Lab

My day as archaeological researcher and as archaeological educator

[Für die deutsche Übersetzung bitte nach unten scrollen]

Hello, I am Carmen and I working as an archaeologist in Germany.

When I got registered for #dayofarchaeology I actually did planned to tell you something about my education program ErlebnisArchaeologie, all around re-experienced history and archaeology. But meanwhile unfortunately it showed up, that the new two-days-course about paper and writing will not come into being. And therefore I don’t have anything to prepare for this and as a consequence I can’t write about that.

But even though those education programs for sure are a matter of heart for me, it’s not my only area of work in archaeology. In fact at the moment I still earn most of my money as a researcher in regular field work. I also do complementation work for an excavation that ended some weeks ago, and that’s what I’m working on today.Fotor_146982390776327_wm

This means, that I have to check all the written and graphic documentation for the project. For example, I assess each drawing to ensure it includes the feature number, measuring point(s), orientation/north point and scale. In some case there is also additional information like strata numbers needed. I also double-check that every feature at the site has been described. I check hundreds of lists to ensure every feature and every step was documented correctly. If anything is missing, I try to complete information by comparing existing data: the site plan drawing, the photographic records, the daily field notes, and every existing entry about that specific feature in the aforementioned hundreds of lists. In the end I usually find the missing information in another location. And if it really can’t be found, I make a note in the margin.Fotor_146982411705960_wm

What archaeologists aim for with this kind of work is to documentat the site as thoroughly as is possible. This is a necessary labour because archaeology always destroys its original sources, and also because in many cases the excavator himself is not doing the final analysis for the project, or the same sitw is re-explored by a different researcher some years after. I have been working on these final records checks for the last few days. But just today I finished!

For the rest of the day, I worked on an archaeological education program about what it is like to be an archaeologist. I have two programs thar I call “To be an archaeologist once”. During this half-day program, children “excavate” a prepared area in a sandbox, them try to assemble their finds, maybe do some conservation and restoration.

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To help the children along, I prepare the artifacts for the sandbox dig such that I know some will fit back together, and tjat is what I will do this afternoon: I will take flowerpots and carefully break them. I use the age of the participants to choose how many pieces I break the pots into: younger kids will find a pot shattered maybe only in 3 or 4 parts, older ones can handle a puzzle with up to 7 or 8 parts. And of course I always have also to think about how many of the pieces should be missing, because in reality we do not find complete vessels that often, do we? I plan the mock dig so every child will find a “feature” denoted with her or his name, containing shards of an incomplete pot. The children then have an assembly competition which will hopefully be doable because of the age-appropriate setup.DSC_3619_wm_2016To know more about me and my work please have a look to http://www.erlebnisarchaeologie-bayern.de/

 

[German/Deutsch]

Mein Tag als Archäologin in der Feldforschung und als Museumspädagogin

Hallo, meine Name ist Carmen und ich bin als Archäologin in Deutschland tätig.

Als ich für #dayofarchaeology registrierte, plante ich eigentlich etwas über meine Bildungsprogramme mit der ErlebnisArchäologie rund um erlebbare Geschichte und Archäologie zu berichten. Vor allem ein neu entwickeltes Programm rund um das Thema Papier und Schrift sollte Inhalt sein. Aber in der Zwischenzeit ist es leider so, dass dieser neue Zwei-Tage-Kurs nicht zustande kommen wird. Und deshalb brauche ich hierfür keine abschließenden Vorbereitungen treffen und kann daher auch nicht darüber berichten.

Aber auch wenn diese Bildungsprogramme sicher eine Herzensangelegenheit für mich sind, sie stellen nicht mein einziges Betätigungsfeld in der Archäologie dar. In der Tat erwirtschafte ich im Moment den Großteil meines Auskommens immer noch mit klassischer Feldarbeit. Und heute um genau zu sein mit der Abschlussarbeiten für eine Ausgrabung, die vor einigen Wochen endete.Fotor_146982390776327_wm

Das bedeutet, dass ich die komplette schriftliche und zeichnerische Dokumentation überprüfe. Zum Beispiel überprüfe ich jede Zeichnung auf Vollständigkeit: dies bedeutet im Regelfall, dass zumindest Angaben zur Befundnummer, Meßpunkten, Orientierung/Nordung und Maßstab vorhanden sein müssen. In einigen Fällen werden auch zusätzliche Informationen wie schichtnummern benötigt. Ich kontrolliere auch, ob jeder Befund beschrieben wurde. Und überprüfe gefühlte Hunderte von Listen, ob jeder Befund und jeder Arbeitsschritt korrekt dokumentiert wurden.

