Archaeology is like a puzzle- only you don’t know what picture you’ll end up with and some of the pieces are either broken, burnt or missing. As you may have read previously, on our last day of summer excavation, Campus Archaeology discovered a potential trash pit with hundreds of historic artifacts in it (Read that post here). It was located between the Administration building and the Red Cedar River. It is an area that could tell us quite a bit about historic MSU, and definitely a location we will investigate further in the future. After the field season ended, the artifacts were taken back to the lab for cleaning.
So what happens then? How do we begin to understand what all these artifacts mean? Do they belong to a trash pit or was it accidental loss of materials? Was it the refuse from a single building or activity, or from many buildings and activities? What exact time period was the material deposited in? Who did it potentially belong to?
Before we start trying to figure out the picture that this puzzle makes, we first need to examine all the pieces.
The first step is to divide the artifacts into broad categories like glass, ceramic, and metal. By sorting them into these categories we start to see patterns or unique artifacts. After that, we divide them further. For glass, we look at whether it is window glass or bottle glass. The easiest way to do this is to place the glass flat on the table- if it is completely flat, it is likely window glass, whereas if it has any curve it is more likely to be bottle glass. For ceramics, we sort out by the ceramic type such as whiteware, stoneware or porcelain. For metal, we sort them into functional categories, like door related hinges and keys or building related nails and screws.
Once we’ve got the broad categories complete, we can begin to see patterns among them. We start finding pieces of ceramic that match and belong to the same pot. We separate specific decoration types to see if they preferred patterns or plain ceramics. We divide the bottle glass into milk bottles, decorative cut glass bowls, or lab equipment like test tubes and thermometers. This is the part of the process that is the most frustrating but also in many ways is the most exciting. At this stage, you begin to understand what the assemblage means, who might have created it, and where it belongs. Sometimes you get lucky and a couple pieces fit together to make a more complete bottle or pot. Other times it is exhausting as you find that nothing fits or you can’t identify what an artifact is.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be working with this collection to understand it better. Right now, we’re still sorting, trying to make connections, and comparing what we’ve found here against other material found on campus.