A Modest Proposal: Artifact Identification at MSU

As my first blog post as a CAP researcher, I thought it best to start off on a halting but honest foot (otherwise known as a confession): I can identify a New Kingdom scarab seal; I can read Sumerian; I know about early agricultural practices on the Arabian Peninsula. Shockingly, these aren’t very useful skills as a Michigan State University Campus Archaeologist. Despite several years of working as an archaeologist in the US, I still have a difficult time remembering the dates for SCA glass manufacturing; I don’t understand the excitement over industrial-manufactured bricks (although certain colleagues have – on occasion – incited in me appreciation of modern brick’s appeal); and – also unlike my historical archaeologist colleagues – bits of corroded metal do not immediately remind me of their original form or function. Although I still consider this miraculous on their part, they assure me it’s “elementary”.

So, what better place to start but at the elementary level? This semester I decided to tackle a project that would compel me to understand (and appreciate!) these basics of archaeology most relevant to the material culture of Michigan State University: I would develop an artifact identification field and laboratory book, which would place at every student’s fingertips the tools to become a Great Artifact Analyst.

The usefulness of such a book is almost undisputable. For example, the potential for field misidentification of a lithic as “just a rock” can be high, especially among those of us who are just learning the huge variety of types of material culture that lie below MSU. In the field, this means those stone artifacts are tossed aside and are never studied in the lab, thus biasing our data sample and hindering our interpretations of the richness of MSU’s past.

Cobalt blue bottle
Cobalt blue bottle

Another benefit: the need for an artifact identification book is not new, which means I can pull on a lot of amazing resources and research available on the ‘net and in white and gray literature. The Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information Website – developed by the Society for Historical Archaeology and the Bureau of Land Management – is without a doubt one of the best resources on American glass available online. One part of my goal will be to develop an MSU-specific, notebook-based version of this interactive website: for example, by answering some simple questions about a specific bottle you hold in your hand, the website will lead you through a “create-your-own-adventure” style discovery into manufacturing and dating information related to that specific bottle. MSU’s needs are more specific, and we want a field guide as well as a laboratory guide.

Of equal importance to MSU archaeology are ceramics (e.g., http://t.co/ijIuny97), from manufacture and glazing to function and form. I’m excited to delve more into this aspect of MSU’s history.

Metal artifact
Metal artifact

This project will also incorporate the “Good Parts Versions” – that is, most frequently cited – of the fantastically useful (but exhaustive) Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogs (and similar). The history of metal artifacts – nails, for example – will receive equal standing. (Nails – for those few who don’t know – are fascinating, from their manufacturing to their social history.)

And yes: bricks, brick manufacturing, and 19th and early 20th century building technology will figure prominently. I plan to pick the brains of some of our most knowledgeable campus archaeologists and faculty on these matters.

Am I intimidated? Yes. But everything fun is a little bit scary.

Author: Charlotte Cable

1 thought on “A Modest Proposal: Artifact Identification at MSU”

  • Did you ever compile a field guide for easy identification of bottle manufacture type, and approximate dates? I’d love to add one to our resource library.
    Thank you,
    Tina Reuwsaat, Curator,
    Southern Oregon Historical Society

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