Same Shell, New Day of Archaeology

Last year for the Day of Archaeology I described my “short term contract to do artifact cataloging”. Well, guess what, I’m still working on artifacts collected from that site. *Wild applause* While it’s not what I pictured I’d be doing a year later, taking this collection from uncatalogued to a collection ready for curation has highlighted for me how important communication, through data and actual talking, is to any archaeological investigation.

Once I finished the catalog, almost 9 months ago, the multiple contracted analysts were able to use the data from it to interpret the site, pulling artifacts based on where the catalog said they were and then using the provenience information to look at patterns through time to create a report about what happened there. As for my continued involvement (aka what I did on the ACTUAL Day of Archaeology) I am sending the artifacts to their final resting place, eventually a museum, but for now into archival boxes and with pretty labels for curation that live on the lab shelf until the client can pick them up. However, like last year, that simple process, artifact -> new bag -> label -> archival box, has its own headaches and with each 4mil inert polypropylene bag I open, I remember how many of those problems could have been solved by good communication.

At both the cataloging stage and curation stage of any project, problems that create slowdowns and cost money come about because of poor communication and planning. You run out of the size of 4 mil bag you need, so you have to use bigger ones because you forgot to estimate how many you’d need before making the curation supplies order AND can’t wait another month for a new order to come in. You start re-housing artifacts and after a days worth of work, get told that those items you re-bagged weren’t part of the curation plan that got changed yesterday, but no one told you about those changes. The people who are the arbiters of the collection ask you why the bags with non-cultural materials have catalog numbers and were kept at all even though you didn’t help with the sorting part of the project.

None of these things derail a project, but in many cases keeping everyone involved with the project informed, even of minor changes, and remembering to ask the right questions can help avoid problems. It helps everyone feel like they are working on the same project, even if they may be working in different cities, and makes everyone a little bit more aware of what’s going on. And you never know who might pipe in and remind you of something you forgot to ask about or give you a good tip to apply to your next project. In many cases, we tend to do archaeology as a solo sport: alone in the lab, digging shovel probes shouting distance from your field mate, or typing up a report after everyone else has left the office. But no matter how often we get trapped in those bubbles, we can’t forget that archaeology is actually a team sport and any good team requires good communication between its members to win.

Data Entry: The unsung hero of archaeology

Mid-way through cataloging

Cataloging, check-in, artifact processing, data entry, whatever you call the process of taking and tracking artifacts, is the backbone of any archaeological project. Whether you are recording attributes of a small fire cracked rock scatter on an iPad out in the field or hand writing information about a projectile point on a piece of paper back in the lab these ways of summarizing the vast amounts of information we encounter allow us to do archaeology.

However, it isn’t glamorous. I’ve just started a short term contract to do artifact cataloging for a site excavated a few years ago and twice in the last week people have said “I hope it isn’t too mind numbing”. I always respond that I am happy to be doing paid work in my field, which isn’t always possible. The other reason I like doing this sort of work, and one that I rarely explain, is that without it the analysts would have nothing to do. Yes, typing into an Excel spreadsheet and writing in red marker on plastic or paper bags isn’t the most glorious part of archaeology, but it means that the interpretation of that site, and our ability to track the artifacts and information we’ve gathered, is possible. Being in a remote location with only a trowel and a backpack is a great romantic picture but without record keeping we would have no idea where artifacts came from. Whether I am working on my own PhD research, a paid job, or volunteering on a project, big or small, organizing that information allows us to access those items, through databases or tables, and understand what happened at an archaeological site.

So, what did I do on the Day of Archaeology 2016? Well I did a day’s worth of data entry and it’s not as easy as it seems. I’m contracted to catalog artifacts, which in this case means entering information about each artifact bag into a spreadsheet. That involves finding the number of the bag in a digital list, adding the material type and other information, and then checking if the information about where location came from is correct on the bag and in the table. If all goes well, I add a line to the spread sheet, assign the bag two numbers, one that identifies where it came from and one unique to the bag; write those numbers on the bag, put the bag in a box, and enter which box the bag is in onto the spreadsheet.

Worst case, every piece of information on the bag or about the bag needs to be checked against multiple layers of paperwork, that information needs to be typed into the spreadsheet with an explanation of what changed, and the numbers on the bag need to be altered to reflect these updates. The worst-worst case is when the paperwork doesn’t agree, and because it was excavated a few years ago, the notes are all the detail that we have. Thankfully, there is an information hierarchy within the paperwork that can help us figure out what combination of depths, provenience, and levels are correct correct. These worst-case scenarios spice up data entry and demonstrate the importance of having good record keeping and internal consistency. Digging precisely should also be accompanied by precision in paperwork so that archaeologists who look at these notes years from how are able to recreate the site in their mind and understand the site without having been at the dig.