Wednesday, June 29, 2016

It's Raining, It's Pouring

Ok, well, technically it's not pouring, but it its raining; and rain means that we can't be out in the field working on the Penhallow site. So what do archaeologists do when they aren't digging? The straight answer is: lots of different things. Just like how the movie business has lots of behind-the-scenes editing time to turn all of the footage into a Hollywood blockbuster, archaeology has a lot of behind-the-scenes lab work, cataloging, and research that has to be done in order to interpret our findings and artifacts into a finished, comprehensive report. This work takes so much time that archaeologists often say that one hour of excavation turns into at least twelve hours of post-digging work. For our Penhallow site, then, that means that the four weeks of field school, at 35 hours per week, turns into (at least) 1,680 hours of lab time!

When we collect our artifacts in the field, we put them into plastic bags that are labelled with the provenience number, which tells us when and where we found the artifact. Since the artifacts go straight into the bags, they are often quite dirty. So, our first step in the lab is to clean them up. We use simple fairly simple tools to do this: a basin of water, a strainer or colander, toothbrushes, and dental picks. After filling the basin with water, we pour the artifacts into the strainer, and lower it into the water to start rinsing off the dirt. Then we use the toothbrushes and dental picks to gently scrub off the remaining dirt and grime.

An Archaeologist's Tools

At some sites, not all artifacts are washed in water. Some artifacts, like those made of metal, are brushed off when they are dry to prevent further degradation. Since Strawbery Banke is historically situated on a tidal inlet and is still very close to the Piscataqua River, the ground water is so high that all of our artifacts have already been exposed to water, so we are able to wash them all in water.

Washing In The Lab

As we clean the artifacts, we begin preliminary sorting. That is, as we place the artifacts into the drying racks, we try to sort like with like. At SBM, our most commonly found artifacts are ceramics/pottery, bone, glass, and metal, so we separate by those general categories. As you can see below, this washer has begun to separate her artifacts into piles of pottery, metal nails, shell, and
bone.

Sorting Artifacts By Type

We then place the drying screens into a rack so that the artifacts can fully dry before we re-bag them. Some artifacts, like ceramics, which are impervious to liquid, dry very quickly, whereas artifacts like bones, which are porous, take much longer to dry. We have to make sure that the artifacts are fully dry before we bag them, so that the moisture does not cause damage or mold.



One of the reasons that we sort the artifacts this way is to prepare ourselves for cataloging. As the artifacts dry, we package the different types into different bags, and then put all of the smaller bags back into the original bag that has the context and provenience information on it. Keeping artifacts with their proper provenience number is very important because it tells us which unit they came from, how deep they were, which other artifacts were nearby, and what type of soil they were in. Without this information, the artifacts become almost useless because they lose their context. 

After all the artifacts from a site are washed, the cataloging begins. Sometimes washing takes a very long time, so cataloging and site interpretation come a long time after the actual excavation itself. For instance, the artifacts from our excavation at Yeaton-Walsh, which occurred in 2015, took a whole year to wash! This is why keeping artifacts properly labeled is so important - we would never remember where all of the artifacts came from after all this time! 

Cataloging involves sorting the pre-sorted artifacts into more specific categories and trying to match broken pieces and fragments back together. This means sorting things like ceramics into different types, like creamware, pearlware, whiteware, stoneware, porcelain, or many others. Doing this helps us to determine how many separate objects these fragments represent.

Sorting Metal Artifacts

It also means taking a lot of notes to keep track of all of the artifacts, their context numbers, and what types of categories they fall into. All of this information eventually helps us to interpret the site by showing us how many different types of artifacts there are, indicating what objects they represent (i.e. does a ceramic sherd come from a bowl or a plate?), where they were in relation to other artifacts, and when they were deposited into the archaeological record. 

Taking Cataloging Notes About Glass Artifacts 
All of this behind-the-scenes work takes a lot of time and patience, but without it the artifacts we extract from the ground would be meaningless and insignificant for furthering our understanding of history and answering our research questions.

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