Falls etwas fehlt versuche ich Informationen zu vervollständigen, indem ich vorhandene Daten vergleiche: ich werfe einen Blick auf den Gesamtplan und die fotografischen Aufzeichnungen, ich überprüfe das Grabungstagebuch und jeden vorhandenen Eintrag zu diesem Befund in in den Querverweislisten. Am Ende findet sich so normalerweise die fehlende Information in einem anderen Zusammenhang. Und wenn es sich wirklich nicht rekonstruieren lässt, dann wird auch das in einer Randnotiz erwähnt.Fotor_146982411705960_wm

Archäologen bezwecken mit dieser Sisyphusarbeit, eine möglichst vollständige Dokumentation zu erhalten. Dies ist eine wirklich notwendig, weil Archäologie immer die ursprünglichen Quellen zerstört und auch weil in vielen Fällen nicht der Ausgräber selbst ist die endgültige Analyse vornimmt bzw. eine Ausgrabung auch zu einem späteren Zeitpunkt neu betrachtet werden kann.

Und deshalb habe ich diese Abschlussprüfungen in den die letzten Tagen durchgeführt. Aber gerade bin ich damit fertig geworden. Und so kann ich doch noch ein wenig von meiner anderen Seite der Arbeit als Archäologin im Bereich Museumspädagogik berichten:

Denn in der Tat hatte ich in der kommenden Woche nicht nur das Programm zu Papier und Schrift auf dem Plan stehen. Ich halte auch zwei Mal „Einmal Archäologe sein“ ab. Während dieser Halbtagesveranstaltung können Kinder einmal selber in einer vorbereitete Fläche, z.B. in einem Sandkasten, “ausgraben”. Danach versuchen sie, ihre Fundstücke zusammenzusetzen und diese dann auch zu restaurieren.Fotor_146982459795758_wm

Aber damit sie dies alles tun können, muss ich natürlich auch sicherstellen, dass es überhaupt Fundstücke gibt. Und das ist, was ich nun in der zweiten Hälfte des Tages tue: Ich nehme Blumentöpfe und zerschlage sie sorgsam. Es ist tatsächlich sehr wichtig, sie nicht nur in irgendeiner Weise zu zerteilen. Ich habe immer einen Blick auf das Alter der Teilnehmer. Für jüngere Kinder wird der Topf vielleicht nur in 3 oder 4 Teile zerscherbt, ältere erhalten ein Puzzle mit bis zu 7 oder 8 Teilen. Und natürlich muss ich auch immer die fehlenden Stücke mit einplanen, denn in Wirklichkeit finden wir ja auch nicht allzu oft komplette Gefäße. So werden dann am Dienstag alle Kinder einen „Befund“ vorfinden, der nicht durchnummeriert ist, sondern mit ihrem oder seinen Namen gekennzeichnet wurde. Und im Inneren werden Scherben eines unvollständigen Topfs sein, dessen Zusammensetzen und Ergänzen nach Möglichkeit den altersgerechten Fähigkeiten entsprechen.DSC_3619_wm_2016

Wenn ihr noch mehr über mich und meine Arbeit wissen wollt, schaut doch mal bei mir auf der Homepage vorbei http://www.erlebnisarchaeologie-bayern.de/

Sustainable Archaeology McMaster: a day in the life of an archaeological repository

The field season is over, the excavation is complete, the artifacts have been analyzed and the report has been all nicely written up. Now what? What are you supposed to do with all the stuff? This is a problem that has just about come to its breaking point in Ontario. Here, legislation dictates that the licensed archaeologist responsible for collecting the artifacts is also responsible for keeping the artifacts. Forever.

This in itself is no bad thing – it ensures that collections are not simply discarded after excavation, in theory preserving them for the benefit of future generations. However, there are no rules or systems in place for ensuring that these collections are kept in appropriate storage conditions along with all of the accompanying information necessary for understanding what the artifacts are and where they came from. Unfortunately, it takes money, time, and training to ensure that a collection is properly cared for and made accessible to the public. As a result, due to the significant financial burden that securing decent storage space often requires, many collections are kept in poor conditions, are separated from their provenience information, and are completely inaccessible to the public and researchers.

Sustainable Archaeology is an initiative aimed at responding to this issue. With two locations (one at the University of Western Ontario and one at McMaster University), Sustainable Archaeology is an archaeological repository and research facility which specializes in the storage, preservation, and accessibility of Ontario’s archaeological collections. Here at the McMaster facility we have both a dry and wet lab available for use by researchers in addition to our collection storage space. Unlike many archaeologists, our “raison d’etre” is not to conduct our own research, but rather to make it possible for others to do so.

