Thursday, March 25, 2010

Springtime in the Lab

Now that spring is here, it's lab time for the Fairbanks Archaeology Project. Thanks to the kind assistance of Boston City Archaeologist Ellen Berkland and her team of volunteers, the artifacts from this summer's excavations have been washed. Now the next steps can commence: cataloging, labeling, and bagging.

Cataloging is a process that involves sorting artifacts by exact type (i.e., "Creamware," "Machine-cut Nails," "Mold Blown Green Glass," etc) and entering the data into a Microsoft Access database that had to be created specifically for this project. Important characteristics such as dimensions, decoration, and wear patterns are entered into this database, along with the total counts of each type of artifact. This information can then be tabulated and queried within the Access database, or it can be (and will eventually be) linked to a Geographical Information System (GIS) for the purposes of spatial mapping and analysis.

Once the artifacts have been cataloged, some of them move to another part of the lab for labeling. Only artifacts which lend themselves to the labeling process due to their hardness and propensity for mending are labeled. This generally means ceramics, glass, and some bone are the artifacts that are targeted for the three step labeling process. First, the artifact receives a small strip of clear nail polish. This establishes a base. Then the context number (in this case "FBH" for Fairbanks House, the unit number, and the layer letter ["101F" in the picture on the right]) is applied using India Ink and an ink pen. Lastly, another layer of clear nail polish is applied over the context number to seal it.

The reasoning behind this process is that if pieces of ceramic or glass from different layers or units can be mended into a single vessel, one can examine the reconstructed vessel and locate which fragments came from which contexts. It's also useful if artifacts are removed from bags for study or display -- once labeled, they never lose their context.

Once labels are applied to the necessary artifacts, all materials are bagged according to their type. Each bag receives important contextual information, including site number ("C27"), context number ("FBH1---"), unit type (e.g., "Driveway Test Pit"), and the date that excavation of the context began. All of the bags of artifacts are combined into master bags for each unit, which are then placed into acid-free boxes for archival storage (see below). Because they are so thoroughly organized, it becomes easy to examine the artifact catalog and remove any materials for mending, photographing, drawing, or general study.

Of course, this project does not end once the artifacts are processed. Hours of research and analysis will result in a site report and further research about the historical residents of the Fairbanks House property. Since September, a dissertation proposal has been approved, conference papers have been presented, and grant proposals have been written. This is just the beginning of the Fairbanks Archaeology Project. Stay tuned for more to come this summer.....

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