The Anthropology Department of the Dayton Society of Natural History curates a highly diverse collection of objects numbering well over 1,400,000 items. Anthropology is the study of people and as a scientific discipline, it includes the fields of cultural anthropology/ethnology, physical or biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.
Our department’s research focus is primarily archaeological with a focus on the prehistory of southwest Ohio. One way to understand cultures is to study the objects that people make, whether these objects are ancient spear points from Ohio, an ocarina (flute) from South America, or Kente cloth from Ghana.
Our Anthropology Collection consists of ethnographic and archaeological specimens from around the world and throughout recorded and unrecorded history. The majority of the collection is archaeological in nature, consisting of stone tools, pottery, and organic materials collected during the Museum's five decades of archaeological research in the Miami Valley area. Other items in the Anthropology Collection include materials made and used by Native American peoples across what is now the United States, as well as objects utilized by non-Western cultures across the globe.
Highlights of the collection
The Anthropology Collection is the largest of the Dayton Society of Natural History collections, though museum collections can never be more than a tiny sample of what exists (or existed) in the world. Our collection consists primarily of donated objects from local citizens and as such reflects the interests and destinations of the larger Miami Valley community. We curate items that citizens have obtained through travel, military service, missionary work, and business partnerships, as well as items that may have been handed down for generations within a family. We do not have all areas of the world represented equally in our collection and there is great variety in what types of objects we have from one region to the next. Our collection includes clothing, musical instruments, weapons, jewelry, tools, ornaments, and other types of materials. We serve as a permanent repository for the community, reflecting the continually changing interests and ethnicity of our residents.
Our Department history
The Anthropology Department of the Dayton Society of Natural History has a long tradition of archaeological research and has conducted fieldwork every summer since at least 1962. We have conducted excavations at numerous sites, with extended investigations at the Late Woodland Lichliter site in Trotwood, the Late Prehistoric SunWatch/Incinerator site in Dayton, the Middle Woodland Purdom Works in Greene County, and the Late Prehistoric site 33 My 127 in Dayton. We have also conducted many smaller salvage excavations when prehistoric materials have been accidentally unearthed or were discovered immediately prior to a construction project.
Archaeologists specialize in both various types of analyses (for example, stone tools) and/or in regions, cultures, and time periods. Although we do curate limited archaeological collections from around the world, most of our collections and research interests are related to prehistoric Southwestern Ohio. The Late Prehistoric period (A.D. 1000 – 1650) is the time period of greatest research interest to our department and there are few other archaeologists who actively study this period in Ohio.
For most of our history, our summer excavation program was conducted with a handful of trained staff and a large crew composed primarily of non-professional volunteers. Many local residents may fondly recall their teenage summers spent excavating at the Incinerator site, now renamed SunWatch Indian Village/ Archaeological Park, and often inquire if we still conduct this program. Over the years, our summer excavation program has evolved into a nationally competitive internship program for undergraduate and graduate students studying archaeology. We do still welcome volunteers to our excavation, but the composition of our crew is now reversed from what it was when we began. Our excavation crews are now primarily young professional archaeologists supplemented with volunteers.
Our department is most well-known to the public for our lengthy excavations at the Incinerator/SunWatch site, although we have spent many years excavating other prehistoric sites as well. We have occasionally returned to SunWatch to re-excavate certain portions of the site to resolve specific unanswered research questions, most notably in 2005 with a partner crew from The Ohio State University. In general, our excavations at SunWatch have been completed for the foreseeable future. Significant portions of the site have been left unexcavated for future generations who may be able to recover new information with technology that we cannot yet predict or imagine. Our research at SunWatch and at other sites has already been aided substantially with non-destructive and non-invasive geophysical technology, such as electrical resistance and magnetometry.
Our current excavations are a long-term investigation of a site known as “33 My 127.” This site was built by the same culture that occupied SunWatch Indian Village and dates to approximately the same time period (circa 600-800 years old). It is a smaller habitation site and differs in some significant ways from SunWatch. Our investigations at 33 My 127 allow us to contrast our findings there with those of SunWatch.
You may wish to see our Collections FAQ first.
Q. I have a mound/village/site on my property that I’m curious about. Can you tell me how to dig it up myself? Is it illegal or ethically wrong for me to collect or buy/sell artifacts?
A. There are many prehistoric and historic sites that can be found on private property. The archaeological record is finite and non-renewable. Once a site has been disturbed or destroyed, it is gone forever along with all potential knowledge of that portion of the human past. In addition, the removal of individual artifacts from a site may seem harmless, but an artifact without context is meaningless. Once removed, an artifact loses all scientific value and becomes only a trinket.
