History in a Room

An investigative look into the Anthropology Department’s artifact collection

Staff Writer Maria Christine C. Castro
Photographer Karlee Oyama

Dr. Peter Mills

UH Hilo’s Anthropology Department has been collecting and maintaining Hawaiian artifacts for over half a century. Today, the Anthropology Department’s artifact collection is housed in a storage room on the second floor of Kanakaʻole Hall. Managed by Professor Peter Mills, the artifact collection contains critical archaeological objects waiting to be identified, inventoried, and in some cases, repatriated to the descendants of their original owners.

The collection was first started by Anthropology Professor Bill Bonk, who developed excavations sessions, or field schools, with a handful of his students as part of his curriculum. He aimed to give his pupils the hands-on experience it takes to become an anthropologist. Bonk collected a hefty amount of artifacts with his students during their field schools and stored them at the university. By the 1970s and 1980s, his field schools had gained in popularity, and numerous people decided to donate artifacts that had been kept in their families. After Bonk left the university, his field schools continued.

The current professor in charge of the Anthropology Department’s artifact collection continues the tradition. Along with teaching courses in anthropology, Professor Peter Mills conducts an inventory to identify and maintain the artifacts that have made their way to the collection. He has also continued to run field schools for students.

Like the previous professor in charge of the artifact collection, Barbara Lass, Mills discourages students from taking anything from the field. Mills and his students conduct surface surveys and take data rather than samples from local areas. “Many young students have the misconception that excavations requires you to collect artifacts… but there needs to be a plan for collecting,” says Mills.

With all of the current artifacts dominating the space, new additions would not be able to have a spot in the collection. In the past, sites such as old government roads have been used as grounds for excavations. Mills has run six field schools since the early 2000s and firmly believes in leaving “most artifacts in Hawaii [alone to] stay where they are.”

What currently consumes a large amount of space in the collections room are recent additions that Mills calls “orphaned” collections. These additions include items from late archaeologist Bill Barrera’s storage locker on the mainland that were identified as Hawaiian artifacts. The artifacts were first housed at the Pohakuloa Training Area before they were relocated to UH Hilo’s Anthropology Department in 2016. But after nearly two years of inventory, Mills and four undergraduate students have only identified one-third of the collection’s items. Several boxed artifacts that are yet to be determined are scattered around the room located near the lab across Mills’ office.

While some artifacts are stored away, particular objects that have been identified as cultural artifacts are set aside to be given back to the Hawaiian community under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA is a U.S. federal law enacted in 1990 that requires any institution or agency that receives federal funding to return items that have been identified to be cultural artifacts to its lineal descendants. The act primarily focuses on Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to help preserve their culture. Taking inventory allows the university to identify these particular artifacts so that they may be returned to their rightful owners.

UH Hilo’s artifact collection currently has 19,000 artifacts housed by the anthropology department. The room contains several shelves and drawers filled to the brim with collected objects. In all of his time as an anthropology professor, Mills has only filled a small blue cabinet of files due to the lack of space. Many of the artifacts that dominate the area are believed to be items buried during funerals, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, all of which were found on the Big Island. For years, Professor Mills has reached out to the Hawaiian community and has been working with Hawaiian cultural organizations such as the Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei to get these culturally sensitive items back to their rightful homes.

While Professor Mills is working to maintain the collection, the UH Hilo’s Anthropology Department is currently trying to find an individual to dedicate their time to the collection. Mills is hoping to hand over the collection to someone who would help find the artifacts in the collections their homes, whether it be to a cultural group, family, or even a museum. The search for this individual is currently ongoing, and Mills has high hopes that by the next Fall semester the position will be filled. Until that time comes, he will continue to create an inventory of the collection along with his four students.