Guess That Artifact! The 2021 CAP Team Takes a Mystery Quiz
Welcome back to our CAP blog! As many of our readers know, CAP has many posts dedicated to the identification of artifacts and their relationship to MSU’s campus. While we love sharing the interesting things we find on campus, this got us thinking a little bit more about the process of identifying artifacts here in the CAP lab. Because how exactly do archaeologists classify artifacts and date sites?
Well, we would be the first to admit that identifying artifacts can be an inexact science; usually, it involves research and a little guesswork, and sometimes we not be able to name the artifact at all. CAP deals primarily with “historic period” artifacts–specifically, materials related to the land MSU has occupied since the university was founded.* However, not all of our CAP fellows specialize in mid-Michigan artifacts or archaeology of the last 500 or so years. Does that limit our work here in CAP? Of course not! Instead, it provides an opportunity for us to learn from each other and better understand each individual’s process to the identification of different artifacts.
Although we realize that we aren’t fountains of knowledge on historical artifacts (all of the time), this got us thinking – how much do we really know off the top of our heads? To demystify the process of artifact identification, we decided to do something fun. We made a quiz using ten artifacts from previous CAP excavations, with four questions related to each:
Question 1: What am I?
Question 2: What’s my time period?
Question 3: What material am I made of?
Question 4: How confident are you in your answers (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being most confident)
We sent the survey to all six of the 2020-2021 CAP Fellows (including ourselves), one alumna, and two CAP Fellow parents. Each participant told us their name, years of experience, methodological training, and background. The rules stated there could be no Googling–just guesses.
First, let’s take a look at the specialities among our CAP fellows, alumni, and parental figures:
Of the nine responses, the majority of participants had more than five years of archaeological experience, but only one individual had more than five years of experience with CAP. As neither parent was an archaeologist, they answered 1-2 for both of the first two answers.
Our participants were trained in bioarchaeology, human osteology, historic archaeology, Pleistocene and Holocene archaeology (~14,000-300 years ago), Linguistics, and Architecture. After each question, we asked the participants to tell us how confident they were on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most confident. Overall we received various answers for each artifact, and a range of confidence intervals between participants.
While we had a lot of fun with all ten artifacts, we decided to highlight three for our blog today:
Artifact 1: Out of the Bathroom and Into A Trash Pit
The Final Word: At the category level, everyone got this right! This piece is indeed a container. Many of our participants correctly guessed the materials as milk glass (an opaque-white glass) and metal. Milk glass came into production in the United States in the 1850s, which provides us a maximum age for the object. The bottom of the jar contained the patent design (Des.) number (No.) 120,421. The patent was not shown to test-takers, but typically provide one of our best means of dating an object. However, as many patents remain in use over time, the patent does not always provide an exact date for an item. In this case, the patent was given to Charles A. Howell in 1930 for the design of a glass jar and lid. We think a time-period estimate of the 1950s seems more likely for this object, based on the emergence of Fresh cream deodorants in the advertising archives, and the change to a metal lid.
Artifact 2: Salad Dressing or Nail Polish, A Bi-Partisan Issue
The Final Word: The bottle bears resemblance to modern plastic nail polish remover bottles. While we weren’t able to identify an exact replica, a simple Google search for, “1950s Nail Polish Remover” reveals Cutex bottles with a similar shape and closure. We can estimate the age of the bottle using the plastic. Plastic was first developed in 1907, but ribbed plastic bottle tops don’t appear in advertising until the 1940s and 50s. Emily took a risk and uncorked the bottle, becoming the first person to wiff the contents in over 50 years. And? It smelled like dish soap. Without a patent or lettered stamping, we rarely know what an item actually contained.
Artifact 3: Sometimes We Don’t Know
The Final Word: This one stumped us all. To identify it, we can start with the material. The object is metal and the green hue suggests a copper alloy, probably brass. Next, we might browse some old sales catalogs to search for possible object IDs (remember SEARS?). Objects of similar shape, size, and material included: bullet casings, lighters, whistles– basically all of the items represented by participant guesses. Another intriguing option was ‘suggested’ to us while browsing Etsy sales of vintage deodorant (see Artifact 1): Lipstick. On closer inspection, the artifact consists of two interlocking metal pieces, the external piece appears to be a cap or casing, and the internal piece a cylindrical holder. Further comparative work could reveal the answer. For now, we’ve estimated the age using site context. This mystery item derives from the 2020 Service Road Excavation, a collection with abundant artifacts dating between the 1940s and 1950s. Therefore, while we don’t know the make-date, we’ve placed the discard of this object 70-80 years ago.
The Takeaway: Research is an essential component of archaeological work! While almost all of our participants correctly guessed the material objects were made of, their IDs were sometimes incorrect. Certainly, handling the object, looking at patents, and looking through the archives make archaeology what it is–a material science!
*Michigan State University occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary Lands of the Anishinaabeg–Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. The University resides on Land ceded in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.
- Source for milk-glass production dates: https://glassbottlemarks.com/summary-what-is-milk-glass/
- 1907 source: https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics/history#:~:text=Polyvinyl%20chloride%20(PVC)%20was%20first,synthetic%2C%20mass%2Dproduced%20plastic.