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Operations manager Meghan Burchell in the new Sustainable Archaeology McMaster, housed in the McMaster Innovation Centre in Hamilton. The facility has been developed to store and study hundreds of thousands of ancient artifacts, chronicling 12 thousand years of human history. The problem of how how to track and preserve vast collections has troubled researchers for decades. More than 90 per cent of archeological excavations in Ontario are carried out by private consultants who unearth countless items of historical significance.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Museums and other archeological repositories have a big problem, and it isn't the delicacy of artifacts or the difficulty of bringing distant history to life: It's "losing stuff," and it happens a lot.

Losing track of artifacts and information about them is so routine, "there is an understood attrition rate on information at museums worldwide," according to Aubrey Cannon, a professor of archeology at McMaster University.

If that seems careless, think again. Collections outlast their keepers, and new discoveries push older finds deeper into scattered storage spaces. "It's a very difficult thing to stop," Dr. Cannon says. But he's trying – partnering with a colleague to launch a new facility to sort and store Ontario's historical treasures, and give researchers easy access to them.

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Since late summer Dr. Cannon and Neal Ferris, a fellow archeologist at the University of Western Ontario, have been assembling sister Sustainable Archaeology centres with sophisticated laboratories in Hamilton and London, at a cost of $9.8-million. The two sites can house a combined 80,000 boxes of artifacts, each catalogued in a central database and labelled with radio-frequency tags so they can be searched and tracked digitally. They are open to researchers and first nations whose historical legacy makes up most of what is found.

Browsing the lab tables arrayed with 10,000-year-old arrowheads and fragments of Iroquoian ceramics, or wandering the towering rows of legal-size boxes on mechanically movable racks, one could wonder whether anyone would shed a tear if a few were misplaced. But these pieces aren't unlimited, and it may be decades before experts fully realize what they can teach us.

"The more you lose, the less opportunity there is to see patterns and developments and history. It's not written in the individual pieces, it's written in the constellations of associations among the pieces," Dr. Cannon said.

McMaster's own collection only occupies about 300 boxes of the Hamilton facility's 30,000-box capacity. To fill the rest, the universities will charge a one-time fee to house objects from private cultural resource consultants that now excavate more than 95 per cent of all artifacts in Ontario, where commercial archeology is a $20-million-a-year industry.

The province is littered with archeological sites, including more than 1,200 registered in the Hamilton area alone, and they're multiplying fast. Every new development, be it a condo tower or parking garage, must have its site assessed. If holes dug into the ground yield enough relics, the whole site will be excavated.

What happens next is part of the problem: Under provincial rules, the unearthed artifacts become the responsibility of the firms that dig them up. And with purpose-built archives filling up fast, storage solutions can turn ad hoc. "These artifacts can be scattered anywhere from someone's basement to someone's grandfather's garage to someone's storage [locker]," said Meghan Burchell, operations manager at the Hamilton facility and a PhD student in archeology.

The field's capabilities are constantly evolving. In McMaster's lab, third-year anthropology student Marissa Ledger, 20, handles the bones of a 16th-century Iroquoian dog, while her fellow student snaps microscopic computer images of them. "We're just looking at some of the lesions," she explains. In 2004, a McMaster researcher used modern DNA extraction on that same skeleton to prove the dog had had tuberculosis and, more importantly, that this case of the disease predated European contact.

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So what's next for the dog's suddenly valuable bones? "It's a good question, and I don't know," says Dr. Cannon. "And that's the point of keeping them, because 40 years ago, when it was excavated, nobody knew what was going to be done."

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