Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto. Two fellow interns and I packed into Sinoto’s office, where he regaled us with tales of his journey to Hawaiʻi, subsequent “kidnapping” by Dr. Emory, and early career as an archaeologist. One such tale involved walking along the shores of the Marquesas Islands and discovering a sand dune covered with discarded fishhooks. The excitement in Sinoto’s voice as he pulled out old photos of the site, and relived this day with us is something I will always cherish. After six weeks, saying goodbye to Bishop Museum, the wonderful staff, and my fellow interns was probably the hardest part, but our paths will cross again.

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