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.


Rain, visitors, and features

blog post by  Sara N.

We have now had several rain days this field season resulting in either full or partial days not spent excavating units. While we all like a break from the heat and constant sun, I think we are all ready to get back to work and see what bits of the past we can uncover. Our last full day in the field was on Friday, which was also a Friends & Colleagues Day. The rain on Thursday night meant more bailing for the RCARP crew Friday morning, leaving a few units too muddy to excavate further.

Instead we focused on one of the main goals of the project, to share the prehistory of Middle Tennessee with the public. We had four visitors at the site, including Aaron Deter-Wolf and Sarah Levithol from the TN Division of Archaeology, and MTSU Assistant Professor of Nursing Mariesa Severson and her son, future archaeologist, Will Severson.

Will S., aspiring archaeologist, learning how to trowel.

Will S., aspiring archaeologist, learning how to trowel.


Will S., learning the basics, like screening for artifacts, with field school student, Clacey.

Will S., learning the basics, like screening for artifacts, with field school student, Clacey.

They all received a tour of the area currently being excavated and a brief summary of what we’ve uncovered about the site in the past four weeks. Then they all spent a few hours getting their hands dirty! Helping screen for artifacts, carrying buckets of dirt, and “schnitting” or removing dirt from the excavation units by lightly scraping a shovel across the surface to slowly reveal any differences in the soil (technically called “features”). Friday was their  lucky day as we began to see a few of these features/soil differences. One unit has a noticeable soil change stretching diagonally across half of the 2 x 2 meter square (pictured below). Another unit has a semi-circular feature visible off of the southern wall, marked by a darker soil color and more gravel, and the outer wall of the half circle is lined with large rocks not present anywhere else in the unit.


Safety first!

— post by field school student Jared T.
The Archaeological Field School isn’t only about digging in the dirt and learning about the lives of people long gone. Much of the course is designed to train us to be professional archaeologists –which means we need to know how to act on-site and how to respond to a classmate/future co-worker that might have an emergency.

On Friday we arrived on site a full hour earlier than usual to make up for spending that afternoon on campus. Dr. Peres arranged for us to have instruction in CPR and First Aid, as there is always potential for accidents in the field, as in any work place. It is essential that we are all prepared to act should an accident happen.  We learned the kew CPR rule of 30:2;


Field school students practicing  CPR.

Field school students practicing CPR.


how to help a choking person;

Helping a (pretend) choking person.

Helping a (pretend) choking person.

and how to wrap up a bleeding wound:

Field Assistant Joey wraps a (pretend) gash on Dr. Peres's forearm. The students are amused.

Field Assistant Joey wraps a (pretend) gash on Dr. Peres’s forearm. The students are amused.


However, we can prevent most accidents in the first place if we are prepared and use common sense. Here is a quick checklist of prevention that we follow daily:

  • drink plenty of water to stay hydrated;
  • sun block is a must (Dr. Peres actually requires sunblock use as part of the course);
  • always do a tick check when you get home;
  • handle tools  with care;  shovels should always be placed on the ground parallel to the excavation unit with the blade down.
  • do not run with a trowel in your hands.

Being safety-minded goes a long way in preventing most accidents, but we should still be prepared anyway.  The first aid class prepared us on what to do in many non-life-threatening situations, so now we know how to act if an emergency happens. It also taught us when a situation may be more than we are trained to handle, and when it is best to call in the professionals.