Happy New (Fiscal) Year from the NMSC Archeology Lab!

September is upon us.  Kids are back in school, leaves are starting to change, pumpkin spice has returned as the flavor of choice for many coffee drinkers and muffin fans.  For the National Park Service, September also means the close of the fiscal year.  As the year draws to a close, we here in the NMSC archeology lab wrap up the projects we have been working on since last fall and prepare for the start of a new year.

Fall at Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters NHS (photo courtesy of NPS Digital Image Archives)

Fall at Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters NHS (photo courtesy of NPS Digital Image Archives)

We often post about interesting artifacts we come across while processing archeological collections.  This time, we thought we might offer our readers a look into the process of… well, processing.  Field work – digging – is one part of archeology.  The lab work that follows is equally important and transforms bags of ceramics, glass, metal, and bone into a coherent collection that can be accessed and understood by park staff and public researchers.  Have you ever wondered what goes on in an archeology lab?  If so, this post is for you!

Before we begin work on a park’s archeology collection, NMSC staff meets with park staff to discuss the project in detail and survey the materials slated for processing.  We work with park historians, curators, archeologists, and archivists to ensure that we understand the scope of the collection, and also to ensure that we have all components of the collection – including associated documentation like site maps and field notes – before we begin processing.  Field notes and other documentation produced during an excavation are integral parts of an archeological collection, and NPS protocol mandates that they are processed with the related artifacts.

NMSC archeologist conferring with park staff during collection pickup.  (NMSC photo)

NMSC archeologist conferring with park staff prior to processing. (NMSC photo)

Our first step in processing a collection is always a thorough examination of the site maps, field notes, and other documentation associated with the excavation in question.  These materials provide us with the information we need to properly organize the collection. According to NPS standards for processing, archeological collections must be organized, if at all possible, by provenience (location within a site).  Context is key to understanding the artifacts from a site and how they relate to each other and the history of the site.  Once a collection has been properly cataloged, the information it contains can be organized in any way that suits a particular research query.  Organization for the sake of cataloging, however, should be by provenience.  We use associated documentation to create a list of proveniences, then move on to a systematic survey of the artifacts themselves before we begin to organize the collection.

If we do not have field notes, sometimes we can obtain provenience information from original field bags.  Other times, however, the task of discerning provenience can be tricky. The artifacts, for example, may already have been processed by a different lab’s protocol, and it is up to us to decode their numbering or ordering system.  Or, the collection may have been organized by material type for research purposes, and we are tasked with rearranging the artifacts by provenience.

Sorting an archeological collection by provenience is a time-consuming, painstaking, and essential process.  In most collections, there are several test units represented, and several strata or layers represented within each unit.  Every single artifact must be checked and added to the appropriate sorting bin or tray.

Sorting by provenience in progress.  (NMSC photo)

Sorting by provenience in progress. (NMSC photo)

Once a collection has been surveyed and organized and a provenience list has been created, artifacts are washed.  Even collections that were washed following excavation are often in need of additional cleaning, especially if they have been subject to inadequate storage conditions.

Washing archeological artifacts.  (NMSC photo)

Washing archeological artifacts. (NMSC photo)

Once we have an organized, clean collection of artifacts, the cataloging begins.  When we catalog an artifact, we identify its type, function, and decorative techniques.   Archeological artifacts are often only fragments of an object, and have often deteriorated beyond the point of immediate recognition.  The cataloging process allows us to take artifacts whose form or function may not be universally apparent, and assign them identification and historical context.  Cataloging allows these artifacts to have tangible, comprehensible classifications that everyone can understand.

Presentation slide illustrating artifacts placed in context.  (NMSC image)

Presentation slide illustrating artifacts placed in context. (NMSC image)

We create digital catalog records for each artifact, which are added to the park’s collections database once processing has been completed.  Cataloging allows for proper documentation of and accountability for archeological artifacts, and allows park staff and other researchers to search the collections database for different types of artifacts.

Sometimes cataloging is fairly straightforward.  Other times, we come across artifacts that require some extra research!  A type of glaze we’ve never seen before, a vessel shape we’re unfamiliar with, a curious cast iron object that we finally identify in a reference book …these artifacts constitute one of the most rewarding aspects of lab work.  We are constantly seeing new things and learning more about the people represented by these small, often fragmentary – but very important – examples of material culture.  Museum collections abound with historic objects that belonged to historical figures, or that represent the finest examples of material culture.  Archeology, on the other hand, has the potential to show us what everyday life was like.  By studying the common items that people used on a daily basis and then discarded, we can gain invaluable insight into our past.

NMSC archeologists contemplating artifacts during cataloging.  (NMSC photo)

NMSC archeologists contemplating artifacts during cataloging. (NMSC photo)

An essential component of the cataloging process is housing – or storing – the artifacts.  Our goal is to provide the parks we serve with well-organized collections that they can easily access for inventory and research purposes.  We take several steps to ensure that the association between the object and its documentation is well preserved, and that it would be apparent to someone navigating the collection for the first time.  Artifacts are labeled with their catalog numbers, and tags bearing catalog number and provenience information are inserted into each artifact bag.

NMSC archeologist labeling artifacts with catalog numbers.  (NMSC photo)

NMSC archeologist labeling artifacts with catalog numbers. (NMSC photo)

Each catalog record notes a specific location:  a designation for an individual bag within an individual box.  This system makes finding an artifact fairly straightforward and time-efficient.  The storage of artifacts in archival-quality bags, trays, and boxes also ensure the long-term preservation of the collection.

Archeological collection organized into archival-quality bags, trays, and boxes. (NMSC photo)

Archeological collection organized into archival-quality bags, trays, and boxes. (NMSC photo)

After one final spot-check of artifacts, which ensures that we have recorded the correct locations and item counts for each item, a collection is ready to be returned to its park.  It is always a rewarding moment when we are able to provide parks with clean, organized, usable collections.  Archeological artifacts can be powerful teaching tools and can be used to create fascinating and educational exhibits.  They must be properly processed, however, in order for this to happen.  We take pride in the role that we play in this process.  Working with NPS archeology collections is a privilege, and we enjoy our work here even more knowing that we help to bring the past alive for our parks and their visitors.  And so as our fiscal year draws to a close, we are eager to begin anew.  Bring on 2015!

NMSC archeology team.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

NMSC archeology team. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

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About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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