Artifacts: Unearthed to Museums

Popular culture has portrayed archaeologists in many different ways: grave robbers, adventuring heart throbs, or tweed-clad bookworms. The truth is, archaeologists come from all walks of life, encompass a wide array of personalities, and many areas of expertise.  What pop culture fails to show is the laborious process required to get artifacts from a site to its final place of curation. For every hour an archaeologist is in the field, there may be three to five hours in the lab; this does not include time spent writing papers, presenting information, or teaching.

This post will give an overview of how artifacts are recovered from the field, sorted, documented, cleaned and processed, then curated.  It should be noted that every lab you encounter will maintain its own set of policies and procedures that must be followed.  Artifact analysis is the key to archaeological interpretation and how we understand the past.  Every note, photo, sketch, profile, and assemblage becomes the data set for future archaeologists, however, individual artifacts are the primary source of data that will be read and analyzed, so they must be handled with care.

Excavating Skeletal Remains, Czech Republic, 2012
Kelli excavating a skeleton. Czech Republic, 2012

Archaeological Site

It takes an extraordinary team effort to transform an overgrown field into a fully excavated site.  The figures below (Fig. 1-3) represent different phases of an archaeological dig.  In Figure 1, we see an overgrown field that may contain a story beneath the weeds and brush piles.  A team may walk the area looking for surface artifacts, dig shovel test pits, or even use geomagnetic imaging or ground penetrating radar to determine if the area may be significant.  Money, personnel, and time are always factors in these decisions.  Figure 2 represents a grid that is well into the excavation process. Finally, Figure 3 shows a completed excavation that is awaiting its photograph.

Figure 1: Bernhardstahl, Austria, 2012
Figure 1: Bernhardstal, Austria, 2012
Figure 2: Pohansko, Czech Republic, 2012
Figure 2: Pohansko, Czech Republic, 2012
Figure 3: Seloutky, Czech Republic, 2017
Figure 3: Seloutky, Czech Republic, 2017

What are grids and units?

Below is a representation of a 5 x 5 meter grid square (Grid #1), established at our dig site.  Everything in archaeology is labeled!  Each unit (1 x 1 meter) in our 5 x 5 meter grid has a unique label for the purpose of documenting finds.  We always start from the southwest corner when labeling our units, as you can see in Figure 4, working northward and then eastward.  To maintain order, each unit is excavated independently.

For the purposes of this post, Grid #1 will have the nickname “Boba Fett” and you will be assigned unit North 1, East 2.

Figure 4: Boba Fett (Grid #1)
Figure 4: Boba Fett (Grid #1)

I’m in my unit, now what?

Once the digging begins and artifacts (hopefully) are unearthed, it is vital to keep track of the provenance (where it comes from) and any other unique features found within the unit. This means, the archaeologist must record the location, depth, soil type/color, artifacts found, and any other anomalies on the Level Record Form.  Once the first artifact is discovered, a Lot number will be assigned to the unit.  Every subsequent artifact found in that particular unit will be assigned to that Lot.  Once assigned a Lot number, it is important to make sure the item is immediately bagged and tagged.  Bag tags (Figure 5) are labeled with the Lot number, site name, grid name, the unit’s identification, level, excavator’s initials, date, and the depth.  (A note on the unit portion of the tag:  since the unit is within a larger grid, we identify its location using the North and East numbers.)

Figure 5: Completed Bag Tag
Figure 5: Completed Bag Tag

Data Forms

Data forms will become part of the permanent record for the archaeological site.  Each form requires certain information to be completed, leaving room for notes, sketches, measurements, etc.  Follow the rule of “too much information is better than too little.”

  • Level Record Form: Standard form used to record information while excavating.
  • Bag Catalog Form: Each Lot bag should contain a Bag Tag. This tag contains the pertinent information maintaining provenance of the artifacts.
  • Graphical Record Form: The graphical record form is used to sketch either plan (overhead) or profile (stratigraphic) views of a unit or grid.
  • Feature Record Form:  Sometimes archaeologists encounter items/objects that cannot be bagged or removed.  These are generally known as features.  An example would be a hearth or foundation.
  • Sign In / Out Log: The form used to keep track of Lots while they are being cleaned in the lab.
Figure 6: Student Recording Data, 2014
Figure 6: Student Recording Data, 2014

Laboratory Procedures

Lab Rules

  • No food or drinks near the artifacts.
  • No smoking.
  • No horseplay.
  • Do not mix Lots.
  • Keep area as clean as possible.
  • You may listen to music as long as it does not disturb others.
  • Pay attention to what you are doing.
  • Help others when needed.

Laboratory Equipment

Laboratories in the field are quite different from what a student will encounter at a college or university.  The cleaning and curation equipment tends to be from a dollar store rather than a specialized dealer.  At our site, artifact cleaning is done in the dining area. Maintaining a clean work area is important, not only for the sake of cleanliness but to help keep track of each item in the Lot.  Below is a basic list of what items are necessary to clean and curate artifacts in a field environment.

  • Log in / out record sheet
  • Plastic wash basins / dish pans
  • Plastic mesh strainers
  • Soft bristle toothbrushes / nail brush
  • Orange sticks / cuticle sticks
  • Dental picks
  • Paper towels
  • Drying racks
  • Clean artifact bags in various sizes
  • Sharpies
  • Storage boxes / bins
  • Disinfectant for work surfaces
Figure 7: Students Cleaning Artifacts, 2015
Figure 7: Student Cleaning Artifacts, 2015

Cleaning Artifacts

Set up your cleaning area with a dishpan of clean water, two brushes (one for dry brushing and one for washing), a strainer, paper towels, drying basket, and any additional tools necessary (dental pick, orange stick, etc.)  Water must be changed regularly; dirty water cannot clean!

  1. Retrieve a Lot bag from the lab manager.
  2. Sign out the Lot using the Sign in / out Log.  This step is imperative!  All Lots must be accounted for at all times.
  3. Remove the Bag Tag (keep it in the plastic sleeve) and put it in the drying basket.
  4. Remove artifacts from the Lot bag, inspect each piece, and group them into categories/types to assure proper cleaning procedures.
  5. Handle one piece at a time!  Speed is always a plus but not to the detriment of the artifacts.
  6. Clean, clean, clean!
  7. Place the clean pieces in the drying basket.  It is okay to blot excess water before placing in the basket.  Make sure there is a bit of space between pieces to allow for air circulation.  Artifacts can, and will, mold!
  8. Once all artifacts in the Lot are cleaned, double check that the Bag Tag is in the basket.  If using multiple baskets, make additional tags to identify the Lots.
  9. Stow the baskets in the designated drying area, taking note of the basket number(s) and drying rack number.
  10. Sign in on the Sign in / out Log, adding a note indicating where the Lot is drying.
  11. If no more Lots are available, clean equipment, and disinfect your cleaning area.
  12. All students are required to sweep and clean the lab after each session.
  13. Do not leave until dismissed by the lab manager.

Ready for Adventure?

Archaeology can take you on exciting adventures in your own backyard or across the globe.  Hopefully, I have helped you understand how each step of the excavation, recording, and cleaning processes are extremely important for understanding the past.  In future posts, I will discuss procedures for cleaning different materials, obtaining samples for testing, and how artifacts are curated for the world to see.

Now, get out there and contact your local or state archaeologist and volunteer to dig!

See you in the field,

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