Curious, well-meaning, but untrained people can easily cause irreparable damage to archaeological sites in Ohio, especially since most sites in the Midwest are shallow. Although there are state and federal laws that pertain to known sites and burials, neither Ohio nor the United States generally have strong laws to protect archaeological and historic sites from looting, vandalism, or careless development. In fact, it is accurate to say that the United States has some of the weakest laws in the world in this respect, even behind those of some poorer, non-industrialized countries.
In general, if an artifact or site is on private property, it is the property of the landowner. There are laws in Ohio that prohibit the looting and vandalism of human burials and extend this protection to prehistoric cemeteries, but sites in general are not well protected except under certain circumstances that usually require the cooperation of the landowner. If you are interested in learning about state laws that protect cultural heritage, the most direct way to find out is to search the Ohio Revised Code online using terms like “archaeological,” “cemetery,” or “history.” There are numerous federal laws that pertain to archaeology and some of the most relevant of these are the National Historical Preservation Act (1966), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979), and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990).
If you would like a simple answer to this legally murky question, consider that even if an action is legal, it is not necessarily ethical or responsible. Most professional archaeologists have no objection to private citizens who may collect stone tools and spear points from the surfaces of plowed fields as a hobby. However, most professionals object to amateur digging, especially when human remains may be present. Most professionals also object to the buying and selling of artifacts. The commercialization of archaeological objects results in the destruction of archaeological sites for profit and the loss of the contextual information that is essential to interpreting a specimen. Would you want to be the person who destroyed a site that sat undisturbed for ten thousand years, forever removing that rare glimpse of the ancient past? Hopefully not!
If you are excited about history or archaeology, there are many ways to productively pursue this interest and contribute to our shared knowledge of the past. For example, you can join a preservation organization locally or nationally (such as the Archaeological Conservancy), volunteer at a museum or university excavation, or consider a career in archaeology or a related field. Did you know that there are more than 10,000 archaeologists in North America? If you would like to discuss volunteering with the DSNH, careers in archaeology, or any other topics described here, please feel free to contact the Curator of Anthropology at 937-275-7431 x115 or email
We are happy to assist you in identifying objects or specimens that you have discovered, but we cannot legally appraise an item. If you are interested in donating an item, such donations are tax-deductible. If an item is likely to be highly valued, an appraisal from a third-party is required by law. If an item is donated, legal ownership of the object must be transferred unconditionally to the Dayton Society of Natural History. We cannot guarantee that it will be retained, exhibited, or used for research. Curators of each collection will determine the appropriate disposition of individual items after a careful review. If an item is added to the permanent collection, it is retained indefinitely. In many cases, individuals may donate a large collection of related items with the expectation that not all pieces may be equally appropriate for permanent curation.
Q. I have a mound/village/site on my property that I’m curious about. Will you come and dig it up?
A. We are happy to discuss possible fieldwork opportunities with you regarding sites that may be on your property. If a site is not endangered, excavation is generally not preferred, but every site requires a careful consideration before we can agree to or recommend a course of action. We are a non-profit organization and proper excavation can be expensive for us to undertake, even on a small site. On an endangered site where time may be running out, it is often necessary to engage in salvage methodology, which can be less complete and inferior to methods we would ideally use. With this in mind, professional archaeologists generally try to conduct salvage methodology on only the most endangered sites rather than sites that can be preserved for the future.
For some of the reasons listed under previous questions in this section, archaeologists do not excavate simply because they can. Archaeology is itself controlled destruction and professionals are well aware that our own actions can be unnecessarily detrimental to future generations. For example, many of our most famous earthworks in Ohio were badly damaged in the 1800s by antiquarians employed by Harvard University to gather artifacts for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Antiquarian excavators freely discarded human remains and conducted their work with very different goals and methods from those in practice today. They generally only retained the most aesthetically pleasing artifacts and discarded the rest, permanently damaging the potential for future research.
Even on sites where professionals may be currently excavating, it is standard practice to leave a significant portion of the site for future generations of archaeologists who may be able to extract new lines of evidence that we cannot yet imagine. For example: Prior to the advent of radiocarbon dating and floral analysis techniques, archaeologists did not collect wood charcoal because they did not anticipate that later generations might be able to extract volumes of information from such humble remains. Wood charcoal is now routinely collected as a basic source of data. Leaving as much information in the ground as possible will always be the best long-term strategy for learning about the past.
Q. I have a mound/village/site on my property that I’m interested in protecting in the short-term or permanently. Can you advise me on what to do?
A. Please feel free to contact the Curator of Anthropology at 937-275-7431 x115 or email
if you would like to discuss a strategy for preserving historic or archaeological sites.
Q. It seems that archaeologists just want to keep all the fun and artifacts for themselves. I think that archaeologists don’t want other people to dig so that they can keep the best sites to themselves.
