Although field work is the most visible part of archaeology, most of the work actually goes on inside the archaeology lab. As a general estimation, one day in the field equals roughly 3-7 days in the lab, depending on the amount of artifacts found and the experience of the lab techs. All the artifacts collected in the field must be washed, cataloged, analyzed, and interpreted. Lab work is extremely important, because if the artifacts are excavated just to sit in storage, it is both a waste of time and highly unethical.
Lab work can be broken up into several steps.
Step one is artifact processing and cleaning. In the field, artifacts are placed in bags labeled with the provenience (exact location the artifact was located). The number one commandment is to ensure the artifacts are properly labeled with the provenience (in this screen, it is written on the little white card) to ensure that the data is accurate. The artifacts are then separated by how they can be cleaned. Bone, iron, ceramics with decoration over the glaze, brick and anything to delicate to wash with water will be dry brushed with a toothbrush. Ceramic, plastic, glass and more durable materials will be wet washed with water and a toothbrush. After being cleaned the artifacts are set into a screen to dry for at least 24-48 hours before being rebagged. Cleaning and processing reveals details about the artifacts which dirt obscures.
Step two is cataloguing. Using UMW’s cataloging procedures, the artifacts are listed into a digital database by their type (ceramic, metal, organic material, glass), use (projectile, bowl, vase), material (shell, quartz, cement, iron), appearance (colorless, painted, raise decoration), decoration (cobalt glazed porcelain, tortoiseshell ceramics, etc.) and measurements (weight, thickness, length). The catalogue can get very exact, especially for ceramics. All of the information about the artifact’s provenience is also transferred into the database. Cataloguing allows you to examine the artifacts’ information without having to examine all of the artifacts together. If the database where the cataloguing information goes is public, it also allows other people access to your information. Such open source data websites include www.daacs.org and www.chesapeakearchaeology.org.
Step three is analyze. Once the data has been gathering into once place, you can begin to examine the information you have. Doing this makes patterns clear. You can find areas which higher concentrations of artifacts, predict locations of sites and begin to explain the patterns. Additionally, it allows you to examine both within the site and between other sites.
Step four is interpretation. In this stage, you use the information and patterns noticed in step three and draw formal conclusions. At the end of this stage, the research is published.