Thursday, April 14, 2011

Processing Artifacts

 by Roberta Estes

Most people think of an archaeological dig as the actual digging.  That’s the Indiana-Jones-esque exciting part.  After that, most people don’t think much about what happens – but in reality, that is only the beginning of the process.
I’d like to take you along with me on a typical day of processing artifacts – and of course along the way, you’ll be able to see some of what was found during this dig.
At the dig site, when something is found either directly by digging or in the sifting process, it is put in a specimen bag and labeled as to the trench number, the level and sometimes other pertinent information. 
At the end of the day, those bags, and you hope there ARE bags, are taken back to the headquarters, wherever that may be, do be processed.  In our case, you saw in earlier blogs that we had rented a house and the processing takes place there.  Fortunately, they have a nice deck out back, so we can use the deck in the washing and drying phase of artifact processing.

Generally, the bags are full of artifacts and a lot of dirt.  They often just look like mud pies.  Back at the house, we remove the artifacts and try to determine whether they are metal, shell, bone or pottery.  Different artifacts are processed differently.

Old shell sometimes disintegrates in water, so the shell has to be evaluated as to it’s condition before processing.
Bone can be fairly stable, or very crumbly. It too had to be evaluated.  Generally, when we can, we wash bone very gently and use a toothbrush to clean any crevices.  Pottery and glass are very washable.  Iron can’t be immersed in water, so it is dry brushed.  Below, Alex, one of our lovely students (in the orange shirt) is dry brushing an iron lock and I’m cleaning a piece of a hand blown wine bottle.

Another piece of the wine bottle is shown below.  Notice the very uneven rim.  Can’t you just see this touching Blackbeard’s lips?
When we dump the contents of the bag out, it is generally a muddy mess.  This pile is actually relatively clean.  In some cases, you can barely tell there is anything except dirt, mud and sand.

After the artifacts are cleaned with water and a soft brush, we place them in drying trays on newspaper along with their artifact bag to dry outside in the sun on the porch. 

  After they dry, they are brought back in to the processing table where they are identified, dated, if possible, logged as to how many, the size of the artifact, where it was found and sometimes they are drawn or photographed, or both.

In the photo above, Dr. Mark Horton is seated in the center identifying the objects.  Two students are working with him.  The student to the left is logging the items into a log book.  This log book plus measurements, photographs and other data will be combined into a report that fully documents the dig, called a field report.  Of course, after the team returns to Bristol, they will be studying the data to more fully understand this homestead we have found.

Editor's note: click on the images twice to open them up to their full size. 

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