A. Conducting archaeology is hard work and (like many professions) requires a patience and dedication to go beyond the “fun” of archaeology in order to recover data with a meticulous and comprehensive method. Contrary to the Hollywood stereotype, professional archaeologists spend most of their time looking for trash, not treasure. Excavating and analyzing ancient trash is the most direct way to understand what normal people were doing in the past. Although everyone enjoys the thrill of discovering something unusual, artifacts that we might describe as “treasure” are less likely to tell us much about daily life. Professional archaeologists are very mindful that the past does not belong to us and that we are charged to act in the public interest. Although the Dayton Society of Natural History is a privately-funded non-profit organization, a large portion of archaeological fieldwork in the United States is paid for with public money and the results of our work belong to the collective public. For this and other reasons, archaeologists do not personally keep artifacts and other objects. These artifacts become the property of universities, museums, and government agencies where they will be properly analyzed, reported upon, and cared for. When artifacts are not held by public institutions, these requirements are unlikely to be met and more often than not, such artifacts will inevitably end up on an auction block. Professional archaeologists curate collections on behalf of the public, including the public of future generations. Archaeologists are likewise charged to share the process and results of our research as much as possible with the public. Archaeologists don’t want to exclude the public at all from our work or from our shared past, but we do work hard to ensure that the curious energy of the public is directed into productive, meaningful efforts that don’t cause unnecessary damage to an irreplaceable past. We would be delighted to share our research with you and we encourage you to contact us. If you are interested in volunteering with us in the field or laboratory, please feel free to call the Curator of Anthropology at 937-275-7431 x115 or email
Q. I know of a site that is about to be destroyed for development. Can you stop the bulldozers?
A. Under most circumstances, archaeologists do not have any legal authority to halt or alter private development. If public land or money is used or government permitting is required for a construction project (such as a highway), federal and state laws often require a process to determine how cultural resources will be affected by the project and what steps will be taken. For more information, contact the Ohio Historic Preservation Office at http://www.ohiohistory.org/ohio-historic-preservation-office/.
Unfortunately, there are few laws that regulate archaeological and historic resources when development occurs entirely on private land with private funding and without government permitting. The result is that many sites are lost every year and we are dependent on the goodwill of the landowner if any mitigation is to take place. Fortunately, many landowners recognize the importance of mitigation on behalf of the public and may be willing to allow salvage work to be undertaken. If our resources and schedule permit and the landowner is interested in collaborating, we would be happy to discuss salvage work at our expense at endangered sites. Please feel free to contact the Curator of Anthropology at 937-275-7431 x115 or email
Q. I have a site on my property, but I don’t want to share that information with archaeologists or the state government, because:
- I’ve heard that they can come on your land and take things without your permission
- I don’t want archaeologists on my property or damaging my crops or lawn
- It will prevent me from using, developing, or selling my land
- I’m afraid it will attract looters and vandals who would damage the site
- That information would available to anyone who wanted to know
- That information can be used against me in some way
A. Reporting archaeological and historic sites is important for their protection. The Ohio Historic Preservation Office is the government entity charged with recording this information. The information is used primarily for planning purposes and to meet the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966). If you have a site on your property, we encourage you to register it. As a public service, we are happy to file the form for you if you desire. We will not share or distribute any confidential information about your property nor are we an extension of the OHPO.
The following information is taken from the website of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office:
“Site location information is only shared with federal, state, and local agencies and other responsible people who need to know or who are working with the Ohio Historic Preservation Office to identify, evaluate, and protect important archaeological sites. This includes government agencies, archaeologists, planners, and developers… Recording archaeological sites with the Ohio Historic Preservation Office does not affect property owners’ rights to develop their property or to continue current land use practices, such as agriculture. Nor does it mean that archaeologists from the Ohio Historic Preservation Office or another agency are going to confiscate artifacts in collections from such sites or attempt to take control over the property through eminent domain. If property owners are interested in protecting important archaeological sites on their property from future development and destruction the Ohio Historic Preservation Office will work with them to do so.”
