Update from the Lab

This blog post was written by our Summer Intern Nancy Svinicki.

After every field school, the work invariably moves into the laboratory for cleaning, pictures, counting and cataloging.  For this summer’s field school, I did a good portion of all of these things.  As my first experience working with artifacts in the lab, it was a great experience.  I’m going to talk a little bit about the process of cleaning, organizing, and cataloging artifacts in the lab.

Bagged artifacts ready for processing
Bagged artifacts ready for processing

Once all the bags are brought into the lab, I separated them by survey or excavation (what we called test pit, or TP) and then organized them into numerical order, just to make sure none of the bags were missing.  Once all the bags were ready, I set myself up to do lots and lots of scrubbing!  Working systematically through first the survey bags, then the excavation bags, cleaning went quite smoothly. Since most of the bags had been sitting for a while, the dirt had dried out, making the pieces a little bit easier to handle and clean.  Cleaning is pretty much as simple as it sounds – a pan of water, some brushes (I used toothbrushes and a large scrub brush for the bigger bricks), and a few strainers to hold the pieces before I transferred them to drying racks.  After cleaning and drying, the artifacts are re-bagged, the tags replaced, and moved down to the cataloging lab.

In cataloging, we document what kinds of artifacts we find and how many of them there are in a single bag (or layer).  We characterize each type of artifact, count them, and weigh them for each level.  As with the cleaning, I moved systematically from survey to excavation, a precaution I took to ensure no artifacts were missing.  After counting and weighing, bags are entered into a computer database organized by the descriptors mentioned earlier – location, depth, descriptive characteristics, and any other pertinent notes.  This is both a qualitative and quantitative system, which allows researchers to not only look at the density of artifacts in the excavation area, and make some general conclusions about the type of formation being excavated, but also support field hypothesis by giving further information spacial relationships and data such as terminus post quem and ante quem.

There were a few obvious patterns that developed as I started to put information into the database.  The first was the concentration of the artifacts. The highest density was in the middle of the northern test pits, between last year’s pit and pit 7.  The depth that yielded the most artifacts was between levels five and seven, around sixty to ninety centimeters down.   Secondly, I saw some general trends in the artifacts themselves.  The pits with the highest density of artifacts found a high number of scientific glassware – test tubes, colorless bottle glass, and the oil lamp that was found.

Oil lamp after cleaning
Oil lamp after cleaning

The oil lamp was the most exciting, being almost completely intact when pulled out of the ground; when I cleaned it in the lab more of the side-wall was trapped in the dirt inside the lamp. After cleaning pound after pound of window glass and corroded nails, that’s VERY exciting.  Pit 7 (in the center of our excavations), also contained the most unique artifacts, notably a few leather shoe soles and some hair clippings.  The highest numbers of artifacts found were glass, specifically colorless window and bottle glass.  In one level of the central pits, there may be enough pieces of window glass to reconstruct a whole pane! Other common types of colorless bottle glass were from the very base, neck and shoulder.  Far less common were the beautiful pieces of cobalt glass (possibly from a candy dish) and yellow-brown bottle glass stamped with swirl designs.  There were a comparable number of whiteware artifacts, of all forms.  But without a doubt, the most artifacts found within our pits in all areas were pieces of brick –both sampled and unsampled.

What can these conclusion say about our sites? The high density of artifacts, along with the high variety, leads me to support our field hypothesis of a trash dump. I would further say that the trash consisted of building refuse as well as human refuse.  The human refuse was likely from a science lab and from living quarters, which would account for the high density of scientific glassware as well as the assortment of dishes, glassware, and oddities such as the hair and shoe soles.



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