Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dating Artifacts

One of the fun things about our fancy website is that visitors will be able to browse through records by date. So if I'm in a historian who is all about the Victorian Period, the website can accommodate me. Or if I want to relive the 1960s because my memory is a little fuzzy, the website can help me with that. Groovy. Except that if there is no date listed in the object record, the website can't give accurate results. Major downer.
Dates don't have to be perfectly exact. If you know something was made in the 1950s, you can put in 1950-1960 as a date range. Or if you know something is 19th century, you can enter 1800-1900. What we need to do is start narrowing down these date ranges so that browsing by date will be more and more accurate as we work on the system.

We've been talking a lot in the office about how to date artifacts without being an expert on a specific type of collection or time period - basically we've been talking about how to cheat. So here it is, your cheat sheet to artifact dating.

Nova Scotia Historical Vital Statistics
1. If you know who is in a photograph, or who made an object, visit Look up the person and if you're lucky, you'll find a birth, marriage or death record that will help you narrow things down. Other genealogical websites can help with out-of-province individuals.

2. Fashions change every season (or so they say), so for textile collections and all those photos of people, check out what they're wearing. Here's a great blog post to give you some tips.

3. Talk to your local experts:
a) Donors - even if they can't say exactly when something was made or when a photo was taken, they can tell you what they remember about the object, ex. "it came from my great-grandparents' house; we got it after they passed away". Once you tie the artifact to a person, refer to step 1. Maybe they remember buying the object, or getting it for Christmas one year. Their memories will help you start the process of narrowing down a date range.

b) Antiques Dealers - I know I know. We don't always see eye to eye with them, but the fact remains that they have a lot of knowledge on a variety of subjects. So would it really be so bad to ask if they'd be interested in stopping by to help you date some artifacts? Be perfectly clear that nothing is for sale. If they agree, ask what their speciality is and pull out a few things for them to look at.

c) Local Historians - every town has them; the 5th generation cabinetmaker, the guy who used to work at the foundry/mine/factory/fish plant/whatever place before it closed, local collectors...there are local experts who would love to talk with museums about their artifacts.

4) Stating the Obvious - coins are dated, most books have a publishing date, ceramics and silverware have makers marks/stamps, a lot of manufactured goods have patent dates (or numbers that can be looked up to get a date)...various objects in the collection will have a date right on them. Plug this into the begin & end date field and you're done.

"this binder", says Chris
5) Collections Management Resource Binder - remember this? It was compiled by Paul Collins and given out at workshops or during site visits for the past few years. It's big, it's black, and it has tons of information in it on proper museum procedures, including a bunch of resources on specific types of artifacts: books, ceramics, documents, prints, paintings, costumes, glass, and a visual dictionary of random stuff. The section on costumes is especially helpful.

6) Google It!!  This should probably fall under stating the obvious, but I think it deserves its own section. The internet can be very helpful in identifying and dating artifacts. Academics, collectors, and enthusiasts have created reference sites for all kinds of objects. I like to use this as a jumping off point. Maybe the site seems a little funny, but there's a reason they say this [insert random object here] dates to the mid 20th century. Subsequent searches and enquiries using the suggested date may get you better results from more reputable sources.

Over the coming months we'll be sharing dating & reference resources via our facebook page. We'd also love to hear from you. If you have a favourite reference website, please share it as a comment below so everyone can check it out.


J Goreham-Penney said...

Great post, Karin!

I really think that googling stuff comes down to a difference between generations- some of my colleagues who are older than me think to ask somebody before they think to google, I do those things the other way around (google first, if that doesn't give me any useful results, then I start asking around).

I'm very fortunate that a lot of the material I handle frequently is marked with identifying information like Nato Stock Numbers and dates, makes it very easy to research items (though sometimes, I have every other field in my cataloguing worksheet except artefact name- lots of stuff that isn't immediately apparent to me what it is, does, or is used for, even if I know where it was made, when, by who, and if it was used by the RCN or RCAF!). Our volunteers are also very knowledgeable and can help me identify and date most items that I can't otherwise figure out. Many of them served in the RCN in a very particular time in Naval aviation history, and can tell me if something is from their time in the service, from before, or if it was introduced after their time.

Elizabeth Jablonski said...

Another option for dating artifacts is to talk with an art conservator. Art conservators are well-versed in the history of material culture and are trained to identify and document materials and their condition. They can also tell if an object has been altered by previous restoration. To find out more about art conservators and locate one near you, see the websites of the following organizations: 1) Canadian Association for Professional Conservators:; 2) Canadian Conservation Institute:; and 3) The American Institute for Conservation:

Karin said...

Thanks for the great feedback J! It sounds like you've got a great support network of very knowledgeable volunteers. You're going to make people jealous!

Karin said...

Thanks Elizabeth. I can't believe that I forgot to mention conservators! And we have a great local group of private conservators: