What’s in the lab?… An Insider’s Perspective Part 2

In my last post I highlighted some of the basic but interesting things about the CAP laboratories. Primarily, this series is to demystify the lab so that new and emerging archaeologists will feel comfortable moving between “the field” and “the lab”. If you’re still hooked, this post is about some of the equipment that we house in the Lab. The CAP lab is a bit old school so our archaeology supplies are the “simple but effective” type. Nonetheless, you may learn something if you have yet to visit the lab or merely relate to it if you have recently found that an archaeology lab is your newly acquired second home.

File Cabinet Full of Bags for Artifacts, Photo by B Zaid

So, what’s the most important part of archaeology lab work you ask? Classification. You guessed it. Generally we use many many bags to accomplish this and if you have ever set the budget for one, you understand. Clear re-sealable bags are probably a secret currency for archaeologists because if we need one, we will do most anything, or convert almost anything, into a classifying device. The classification processes are determined by a complex interplay between field work and research goals prior to lab work. We make artifact divisions similar to Russian nesting dolls, every division based on the ones before and the ones that come next. This allows us to see the artifacts through sets of meaningful relationships which, if successful, can make analysis potentially very smooth.

Strainers and Buckets for Cleaning Artifacts, Photo by B Zaid

Baskets, bins, or strainers occupy another large section of laboratory life. The bin is that liminal space between bag and storage shelf. The bin, mesh crate thingy, and or open table space is the place where artifacts are washed, separated, and catalogued as a significant part of the site. Some artifacts, such as: metal, wood, and paper products, are catalogued without the ceremonial washing. But, ceramics, glass, and pretty much anything else that wont disintegrate in water are gently methodically washed to reveal the true color of their paste, surface, maker’s mark, or any other information we can find. The bins and mesh racks allow them to dry so that we can identify them according to their provenience, or location within the ground. This step, is crucial because this is one of the initial phases of artifact interpretation. Luckily, there are many many books, websites, articles, and the like that can help with this, just ask the nearest archaeologist!

Lastly, storage is a major element of the lab. Archaeologists must be able to store artifacts in a neat and orderly way to be able to effectively access the necessary artifacts. The CAP artifacts have about six full cabinets, mainly to hold of the bricks we’ve been talking about, but they allow us to return to the artifacts by either field season or site. This is very helpful as we continue to construct the the CAP artifact typology.

So to my archaeology colleagues who can’t leave the field, the lab setting is full of the same stuff as the field is: bags, bins, and storage units. Throw in a coffee maker and a chalkboard and you should feel right at home. Some labs are far more complicated and some are even more modest. However, trust that you can have a smooth transition into the lab setting. Plus, don’t you ever wonder what happened to that foundation stone, penny, or set of bones you found in the field? Well, maybe its waiting for you in the lab!

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