They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Well, that can certainly be said for archaeologists who spend endless days digging at archaeological sites looking for the things that were left behind by people of the past. But there is a lot more to archaeology that just digging. Beyond the field, there are important steps archaeologists must take both before and after digging. In our Archaeology Lab Methods Class, my classmates and I have had the opportunity to learn the necessary steps and events that happen before the dig can begin as well as what happens once the dig has been completed and artifacts have made their way back to the lab for processing and analysis.
Before a dig can begin, we learned that it’s important to create a research design. This includes your project goals, questions the project is meant to answer, background research, data collection, analysis, interpretations, and publication of the project’s findings. Once project goals and background research are completed, archaeologists can begin excavations. According to our textbook Archaeological Lab Methods: An Introduction by Mark Sutton and Brooke Arkush, there are two types of excavations: small-scale and large-scale (Sutton and Arkush 2014:14). Small-scale excavations are usually several shovel test pits (STPs) which are used to determine if an area is a site or not, while large-scale excavations generally occur after testing when an area has been determined as a possible site (Sutton and Arkush 2014:14-15).
While there is some important work accomplished in the field, such as the discovery of artifacts, various features, and building foundations, some of the most crucial work occurs in the lab. For every day of field work, three to seven days are usually spent in the lab washing, cataloging, labeling, rebagging, and analyzing artifacts found during excavations. When processing artifacts, it is very important to include the field context with the artifacts at all times. The field context includes the horizontal and vertical provenience information which helps identify where the artifact came from in relation to the site. In the words of Silas Hurry, Laboratory Director and Curator of Collections at Historic St. Mary’s City, artifacts without their locational information “are what they were when originally discarded, trash,” because the provenience information tells us everything we need to know about the context in which an artifact was found in relation to the site as well as other artifacts found there (Hurry nd:1).
For a class activity, half of the class learned how to both wet brush and dry brush artifacts, while the other half began learning how to catalog artifacts; we then switched the next class period so that we could experience both parts of lab work. Not only were these activities a hands-on way to better understand how time consuming and important processing artifacts can be, we also were able to help our lab at UMW make further progress in cataloging artifacts from Sherwood Forest, the site of the 2015-2017 field school. Just as other labs around the United States, such as Historic St. Mary’s City, the lab at the University of Mary Washington processes artifacts in a similar fashion. Artifacts are cleaned, labeled, and rebagged according to their unit, level, and artifact group. This method of bagging and labeling keeps the artifacts organized so that if they need to be pulled out for examination, analysis, or photography they are easy to locate. The process of cataloging the artifacts helps archaeologists better understand the site since it allows us to create important distribution analyses based on artifact type and other types of studies, such as site function analysis and site dating. For that reason, sometimes the laboratory work done after digs is even more important and insightful than the dig itself. I guess there’s a lot you can learn from another man’s trash!
n.d. After the Dig. Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland. <https://www.hsmcdigshistory.org/pdf/After-The-Dig.pdf>
Sutton, Mark and Brooke Arkush
2014 Archaeological Lab Methods: An Introduction. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, IA.