Rainy Day Work: Integrating GIS and the Artifact Catalog

The large amount of rain East Lansing has experienced over the past three weeks has deeply affected the construction and archaeology on campus.  This delay in work has allowed us at the Campus Archaeology Program to turn our attention to the other side of archaeology: finds and analysis.  Back here at our homebase in MSU’s Consortium for Archaeological Research, we’re working on analysis and interpretation of our artifacts and integrating this with our maps.

Artifacts cleaned and ready for cataloging

Artifacts cleaned and ready for cataloging

Artifacts found on this campus vary from types of ceramics and metal fixtures found within homes to industrial pipes and building materials.  After the dig, the collected finds are returned to the lab and processed.  This means that all of the finds are washed and dried.  Following this process, members of our team work to identify the artifacts and input them into a database.  Our team notes the type of artifact and the presence of identifying characteristics such as decorative styles, any wording or maker’s mark (trademark stamps), and/or if the piece is a specific part of a vessel such as rim, handle, or base.  This allows us to look at just what types of things were being used in the early days at Michigan State College.

In the meantime, another type of analysis is occurring upstairs in the archaeology computer lab.  It is here where a slightly more technologically literate group (with skills I personally envy) works on the digital side of Campus Archaeology.  Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) members input the location of our digs on to real satellite images of the area.  This creates a multilayered map with extensive information on the site.  At current, these maps show the location of all our shovel tests (ST) (a surveying technique where a small pit is dug to sample the area).  Each shovel test is associated with the archaeological project site it is within, who dug it, and a positive or negative indication of whether finds were collected.  This process helps us located the areas of early activity on Michigan State’s campus.

So far these two important processes have been separated.  While the rain has kept us off site and stuck indoors, we have been inspired to initiate an integration of the two forms of analysis into one helpful mapping system.  Our goal is to create a more robust and useful purpose for the Campus Archaeology Program’s GIS maps.  The result of this will be the creation of a way to integrate the catalogue of artifacts into the map.

In order to represent the artifacts in the GIS system our team needed to come up with a list of artifact types that not only fully incorporates the variety and cultural relevance, but also is not overwhelming to the system.  This took a rather tedious meeting and lots of debate in order to develop the shortest and most complete list.  We debated whether we should focus on broad types such as pottery or metal, or more specific types like whiteware, stoneware or pearlware. A second debate was whether we should assess them by presence or absence, a technique that works well if something is broken within the pit, or by the frequency of finds, which works well with lots of little artifacts. We also debated how to classify artifacts, like whether we should separate items by function or material used, which becomes problematic with items like buttons that are all different materials but same function. We came up with a semi-finalized list of around 25 artifact types will be inputted in to the GIS system.   From here, each ST will be associated with either a presence/absence or item amount for each of the 25 types.

Once this is done we will be able to use the GIS maps to show where artifacts were collected, and further look at the location and concentrations of artifacts by statistical analyses. This process, which is one of the most intensive off site projects, will with all hopes be fruitful to the knowledge of your Campus Archaeology Team.

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

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!

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!

What’s in a lab?…. An Insider’s Perspective Part 1

For those of us who troweled our way into being an experienced archaeologists or those just curious about what goes on in “the lab” this post will highlight some of the varieties of interesting things you will find at the other end of excavation unit! Some archaeologists proclaim that the laboratory phase is an extension of the field and or that the field is just one big lab. Other’s suggests that the laboratory is an entirely different site which requires a separate set of priorities. Either way, the relationship between “the field” and “the lab” is as complex to the archaeologists as a race car driver is to the inner workings of a car. Both can work well independently but certainly one can’t go far without the other!

So, what’s it like in on the inside of the CAP laboratory? Through a short series of post I will discuss the room, the equipment, and some neat artifacts to explore work in the CAP lab. I will highlight what you could expect to find in a lab and how its facilitates work for CAP as well as other department archaeologists. To begin, the Colloquium for Archaeological Research has a couple of laboratories for the wide range of artifacts from decades of student and faculty research. These collections range from ancient Purepacha pottery fragments to Great Lakes hunter gather materials. They include some from items colonial America and once housed items as far away as early hominid materials Lake Turkana. The variety of archaeologists include: undergraduates, graduates, Ph.D. candidates and occasionally even a faculty member or two… The basement of McDonnel hall is constantly blooming with archaeologists of all levels cleaning, tagging, and interpreting our finds.

Campus Archaeology Lab, photo by B Zaid

The CAP lab is a moderate size room with your typical “science tables.” You remember the ones from middle school science class with the sinks in the middle? Yes, those are an integral part of our lab. The typical slate surface and several compartments can help us maintain a clean an organized workspace. Large cabinets, full of shelves, surround the walls so that we can house several different collections in an organized fashion. The lab is mostly in the state of an archaeologists “organized clutter,” the kind where we know exactly where everything is to the letter, but an outsider dare not get in our way!

Ultimately, the lab is a spacious set of tables, sinks, chairs, and cabinets to hold and organize all of our field finds. We are able to process (clean, label, and store) artifacts until they are ready for interpretation. Ha! Not so scary after all to my friends who stay in the field!

The CAP lab is well lit despite the lack of windows and the marginal basement creepiness. This, or any other lab, is definitely a place where you you should plan to expand you archaeological experiences. Lab folks are friendly and we wont make you clean a thing (maybe). So if the opportunity come your way step into the world of artifacts beyond the field!

In the Lab with a CAP Intern…

Alec in the CAP Lab

Alec in the CAP Lab

This isn’t my first time writing a blog for MSU’s Campus Archaeology program, but I think it is a good idea to give an introduction anyways. My name is Alec Wells, and I am a junior at Michigan State University as well as the intern for the Campus Archaeology Program (CAP). Before I go on, I just want to express how thrilled I am to be writing this blog, and working for this amazing program. I’d be hard press to go to any other school in the country and find an opportunity like this.

It’s been about a month and a half since I officially started my internship and I think there’s plenty for me to share about what I’ve been doing so far. I actually had a pretty surreal experience when Chris first showed me the lab that I would be working in; it brought to mind memories of a childhood home that I lived in, a house that evoked a sense of history and smelled like the past. I’m not really sure why that’s the case, but I’m going to take it as a sign that I’m in the right place.  Chris Stawski, the campus archaeologist, has given me a pretty snazzy setup in the lab with instructions for cataloging the artifacts that were excavated over this past summer during the Campus Archaeology Field School. The cataloging process is straightforward enough, but it does get interesting when I get a bag of 300 glass shards and I have to sort through them systematically to figure out which ones are from window panes and which ones are from bottles. Occasionally I’ll get the random rock that is clearly not an artifact with cultural significance, but was collected because of the uncertainty of a field school student (Half the time that I’ve come across “just rocks”, I soon found out the original person who collected them as artifacts was in fact me!)

It’s really enjoyable to be working with the artifacts that I helped excavate this past summer. Not just because I get to have the occasional jolt of realization that comes whenever I see a familiar artifact, but identifying and re-labeling the artifacts comes with ease because they are so familiar to me. This semester won’t be all about familiarity for me though; I’ll be participating in new CAP digs all across campus, specifically, behind the MSU computer center and near the Life Sciences building. On top of the new digs, I’ll be focusing a lot of my efforts into a personal project that will be presented at the end of the spring semester for the Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Once again, I am very excited to be working with this program and will be doing my best to fulfill the duties as an intern for MSU Campus Archaeology.  Keep checking the website for my blogs, which will keep you informed as to the life of a CAP intern!