Written by Sarah Woodling, Lost Towns Project intern
In most cases of archaeological work, the field gets the spotlight. After all, that is where the cool stuff is found. But what happens after that? Where does the cool stuff go? Off to the lab, of course! Lab work is a part of the process as much as fieldwork, though it hardly gets the attention it deserves. Without it, there would be cases upon cases upon cases of dirty pieces of rock that someone, somewhere found in a hole that one time, and none of it would be of use to anyone.
The laboratory work at London Town is a step-by-step process of washing, identifying, labeling and cataloging, and each step is equally important. When artifacts come in from the field, they are in labeled plastic bags. The labels contain information such as: the site number (for London Town: 18AN48, and Pig Point: 18AN50), the lot number, the unit or feature number, the stratum, the coordinates, and, in most cases, the date it came out of the ground. Each bag is checked in and set on the ‘to be washed’ shelf. And here we have the first step in lab work: washing. Using strainers and tubs in deep sinks, artifacts are carefully wet-brushed, which means they are scrubbed with a toothbrush or something similar to get the excess dirt off. Ensuring this first step is done well makes life far easier down the line. So now, we are left with clean artifacts but before anything else can be done with them, they have to sit out overnight and dry completely.
Step two is where the now clean and dry artifacts are sorted and re-bagged. Archaeologists take a look at each item that was collected from the field and decide if, first of all, it is actually an artifact. Sometimes ordinary pebbles and other non-cultural rocks end up in the trays to be sorted and they are thrown out. If the item is an actual artifact, we then sort it by type. Bones, shell, and other organic materials must be sorted from the quartz, quartzite, quartz conglomerate and other rocks, and in turn, each of those must be separated, until you have many different piles of similar artifacts. That includes, but is not limited to: fire cracked rock (FCR), chert, earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, flakes, shatters, rhyolite, brick, nails, and many other different things that we find at our dig sites. When each pile is placed into a new bag, every individual bag is given its own bag tag, and the provenience is written on the outside of the bag in permanent marker.
Labeling the artifacts themselves comes next. This third step is probably the most time-consuming, but it is very useful. Using a non-harmful adhesive, a tiny strip of paper with the site and lot number on it is glued to each artifact. This allows the artifacts to be removed from their bags and looked at, and helps immensely when it comes to putting them all away. It also serves as a safety measure, just in case the bag and bag tag are both lost or mixed up. This is important because an artifact, no matter how fascinating it may be, is only as important as the context in which it was found. Without that, artifacts are just nice to look at and don’t provide clues to what was happening in that time period. After the glue is applied, the artifacts must again sit out for several hours or overnight to allow time to dry.
The fourth and final step is cataloging. In order to make sure that all of the work that went into to washing, rebagging, and labeling the artifacts does not go to waste, the bags are cataloged. The boxes eventually go into storage and if they are not cataloged correctly, trying to retrieve them can be virtually impossible. This also provides a way to easily look at the broader spectrum of what was found in larger areas, as opposed to confined to what was found in one lot number. This gives more context and allows for hypotheses to be made about the area and the people who lived there.
Perhaps we should not give lab work the short end of the attention stick - that’s where half the important stuff happens!