Life in the (outside) Archaeology Lab, Part II

As was mentioned in the previous post, we have many samples that are undergoing a process called “flotation.” We have well over 400 bags that range from 20-100+ lbs of feature samples to process this way. The students are working in 4-5 hour shifts five days a week to complete all of these by Friday, August 8th (and will be rewarded with a BBQ picnic lunch prepared by me, Dr. Peres! [and a good grade, too]). We have been fortunate to have an awesome faculty and staff at the MTSU Greenhouses that have given us lots of space, logistical support, and interest to get this job done. It is helpful for them, too — they get all of the organic residual sediments for composting. So thanks to Dr. Nate Phillips, Larry Sizemore, the Greenhouse staff, and of course the graduate students, who have taken an interest and given us a flotation home!

The rest of the blog post is by Clacey Farley and Lee Van Sickle. I challenged them to not only write a post about flotation, but to be creative and “make a video or something.” They did a great job on their first video to show you, our blog readers, what they do every day.



by Clacey Farley and Lee Van Sickle

What is flotation?

Flotation = Reduction, very systematically.
We take large bags of sediment rocks and other items, wash, and reduce them to smaller bags for further analysis. We pre-soak the large bags in water-filled buckets before transferring them onto a large set of screens inside of a 50 gallon flotation tank that resembles a giant pitcher.
Lee and Clacey working at the flotation tank.

Lee and Clacey working at the flotation tank.

Inside the tank is a small sprinkler to generate water for washing off the dirt. The heavy items (fire cracked rocks, flint, etc.) or heavy fraction sink to the bottom of the screens and are removed and placed on trays to dry. What happens to the stuff that floats to the top? Well, the lighter items (plant remains, carbonized pieces, etc.) or light fraction cascades out of the top of the tank and into a bucket with another sieve to catch it. It is then placed on a separate tray for drying, just like the heavy fraction and then they are both dried and bagged again alongside tags indicating which feature the material is from. Then they are taken to the lab where another team processes them further.
As of Thursday, July 31, over 336 bags had been floated. This includes down-time for patching and repairing torn screens, building mud walls to divert the runoff to a specific location, lectures in the archaeology lab, and the unloading of more bags as they are brought in from field storage. We’ve learned the value of multitasking and the importance of double- (and triple-) checking! It is also nice to know that we can trust our teammates to do the same. When we have to look away, we have the security of knowing the project is still in safe hands!​

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.