Movable shelving allows for more compact storage meaning that we can really make the most of our space. All artifacts are stored in the archival quality green boxes visible here and are labelled using an RFID tagging system to track their location.

Movable shelving allows for more compact storage meaning that we can really make the most of our space. All artifacts are stored in the archival quality green boxes visible here and are labelled using an RFID tagging system to track their location.

Sustainable Archaeology McMaster's polarizing microscope

Sustainable Archaeology McMaster’s polarizing microscope

The wet lab portion of the SA McMaster facility is where the production of thin sections takes place. This area can also be used to clean artifacts.

The wet lab portion of the SA McMaster facility is where the production of thin sections takes place. This area can also be used to clean artifacts.

These sinks and drying racks can be used to clean and dry artifacts

These sinks and drying racks can be used to clean and dry artifacts

The dry lab portion of our facility is used to work with any materials which could be harmed through exposure to moisture. This is where we do all our cataloguing and preventive conservation work.

The dry lab portion of our facility is used to work with any materials which could be harmed through exposure to moisture. This is where we do all our cataloguing and preventive conservation work.

Most of our time is spent ensuring that collections are kept in good condition, and that material can be easily found and accessed within the collection. Typically this involves researching the background of the collections in our care, assessing their condition, and repackaging them when necessary. Many of the collections we’re currently working with were excavated in the early- to mid-twentieth century, and have been separated from their contextual information over time. This means that sometimes we open a box to find a bunch of mysteriously labelled artifact bags without any clues as to where they came from or what the labels mean. This is where the detective work begins, as we use whatever information we do have left to track down the rest of the collection’s context. Sometimes we are lucky and the archaeologist will have published a paper or left us a catalogue which clarifies everything — then again, sometimes we’re unlucky and those hopeful looking blank fields in our collection catalogue must remain empty for the time being.

Collections Management Assistant, Emily Meikle working on a stemmed projectile point found at the Sealey Site near Brantford, Ontario

Collections Management Assistant, Emily Meikle working on a stemmed projectile point found at the Sealey Site near Brantford, Ontario

Each archaeologist has their own way of packaging artifacts. In this unique example dating from 1937-1940, a cardboard ammunition box was used to package a number of small potsherds.

Each archaeologist has their own way of packaging artifacts. In this unique example dating from 1937-1940, a cardboard ammunition box was used to package a number of small potsherds.

While the this site did need to be repackaged in acid free polypropylene bags, it was conveniently well labeled, including an individual label for each artifact

While the this site did need to be repackaged in acid free polypropylene bags, it was conveniently well labeled, including an individual label for each artifact

Just as packaging standards vary, so do labeling methods. Shown here are a number of potsherds all from the same site, but labeled using a number of different systems. Some of them aren't labeled at all.

Just as packaging standards vary, so do labeling methods. Shown here are a number of potsherds all from the same site, but labeled using a number of different systems. Some of them aren’t labeled at all.

Often beads are strung on wire susceptible to corrosion and must be removed and restrung using acid free thread. This process is also a good opportunity to inspect glass beads for glass disease -- a degradation which affects unstable glass and can spread between artifacts through contact.

Often beads are strung on wire susceptible to corrosion and must be removed and restrung using acid free thread. This process is also a good opportunity to inspect glass beads for glass disease — a degradation which affects unstable glass and can spread between artifacts through contact.

Frank Wood was an active collector of archaeological material in the early part of the 20th century. Much of the material in our care was included at one point in Wood's personal collection. As a result, his catalogue of artifacts is often a valuable resource in recovering the context of orphaned artifacts. As pictured above, we keep a photocopied version of the original in the lab for ready use.

Frank Wood was an active collector of archaeological material in the early part of the 20th century. Much of the material in our care was included at one point in Wood’s personal collection. As a result, his catalogue of artifacts is often a valuable resource in recovering the context of orphaned artifacts. As pictured above, we keep a photocopied version of the original in the lab for ready use.

Complementing our collections work, lab technician Samantha Atkins is also hard at work pioneering a thin sectioning protocol for use with our polarizing microscope. Slicing archaeological material (such as stone, ceramic, and teeth) into thin sections and viewing them under the polarizing microscope, it is often possible to determine from where a natural material was sourced, or the season during which an animal was killed. This information can be extremely valuable to an archaeologist, and as such Sustainable Archaeology has put an emphasis on creating thin sectioning protocols that can help provide archaeologists with as much information as possible. In order to do all of this, Sam’s days typically consist of a mix of research and experimentation. Because archaeological studies using thin sectioning rarely describe the process of creating thin sections, Sam has had to draw upon other fields (such as geology) to inform her techniques, and is also beginning to assemble a network of archaeological thin sectioning experts. In between bouts of research and experimentation, Sam is also responsible for photographing artifacts and editing images to be featured in our digital resources.

