What Happens When Your Artifact Arrives to Our Post Office


Frequently I will notice that my husband, Bill Breckinridge, is walking around the house and
farm in a preoccupied haze. And, so I will ask, “Bill, what’s up?”
“I’m thinking,” is usually his response. Yes, he’s thinking. About your artifact!
Sending off your prized artifact through the U.S. mail is both exciting and scary; you want to
know all you can about it, and yet you may feel apprehensive about it flying all over the
country without you. Understandable. This essay was written to inform clients of Breckinridge
Artifact Services, LLC about the procedures and processes typically used to handle their

Once the box is brought home from the post office, where it’s under lock and key until we
pick it up, Bill begins the process of unwrapping. Unwrapping a box of books from Amazon is
one thing, while opening a box of precious, fragile artifacts is another whole concept. First,
the obvious: he takes everything out of the box, including the packing, which he carefully
unwraps to make sure there isn’t something lurking in the paper or plastic folds. There are a
lot of packing materials that work to keep artifacts from bumping around in the box, but
crushed paper (either butcher, packing or newspaper) works better than peanuts or the
larger bubble wrap; always remembering to keep artifacts in the center and not against the
outside walls. Hopefully, the sender has included a list of all the items in the box, along with
their personal contact information and any artifact provenance that exists. There have been
occasions when a box of nice arrowheads arrived with an unknown name and no
accompanying paperwork! We are then forced to either look up the customer on the internet,
or wait for them to call or email, which is not practical. After laying out the artifacts, Bill then
uses a knife or scissors to carefully cut away the wrapping. This step is easiest if the sender
has used regular tape instead of packing tape. Packing tape is thick and wide, and much
more difficult to cut loose, putting more pressure on the artifact. If using bubble wrap it’s best
to wrap with blisters on the inside. Once all items are laid out on the table, the customer is
contacted to let them know that their box of artifacts has arrived.

First, Bill performs a visual inspection of each artifact for a general impression. He searches
for areas where there could be traces of glue, old tags, shellac, wax or any foreign substance
which could affect the rest of his investigations. After that, the artifact goes to the microscope
to help identify the material. If it’s a stone artifact, microfossils, crystalline structure,
inclusions, cleavage planes, and other clues help to confirm the material which is crucial for
accurate laser evaluation. At the same time he’s looking for surface erosion or deposits, and
evidence of modern manufacture, such as crushing or traces of metal.

After this first round of microscopic inspection, Bill usually proceeds to the black light. He
examines the artifact with long and short wave ultraviolet light looking for patina disturbance
which might indicate rechipping or any artificial applications to the surface. The black light is
also used to further confirm the identification of several materials, including Edwards Plateau
flint, Knife River or certain chalcedonies.

At this point, it is time to examine the artifact under the Archaeoscope.  Bill explains: “The
Archaeoscope is a 451 nanometer calibrated diode emitting deep blue light at the bottom of
the visible spectrum. This calibrated illumination diode is paired up with a set of filters and 8X
magnifier, and causes bacterial metabolites from soil contact to fluoresce. This
bioluminescence is a good indication of whether or not the object is truly an ancient artifact. If
the surface is free from artificial contaminants, then the artifact is ready for the infrared
Raman spectrograph optically stimulated luminescence (IR OSL) tests.”

Bill’s explanation of how OSL works is as follows: “OSL is a technique which measures the
accumulation of ions in a material’s matrix. Exposure to radiation from the sun and the earth
causes damage, and some of the resulting ions are trapped in the crystal lattice of the
material. Energy input from the laser expands the electron orbits of the lattice and evicts ions
which had been trapped. The spectrograph reads these escaping ions as flashes of light and
quantifies the accumulation as a degree of fluorescence. So, the older a surface is the more
accumulated Raman spectra fluorescence will be observed. But to calculate accumulated
fluorescence you must first know the fluorescence value of a fresh modern surface made of
that material. One way of doing this is by comparing surface scans of geological samples
with a known age, such as a freshly prepared flake. This works well on many common
materials, but even within a known formation such as Burlington chert there are variations
from one geographical area to another. To account for this variability and to identify unknown
materials, we first begin with subsurface scans which focus the laser probe below the
weathering layer of the rock. This provides a baseline to measure accumulated fluorescence
and confirms the material identification.”

“This is just the first step in OSL evaluation,” Bill continues. “ Many steps follow but the
results quantify the accumulation of ions which increases with age.

If the artifact turns out to be authentic, we start work on the Certificate of Authenticity (COA.)
First, pictures are taken and measurements are made; we check the artifact and
accompanying letter, if there is one, for any mention of provenance and other details that
might enhance the COA. Sometimes Bill calls the owner to verify information or ask questions
about the provenance. Then, he writes up your COA!

Finally, it’s time to wrap the artifacts up and accommodate them carefully in the box provided.
Once again, it’s vitally important to be sure that all sharp edges are buffered and no artifacts
are touching one another OR the outside of the box. If Bill feels that the original box was
packed too tightly or with insufficient care, he sometimes double boxes. If the package was
insured, we always send it back with the same amount of insurance regardless of whether
the artifacts were authentic or not.

Every case that we receive is treated with the utmost care. We know that your artifacts mean
a lot to you, and we feel a tremendous responsibility to return them in the same condition in
which they arrived. It is always a pleasure to have the honor of seeing so many beautiful,
unique artifacts from around the world and we thank you for allowing us to handle and
evaluate them for you.

Return to Index
By Tamara Pittman Breckinridge
Return to Index