What’s in the CAP lab?…. An Insider’s Perspective Part 3

Posted by Blair Zaid on December 10, 2012 under CAPBlog | Read the First Comment

This is the final installment on my series about how the archaeology lab is an interesting place and lab skills should be a part to the every archaeologists tool kit. This last part will focus on some of the cool artifacts that we currently house in the CAP lab. Again, this may seem simple to some, but this insider’s perspective may help newcomers over the hump of post field work archaeology. The lab is pretty simple. It’s space, basic equipment and fun artifacts can greatly enhance their overall archaeological experience.

So where do artifacts come from? Of course they come from site surveys and excavations, but did you know that sometimes artifacts come right from local backyards? While archaeologists are typically hesitant to keep artifacts without proper provenience, everyday folks often find interesting things in their own backyards and donate them to the nearest archaeologists. This results in a variety of artifacts that can contribute to local history and become part of artifact collections.

While we typically encourage people to leave the objects in the ground so that proper assessment of it’s value can be done prior to bringing it into the lab, occasionally people will bring in all kinds of things they consider valuable for some reason or another. Kind of like antiques roadshow except we don’t pay you! So, how does the lab handle these kinds of situations? We attempt to get any and all possible information from the owner to determine its archaeological value and whether or not we should keep it. Then we label and record it according to this conversation and decide to keep it here or not. This may seem pretty intimidating but this is very rare and all you have to do is direct them to your supervisor, they are more likely than not used to this sort of thing.

However, the majority of artifacts come from archaeological research. What are some cool finds from our research thus far? Building materials. The benefit of archaeology on an expansive site that has been continuously occupied since the end of the industrial revolution is that there is no shortage of building materials. Plus due to MSU’s long history of sustainability, as Amy Michaels reminds us, they constantly recycled buildings and building materials as the campus expanded over the 20th century. So let’s get started!

Bricks collected on MSU’s Campus, photo by B Zaid

If you’ve followed CAP work over the years you know that there is no shortage of bricks in our labs. We have large bricks, small bricks, brick shards, bricks of all sorts of colors, and made in a variety of ways. Bricks are everywhere. CAP has a lot of bricks. MSU’s recycled buildings leaves a layer of brick debry across a large part of campus. Aside from interpretive identification through age and technology, the bricks make up the foundation, excuse the pun, of the CAP artifact collection. So if you are interested in post industrial brick building techniques and tidbits, let us know, because we have a lot of bricks!

Artifacts, cleaned but not bagged, photo by B Zaid

If building materials were constantly recycled, then our next category of artifacts, a personal favorite of mine, is pretty easy to identify: metal! Well, mostly nails but metal nonetheless. We have unidentified metal chunks, metal construction materials, latches, keys, even a bullet casing! The CAP collection has all sorts of metals. The nails are particularly interesting because there is much to learn from nails. First, beyond the size, the type of nail head (square or circular), the shape of the end, and the smoothness of its side can all help determine the date and type of manufacturing through modest observation. Also, archaeologists have come up with theories to determine the size of fences and buildings through an assessment of the sheer quantity of nails. Nails are typically made of iron or steel but can vary along a wide spectrum depending on if they were hand or machine cut! I know I’ve said enough already about nails, but next time you walk into a building, sit on a chair, or even open up your laptop, consider the role nails play in your everyday life.

There are a variety of other artifacts in the CAP lab and you can peruse our blogs for the many different descriptions and interpretations of our finds. This post was simply to end our discussion on the nature of the CAP lab. Labs can be much more complicated and often they are, but this lab is a friendly place made up of simple organizing materials. It is a repository for the artifacts that we come across through a variety of means.

So if you have already spent a few summers in the field but haven’t worked in the lab, give it a whirl! Sign up for lab work this year and explore a whole new element of archaeological research. You never know what you might find!

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