Life in the Archaeology Lab, Part I

RCARP operations moved to the lab in July after a much-needed week off following the end of fieldwork.

Did you know that fieldwork is just a small fraction of how an archaeologist spends her/his time? A general rule of thumb for how an archaeologist spends their time is:  one 40 hour week in the field (per person) = three 40 hour weeks in the lab (per person). We spent SEVEN 40 hour weeks in the field at Magnolia Valley. This equals twenty-one 40 hour weeks in the lab. But wait, that is per person. Our crew consisted of 17 people on site each day. That means we can look forward to 357 40-hour weeks in the lab (not including the Geophysical survey and data analysis). This time will be spent washing and sorting artifacts, processing 100% samples through a process called flotation, checking all field notes and forms, digitizing field maps, analyzing and cataloguing artifacts, entering data, and eventually writing reports, articles, lectures, posters, blog posts, and public talks.

Today we will get a glimpse on how we start to tackle that long to-do list.

Two weeks ago we began the long process of organizing the hundreds of bags of artifacts and double-checking that all information on the bags and in the FS log are the same. FS stands for Field Specimen number (abbreviated on all paperwork and bags as FS#). This is a unique number given to each different provenience during excavation. For example, a shovel test will get its own FS number so that no two shovel tests have the same FS#. Each 10-cm level of an excavation unit is assigned its own FS#. The artifact bags are arranged in boxes FS# order, from 1 to 345. This corresponds with the FS Log and allows us to quickly locate any given bag of artifacts we are interested in.

The early stages of artifact processing.

The early stages of artifact processing.


As the bags are being checked for accurate information, all artifacts within them are also being washed, dried, sorted by artifact category, and re-bagged. This is the initial step in analysis, which will commence once all of the artifact bags have undergone this process. You can read more about how we go about washing artifacts and also the flotation process in the coming days.


One thought on “Life in the Archaeology Lab, Part I

  1. Excellent post.

    RCARP did dry screening of excavation unit and feature soil in the field. Some large archaeological projects do water screening of such soils in the field by using 0.5-inch, 0.25-inch, and window screen mesh to capture tiny artifacts and other very small items in the soil. The soil is dumped into a chute and washed through three successive box screens using water hoses. The window screen mesh in the bottom box captures particulate matter referred to as “finescreen material.” This finescreen material is bagged in the field and transported to the laboratory for processing.

    Finescreen processing adds another whole dimension to laboratory work in archaeology. The amount of finescreen material per excavation unit and feature is fairly large. Laboratory processing consists of pouring this granular material onto a white-plastic cafeteria tray and picking out materials of interest with tweezers. These materials consist of tiny chert chips, bones of small animals, charred materials, etc.

    Archaeology is often referred to as a discipline that requires patience on the part of its practitioners. Most people believe they know what the word “patience” means—until they sort their first bag of finescreen material in the archaeological laboratory. Then they find out what it really means! You have never really lived—or died—until you have sorted finescreen material with tweezers for 8 straight hours. It is all about care and patience. Death has that black robe with the scythe. Finescreen sorting needs its own somewhat similar but unique costume. People who do finescreen sorting often ask the question: “What good is this mind-numbing laboratory task, and is it really worth all the monotony?” Dr. Peres can answer that question for you from a purely archaeological perspective. I want to answer it from a different angle.

    Nearly every person who gets a graduate degree is immediately faced with the task of getting their first “real job” in the professional world. You know—a full-time job that pays real professional money. The second job I interviewed for right after leaving college was a curriculum development job at Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. What does curriculum development for industrial training at a U.S. Department of Energy facility have to do with archaeology? Not much—one would think. They actually hired me for that good-paying job. About 7 months later, I was chatting casually with my boss and asked him why he had hired me rather than any number of other people who had applied for the job. His answer was:

    “During your interview, you mentioned the subject of finescreen sorting in an archaeological laboratory. It occurred to me that doing that with tweezers all day must have required an enormous amount of patience on your part. Curriculum development takes a lot of attention to fine details and patience. The finescreen sorting is what got you the job.”

    Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that the near-death monotony of finescreen sorting was good for any other purpose than an archaeological one, which just goes to show you how something so tedious can yield something so large as a “first real job.”

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