Labwork–A necessary evil?

You never see Indiana Jones doing labwork.  Of course, you never see him taking notes, either, so perhaps one should not take the good Dr. Jones as a guide to good archaeological practice.

In fact, for projects which involve actual excavation of a site (presumably thereby giving rise to a collection of artifacts and other sorts of physical data such as C14 samples and faunal remains), far more time will be spent in the lab than was spent in the field.  Labwork is a necessary and important part of archaeology.  After all the time and energy spent in the field finding, recording and excavating things, it would be a real pity to just let them deteriorate for lack of cleaning and care, or get mixed up and lose their proveniences because they weren’t properly marked.  Then things need to be cataloged, with field IDs checked and expanded on, and the data needs to get into a database so that more detailed analysis can happen without having to root through the entire collection to find things.  No labwork = chaos.

The thing is that many of the activities which have to be done in the lab just aren’t that exciting :-(.  For example, cleaning things is not on most peoples’ Top 10 Things to Do list.  We actually had almost everything cleaned from previous seasons, so there hasn’t been any of that yet.  When it happens, it often involves very slow and fiddly removal of gravel, dirt and roots by the gentlest means possible.  Sometimes artifacts are so delicate that complete cleaning can’t be done at once, or sometimes at all without the help of a conservator (of whom there are only 2 in Alaska, both at museums).

Our first big task was marking & cataloging, which generally happens after the cleaning.  This is really important, and important to get right.

Ideally, all items collected at a site are put into containers (usually Ziploc bags of some sort) or tagged (if they are too big to go in a container) with information as to site of origin, location of find, level and excavation unit they were found in, date found, and who collected them clearly written on the bag or label.  The idea is to assign each item (or group of small items like flakes or fish scales) a unique catalog number.  The information about that item goes into the catalog, and the item is marked with the catalog number.  These days, the catalog is usually a database on a PC, which is a huge improvement on the index cards that were in use when I started, or even the mainframe-based databases which came in shortly after that.

That way, if later an archaeologist decides they need to look at all the harpoon heads, say, from a site (or even many sites), they can be retrieved, and spread out in the lab, grouped and regrouped endlessly, and still not get mixed up or lose associated information.  When the analysis is done, everything can get back where it belongs.  New information from the analysis can be added to the catalog.

People used to just mark on artifacts with ink, often with a layer of clear nail polish or White-Out as a base coat, and a clear nail polish cover coat, but that wasn’t stable or reversible, and the idea today is that nothing should be done to an artifact that can’t be reversed.   We have used Paraloid B-72 dissolved in acetone as base and cover, with the catalog number written in India ink or white ink with a quill pen for years.  However, there are not a lot of people who can write a hand that is both tiny and legible.  The schools stopped teaching penmanship at all and started kids keyboarding very early, so they don’t really get practice.  We went to a system where the catalog numbers are printed on very thin archival paper, which is dunked in the Paraloid and then stuck to the artifact in an unobtrusive (one hopes) spot.

Nora selects artifact to mark, while Flora makes cabinet labels, while Laura & Violet "supervise".

We had some major struggles at first, with the Paraloid bubbling and making everything illegible.  We finally realized that the only thing that had changed was a move from a lab in a 1968 building to the new lab in the BARC, which is supposed to be very energy-efficient.  It is also extraordinarily dry.  One day a woman checking the air flow on the fume hoods measured the relative humidity in the lab, and got 3.8% (not a typo!).  I think the Sahara desert is more humid than that!  We realized the acetone was evaporating so fast it was making the bubbles.  We are now running one house-size and two room-size humidifiers in the lab, and the bubbling problem has gone away.  This method is proving very fast, with the only challenge being to get the right label on the right artifact.

However, it isn’t really that exciting, and can get repetitive, which can lead to people getting tired and therefore careless.  Like most labs, we try to have people work as a group, although each person is working on their own.  It is possible to label and talk at the same time.  We’ve got an iPod speaker for tunes, and so far there seems to be enough overlap in musical taste on crew that no-one has had to resort to ear plugs.  Like pretty much everyone in archaeology, I’ve spent a lot of time marking and cataloging artifacts, and while time doesn’t usually fly, I can tell you it goes a lot faster when you’re having fun.

Once the artifacts are marked, the catalog info is checked and they are put into cabinets, with the storage location entered into the catalog.  In the field, we tend to use quart (“small”) and gallon (“large”) Ziplocs, because they are easy to get, less expensive and too many sizes makes life complex.  Most artifacts don’t really need that much room.  We are moving the artifacts into the smallest possible archival bags they will fit in, and this is saving a huge amount of space.  Particularly nice artifacts, which visitors want to look at, are getting special containers.  They get individual beds of ethafoam, inside clear plastic archival boxes with lids.  Ron Mancil, a crew member who is currently a MA student at UAF, has museum experience and is very handy as well.  He has been applying his skills to making mounts for a bunch of artifacts, so visitors can get a closer look without endangering the artifacts.

Ron hard at work making a mount for a special artifact

It’s true that a lot of what happens in the field isn’t all that exciting either, as you will see in the next post or two.  But there’s always the possibility that something really cool will show up in the next shovel test pit (STP) or the next one, or the next one…

2 thoughts on “Labwork–A necessary evil?

  1. Anne. I don’t really have a post specifically to your blog, but I’ve been trying to contact Ron Mancil to no avail. If you still have contact with him, would you please let him know that Dan from Colorado would like to speak to him. I believe that he already has my email and phone numbers. Thank you.

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