As our field season heads into its final week, we’ve transitioned into lab work slightly early. This is partly due to us being short one Lab Director this season (we miss you, Jill!). This week, our blog will hopefully help you understand what goes on “behind the scenes” with all the ancient belongings (artifacts and ecofacts) after they have been excavated from the ground at the Alabama Townsite.
We jokingly refer to the lab portion of our field season as “Flabby Lab.” This is because we go from very active days at the site—walking and digging all day long—to mostly stationary work at tables. In reality, the work of a research archaeologist primarily takes place behind desks, microscopes, and computers; the fieldwork portion of the year is relatively short.
Step 1: Check-in
Ancient belongings are bagged in the field according to “lot”: a system of record-keeping and provenience documentation used during excavations. On SCRAP, we do not separate items into various categories (e.g., pottery, lithics) until they arrive in the lab. We only separate items in the field if something particularly delicate or sensitive is uncovered. For example, breakable/sharp obsidian placed in individual plastic containers, or the recovery of human remains. The latter, which we have yet to encounter at Alabama, can often appear in unexpected locales and require special consideration. These considerations would occur in consultation with local cultural/religious representatives and the Institute of Archaeology.
When excavation supervisors arrive at our field lab at the end of the day, they check in their artifact bags in our check-in binder. This allows us to keep tabs on all ancient belongings brought in and their progress through the washing, sorting, cataloguing, analysis, and storage stages. Any ecofacts collected—e.g., carbonized materials—are also checked in.
Step 2: Cleaning
Most artifacts then need to be cleaned to be appropriately sorted and analyzed. Our team members do this with buckets of water and toothbrushes—no different than the standard toothbrushes you use to brush your teeth (purchased for the purpose… we don’t raid each other’s toiletry kits). You must wet your brush and gently remove dirt from ceramic sherds and stone flakes. You must also take care not to destroy any delicate details such as painted designs. Depending on the weather, the artifacts are then placed to dry on screens for a day or two.
Step 3: Sorting
Once dry, the artifacts are sorted according to material type and/or technology. For example, common SCRAP categories for bulk materials (commonly recovered items) include ceramic, chipped-stone lithics, and daub construction material. They are bagged separately, though notes are made of their co-occurrence as a complete assemblage.
Step 4: Basic cataloguing
Once separated, all belongings are counted and weighed. They are placed in heavy-gauge plastic bags with tags inside and out labelled according to lot/context. They are then given individual or bulk catalogue numbers.
Step 5: Preliminary analysis
Following basic cataloguing, or sometimes alongside it, we further document materials via drawing, photography, 3D scan, etc. Further analysis also involves describing shape, colour, method of manufacture, etc. We complete a variety of spreadsheets and forms at this stage, which will provide documentation not only for our own further analysis but that of future archaeologists.
Step 6: Additional analysis or export
Some ancient belongings are subjected to further study in the field, often with digital microscopes. Unfortunately, other items require additional study that is not currently possible in Belize. An example would be charred or carbonized wood and seeds that we use to provide more accurate dating of archaeological contexts. For this, we must send samples to labs in other parts of the world. To do that, we must seek permission from the Government of Belize via the Institute of Archaeology. In the case of carbon, permission is sought to export these materials for destructive analysis; only the analysis results are returned to Belize. For the export of any actual artifacts, we seek permission for export for a limited period, and all items must be returned to Belize within a year. Significant justification must be provided to be granted an export permit.
Step 7: Storage and Outreach
All ancient items are stored in Belize for additional future study and for use in teaching and outreach activities. Anyone can come and request to see these items—they are always here. Currently, SCRAP storage is located in the Stann Creek District, but we are actively seeking to arrange a facility in the local community nearby Alabama (following the security requirements of the Institute of Archaeology).
If you have any questions about this process, please reach out in the comments or by email to email@example.com
Meaghan & Shawn