Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The joys of archaeological lab work

I swear my archaeology professors were deliberately keeping secrets from us, because all I can think is "Oh, lab work, how you make me want to go back out into the field to wage war on the bugs and heat and sun while trying to dig holes or waltz around the prairie."   

The problem…well not “problem” per se, more like something else they don’t warn you about, is that when you’re in school studying archaeology, they go on and on about field work.  Lab work is mentioned indirectly (at least in my experience) when they talk about artifact analysis and article/report writing.  However!  They fail to mention just to what all that "artifact analysis" refers.

First, let me say that labs can be depressing.  Like, I don’t have windows, I don’t get to see the sun, kind of depressing.  There are no clocks outside of the one on my phone, so I can’t even tell how long I’ve been caged.  Kind of like casinos except without the flashing lights, slot machine noises, the losing of money, and the drinking of age appropriate drinks…maybe we should get a beer fridge…

At least in the lab I’m currently working in we get posters!!

Also, there is only one door.  We’re screwed if we ever need to evacuate the building and our door is blocked.  Crap.  Why did I just look at it from that perspective…

Anywho, aside from the windowless and escape-proof room there is the actual lab work.  You see, when you dig all those fun artifacts out of the ground, you shove them into bags,  without cleaning them off first. (Sidenote:  licking the artifacts to determine what they are doesn’t count as cleaning)  So, dirty (read:  dusty, muddy, moldy…or some combination therein) artifacts are shoved into plastic baggies.  Bio-hazard archaeology, anyone? 

Now, you can’t accurately analyze or identify dirty artifacts, so you have to clean them.  This is a super high-tech process involving high-tech equipment.  It involves taking a toothbrush and a bowl of water and brushing the dirt off.  Incredibly high-tech and fun when you realize you’re brushing a cow tooth with a human toothbrush.  This process can also be very time consuming depending on how many artifacts were recovered.  I worked on a Data Recovery project (which is a full-blown excavation where you get as much of the site excavated as possible because the WV DOH is going to put a road where your site is located), that produced over 8,000 artifacts.   One little house, so much stuff. 

After the cleaning comes the sorting and cataloging.  I honestly love sorting and cataloging.  You get to see all of the artifacts from the excavation, and this lets you get a better idea of what was happening at the site.  Also, thanks to the modern world of technology, all you have to do is create an Excel spreadsheet.  You record all of the provenience data (which was written on the bag in the field), and then you record how many pieces of the type of thing you have.  If you are any sort of OCD with organization, this job is totally for you!  You also weigh the artifacts and include all that information.  Then you re-bag the artifacts in their newly formed groupings and put all of those little bags into a bigger bag, keeping all the artifacts together that were found together.  So, bags within bags within bags. 

After you’ve gone and sorted them all, there is some analysis of the groupings and some writing.  Throughout this process you may realize stuff in the catalogue was messed up, so you fix it, and eventually you start saying “gah!  Whatever.”     

They spelled archaeology wrong.
Then there is the part that is new for me and is the primary reason for this post:  curation.  It sounds so awesomely amazing and like something people do in museums!  For those who want to get a full-time job as an archaeologist this is something that, I have found, is super great on a resume.  I thought it would be interesting.  It was supposed to be interesting.  Turns out, I was wrong. 

There I was, sitting in my windowless room, with naught but a door and some posters to disrupt the monotony, when I started wondering once again (thank you, archaeology) “What am I doing with my life?!”  With CRM, depending on the state to which the artifacts will be sent for storage, you have specific protocols to follow with curation.  There are rules (not guidelines, as they are not suggestions) to follow regarding how you bag, group, and label the artifacts.  They even include a list of artifacts they do not accept for storage.  Thank you archaeology for all those times you told me that “all artifacts are important!”  New Jersey couldn’t care any less about architectural items such as mortar, brick, or plaster, nor do they want any artifact that is corroding.  So, no nails, bolts, screws, or other ferrous artifacts.  Well, dammit.  So, tell me again why I even bothered to keep them so nicely bagged?  I kid, sort of.  They are important for the site analysis part and total artifact counts, but at this point no one will have them for future research, which is anathema to archaeological ethics.  My head hurts.

I'm sorry old oxidizing nails, but nobody wants you.
So, aside from them rejecting some of the fruits of hard labor, the rest of the curation process is just…odd.  I have no other word.  It is odd.  You have to first create tags for them, which is made mucho easier with computers.  Instead of handwriting hundreds of them, I type them.  Less finger cramps, more carpal tunnel. 

There comes a point when one is typing this up when one's fingers cease to remember how to move.

Then you cut all those little tags out.  This should be the simple part, but those tags get sized slightly differently because of the provenience data on each of them, so rather than chance slicing one in half using one of those nifty paper guillotines, I resorted to cutting out one sheet at a time with the much-less-exciting scissors. 


Once you have all the tags cut out, you take out all of the bags within bags within bags and once again identify what artifacts are what.  I really feel like this could be a much less redundant task, but oh well.  Also, you have to label each of the bags with the newly created curation number and put the tag in with the artifacts.  And all the while, you'll wonder why you can’t have just one small window to gaze out of...or why you can't be out in the field creating curation work for someone.

There's a lot of work with sharpies in archaeology.

Keep on tagging, keep on tagging....

After all the tags are placed in the bags, there is the task of writing the curation number onto some of the artifacts.  There are some weird guidelines with this, and it has to do with only labeling those artifacts that are of a certain size, and only so long as you don’t cover any of the special features of the artifact.  I haven’t gotten to that part yet, so I’m sure it is going to be exciting.  Exciting as in, “oh my gosh, this piece of ceramic is so freaking small and I don’t think I can write numbers that small, and, oh god I just wrote the completely wrong number.”  That is what I expect to happen.  It’ll be good times.

Let me tell you, I cannot wait until these artifacts go to New Jersey!  Then it is back to that Data Recovery project and 8,000+ artifacts to curate. I wonder if all my archaeology professors would sit there in their offices and rub their hands together, whilst giggling in a maniacal way, knowing that they weren't telling us the whole truth about doing archaeology?  

Those artifacts were so much more fun when I didn't have to continuously bag and re-bag them.

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