Q. My Boy Scout troop wants to complete the requirements for an Archaeology Merit badge. Can you help us?
A. Archaeology merit badge requirements can only be met in the summer during our excavation season, generally in July. If your Scout troop is interested in Archaeology Merit Badge, call the Curator of Anthropology at 937-275-7431 x115 or email Archaeology@BoonshoftMuseum.org
Q. Can I talk to an archaeologist about dinosaurs?
A. No. Archaeology is a branch of Anthropology (the study of people). Archaeologists study people and cultures, not fossils or dinosaurs. The study of fossils and dinosaurs is called Paleontology which is a branch of Geology. Although we may use similar excavation tools, the two disciplines are in most cases completely separate. One period of time that is of interest to both archaeologists and paleontologists is the Pleistocene, more commonly known by the name “Ice Age.” The Pleistocene ended only about 10,000 years ago and covers the period of time when wooly mammoths, mastodons, sabertooth carnivores, and other now-extinct animals lived in Ohio. These animals are not dinosaurs (which have been extinct for 65 million years.) For more information about paleontology, you can contact our geologist at 937-275-7431 x151 or Geology@BoonshoftMuseum.org
Q. Do all archaeologists dig in Egypt?
A. No. Very few archaeologists specialize in Egyptology (perhaps only 400 in the world) and it is extremely difficult to pursue a career in this specialty. The impressive accomplishments of ancient Egyptians are responsible for inspiring many young people to enter the discipline of archaeology. Most students discover quickly that there are many other interesting cultures to study, some of which are literally in our own backyards.
One of the reasons that Egypt has become synonymous with archaeology is that this culture has been marketed extremely well to tourists for centuries. Ancient Egypt is impressive, but there are many other equally amazing cultures around the world. Consider this:
- For every stone pyramid that Ancient Egyptians built, the Mayan people of North America built ten!
- The Mississippian people of the Midwest and southeastern United States built enormous earthen mounds beginning over one thousand years ago. There are many Mississippian earthworks, the largest of which is at an ancient city near St. Louis called Cahokia. At Cahokia, there is an earthen mound called Monk’s Mound that is bigger than the largest Egyptian pyramid! Monk’s Mound is 800 feet wide, 1000 feet long, and over 100 feet high!
- And here in Ohio, the world-famous Hopewell culture built huge earthworks across southern Ohio nearly 2000 years ago. One of the largest is Fort Ancient State Memorial in Warren County, which encloses over 100 acres!
Q. My child is interested in archaeology. Can she dig with you in the summer?
A. We welcome interested youngsters to our archaeological excavations each summer to work alongside professionals on real archaeological sites. Individuals must be 14 years of age or older in order to participate. Younger children are also welcome, but must be accompanied by a parent. If you would like to inquire about fieldwork opportunities for children or adults, call the Curator of Anthropology at 937-275-7431 x115 or email Archaeology@BoonshoftMuseum.org
Q. Is the Dayton Society of Natural History/Boonshoft Museum of Discovery/SunWatch Indian Village conducting an excavation at Fort Ancient State Memorial?
A. Although the Dayton Society of Natural History actively conducts archaeological fieldwork, we do not and have not conducted excavation at Fort Ancient State Memorial. Many archaeologists have explored the site and current excavation is being performed by Wright State University under the supervision of the Ohio Historical Society. This may be confusing to those familiar with the work of the Dayton Society of Natural History since many people are aware that DSNH specializes in “Fort Ancient” culture. Due to a historical accident, the term “Fort Ancient” is a confusing misnomer. The DSNH specializes in studying the Fort Ancient culture, but that is an unrelated group and a different time period from the majority of what composes Fort Ancient State Memorial. Fort Ancient State Memorial was not built by the people archaeologists have termed the “Fort Ancient culture.”
Q. I have questions about objects from SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park or Fort Ancient Archaeological Park. Who curates the collections from those sites? Who operates the museums at those sites? Who conducts the excavations?
A. Both of these archaeological sites have their own visitor’s centers, which include displays of archaeological objects, and both are operated by the Dayton Society of Natural History. The displays and objects related to SunWatch are managed by the Dayton Society of Natural History. Although DSNH operates the visitor’s center at Fort Ancient Archaeological Park under a partnership agreement with the Ohio Historical Society, the displays and objects associated with that site are managed by OHS. Excavations and experimental reconstruction at SunWatch are conducted by DSNH staff from the Anthropology Department. Excavations at Fort Ancient are conducted by Wright State University under the supervision of the Ohio Historical Society.
Link to staff
Links to selected archaeological sites in the Ohio
SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park
Fort Ancient Archaeological Park
Fort Hill State Memorial
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
The Ancient Ohio Trail
Flint Ridge State Memorial
Links to other organizations
Ohio Archaeological Council
Ohio Historical Society
Ohio Historic Preservation Office
Midwest Archaeological Conference
Society for American Archaeology
Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historic and Archaeological Sites
The Archaeological Conservancy/American Archaeology magazine
The Archaeology Channel
Archaeological Institute of America/Archaeology Magazine
Links to websites about archaeological fieldwork opportunities
Archaeological Opportunities Fieldwork Bulletin (AFOB)
British Archaeological Jobs Resource
Links to websites for kids and educators
Dig, the archaeology magazine for kids
Archaeological Institute of America for educators
Smithsonian resources for educators
Society for American Archaeology for educators
Kids Guide to Archaeology