Emphasizing Laboratory Work in Archaeology: A New Outreach Activity

Emphasizing Laboratory Work in Archaeology: A New Outreach Activity

MSU’s Campus Archaeology Program is well known in our community for our public outreach events and our archaeological excavations. These activities allow our archaeologists to be visible members of our MSU community and gets us out of our laboratories so we can teach and dig! However, most of the work we do at CAP occurs behind the scenes, after excavations end and between outreach events we clean and catalog artifacts, we analyze these collections and research sites, the artifacts and historic landscapes we excavated, and we write about those projects. We want to share that side of our work with the community just as we do the excavations and the researched artifacts and have been working to develop outreach activities to bring the lab to the public.

Our idea was to produce a game which let people reconstruct ceramic vessels out of broken sherds, letting us talk about how most of the artifacts we find during excavations are fragmentary, not the whole vessels they see in the display boxes. We also thought it would help us demonstrate how archaeologists turn these fragments into whole objects, how difficult it can be, and how it helps archaeologists learn. We wanted to have a version of this game ready for Michigan Archaeology Day.    

Early 20th Century Mercer Pottery Co. “Bordeaux” Pattern https://campusarch.msu.edu/?p=5002

One common bit of lab work archaeologists do is reconstruct the ceramic pottery we find during our excavations. Only rarely do we find intact vessels or tableware, most often the objects we find are highly fragmented. Having only fragments makes it difficult to identify what the ceramic would have been used for (usually determined by its form and material) and when it would have been used (can determined by decoration). A great blog post by former CAP fellow Jeff Painter demonstrates the connections between refitting and identification for historic ceramics.

Archaeologists use artifacts to ask questions about the people who would have used them, to ask the most interesting questions we need try to get the most detailed information as possible. To transform the fragments into complete or nearly complete ceramics archaeologists work to refit, or reconnect, the pieces. It can be similar to working on a puzzle, except our puzzles are three-dimensional, most of the pieces are missing, and you have to use lots of glue – better not make a mistake or leave gaps!

Our Goals

Archaeologies actually get really excited when fragments of the same vessel fit together, or cross-mend, because we know we can use this information to better understand the site and the people who lived, visited, or worked there. We wanted our puzzle game to convey this experience, both the joy that comes from completing a refit and the new insights that come from seeing an intact vessel compared to a pile of fragments.

Our Design

To achieve our goals, we decided we would break actual, though non-archaeologically sourced, ceramics and use magnets to allow users to refit them without glue. We believed having actual ceramics which would hopefully hold their shape would best show the vessel’s form. To assist in this, we planned to prompt prospective puzzlers to guess if it was a plate, bowl, cup, chamber pot, etc. before they completed the refit and then ask the same question afterwards.

Our Build

We had to start out build by first breaking our newly purchased ceramics. Wearing safety googles and gloves, we dropped these into the sinks in our lab. Surprisingly, each one broke on the first drop, though the finer ceramics (porcelains) were so highly fragmented that they could not be used. Our suggestion is using other ceramics or possibly dropping them from a lower height, we will try this next time.

Next, we sanded the edges down so the edges would be smooth and safe, ceramics can cut like glass!

After that we drilled holes into the now smoothed edges, dropped in a small amount of super glue, inserted 0.1 inch diameter disk magnets, and added a coating of glue to the outside to help secure the magnets. It was important to ensure the magnets on the edges we wanted to refit were polar opposites, otherwise they pieces would repel and never cross-mend. Once or twice the small margents flipped on us and we had to extract and re-set them. We also experimented with putting magnets on one edge and ferrous metal fragments on its opposite, which saved time and drill bits, but was less secure then having magnets on both sides.

Playing the game

The game worked! The people who came to our table during Michigan Archaeology Day seemed to really enjoy the puzzle, though some were frustrated trying to figure out how it fit together, a feeling all archaeologists can empathize with. We hope they gained a better sense of what archaeologists do in the lab and all the work which occurs after excavations. Though we did not do an official survey, participants seemed to make more informed guesses as to the vessel’s form. When it was a pile of fragments many said they had no idea, but after working on it they often stated that our shallow bowl reconstruction looked like a bowl or it looked like a plate.


This design is a working prototype and throughout the construction process we learned that there is plenty of room for improvement.

  • The first area is that we need to locate softer paste ceramics, today’s kitchenware and porcelain are fired at incredibly high temperatures, meaning that their paste is incredibly hard, we quickly exhausted our supply of drill bits.
  • Secondly, and related to the first, we needed more magnets, especially for using curved bodied vessels, to ensure they hold up on their own. Because the ceramics we used were so hard, we put fewer magnets than we probably should have.
  • Thirdly, we need to make sure to drill the magnets deeper into the fabric of the pottery. If they extend to far out the pieces being to offset and large gaps appear. In addition to the refit appearing less fine, it also artificially increased the difficulty of the puzzle and reduced the structural integrity of the mended fragments.  
  • Lastly, people told us they were disappointed that we didn’t provide the entire ceramic for them to refit. Only having a portion of a vessel is a common frustration for archaeologists, but it was not one we were really expecting the puzzlers to feel and not something that we prioritized in our design. Our decision to use a section of the ceramic was related to the difficulty of drilling into the paste and the related time constraints. We will make sure our next version of this game includes ceramics which are more, if not entirely, complete.  


If you are looking forward to trying our new outreach activity and seeing how we have improved it the Campus Archaeology Program will be at MSU’s Science Fest in April 2020. Hope to see you there!

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