Lab Technician, Samantha Atkins working away at her deer teeth thin sections

Lab Technician, Samantha Atkins working away at her deer teeth thin sections

Samples to be thin sectioned are first impregnated with an epoxy formula.

Samples to be thin sectioned are first impregnated with an epoxy formula.

Thin section samples are taken only from material that does not have any accompanying contextual information. Once the epoxy pucks have solidified, the samples will be cut into slices and ground and polished down to the necessary thickness of 30 microns.

Thin section samples are taken only from material that does not have any accompanying contextual information. Once the epoxy pucks have solidified, the samples will be cut into slices and ground and polished down to the necessary thickness of 30 microns.

Thin sectioning test samples in various states of progression

Thin sectioning test samples in various states of progression

These mandibles from a recently deceased white-tailed deer were de-fleshed and sectioned in order to produce a tooth thin section with a positively dated season of death. Good archaeology doesn't always smell nice.

These mandibles from a recently deceased white-tailed deer were de-fleshed and sectioned in order to produce a tooth thin section with a positively dated season of death. Good archaeology doesn’t always smell nice.

To learn even more about what we do or to explore our collection online, check out our website or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Aztec Archaeology at Calixtlahuaca, or Not One of My Better Days

Hi,

I’m an archaeology graduate student working on lab analysis of Aztec artifacts in Toluca, Mexico.   In 2007 I was part of a team that spent six months excavating at the nearby site of Calixtlahuaca, and ever since then have been spending my summers sorting through an apparently never-ending amount of broken pottery.  Calixtlahuaca was an important city of the local Matlazinca culture before the Aztecs conquered it, so my research questions address how the Aztecs controlled their conquered provinces and whether this produced changes in how people in those provinces lived.  So far, I can tell you that tortillas became a lot more popular after the Aztecs arrived!

Disclaimer: Friday was not one of my better days, and should not be taken as representative.

Most my drama for the day occurred before I ever arrived at the lab in the morning.  First, my apartment was out of gas for the water heater and stove.  As several other posters have pointed out, archaeologists run on coffee, so the lack of hot water put a damper on things.  Then, my taxi got rear-ended half way out to the lab, in what was clearly a mutual-fault situation.  (Toluca drivers generally qualify as reckless even by Mexican standards, so I usually get in, pray, and tell myself that any taxi driver still on the road has to at least marginally competent.) The driver strapped the rear bumper back on, asked me if I was fine, and had the other party follow us until I got dropped off.  The two drivers were discussing who was going to pay for damages when I left them.

Our lab is located in a former hacienda that has been converted to hold several social-science graduate programs for the state (as opposed to the nation) of Mexico.  This last week, however, was a vacation week for the entire staff before the new semester starts, so most the usual services are canceled.  By the end of the week, the facilities were just about out of water.  (All Mexican buildings have large water storage tanks to even out irregularities in the water distribution schedule.  Many also have extra water brought in by tanker if they don’t receive enough from the local government.)  The power was also out all day for unrelated reasons, which meant that the coffee pot in the lab didn’t work either!

There were six of us in the lab for the day: myself, a student from a local university program, four women from the modern village of Calixtlahuaca, and the daughter of one of the staff members from the college.  Over the course of the day, we had two main things going on, with occasional side forays as distractions came up.  First, we were quickly skimming through bags of sherds from plowzone, erosional, mixed, or otherwise low value levels.  In these bags we noted ceramic types that date to particular periods, took out particularly good examples of types to add to our reference collection, and took out special items like whistles or figurines.  Even if we only pulled out a couple things from each bag, getting the catalog numbers onto the pieces themselves and then noted on two paper forms, took almost as long as skimming the whole bag did in the first place!

Second, we were doing full classifications of the pottery from more important contexts, like under floors or in trash pits.  Full classifications involve deciding what type of pot each sherd came from, and if it’s decorated, what type of decoration it has.  Besides basic cooking pots and bowls, we get fancy grinding bowls (the original food processors for making salsa!), a bunch of different types of incense burners, and the occasional pitcher, miniature pot, or tortilla griddle.  For the decorated types, some are local, some are Aztec, and a few are from other parts of Central Mexico.

At the end of the day, I went home to discover that my (non-archaeologist) housemate hadn’t had the gas tank refilled, so my whiplash-stiff neck had to go without a hot shower.

More on the Calixtlahuaca project can be found at: http://calixtlahuaca.blogspot.com/