ancient technology

Ancient Maya trash is an archaeologist’s treasure.

If you try to think of a verb to describe an archaeologist’s work, you will probably come up with “dig.”  And dig we do.  However, for every day an archaeologist spends excavating, she must spend many more analyzing artifacts in the lab, interpreting results, and writing reports and papers.  After completing a 10-week field season in the jungle, at the Maya site of Ceibal, I am writing to you from our project’s lab in Guatemala City, where my team members and I are busy analyzing our finds.  (You can read a little about our project here.)

I’m a graduate student at the University of Arizona, working on my Ph.D. dissertation.  My dissertation research involves excavating ancient Maya houses and the areas around those houses, some of which date back to around 800 B.C.  (You can see some cool preliminary results here.)  When you excavate households, you find a lot of ancient people’s trash.  Archaeologists love trash.  The most common kind of artifact I find is broken pottery, which we call ceramic sherds.  I spent today, the Day of Archaeology 2014, sorting, counting, recording, and labeling these bits of ancient bowls and plates.  Below you can see my cozy workspace:

Sorting and recording pottery sherds in Guatemala City

Sorting and recording pottery sherds in Guatemala City. MP3 player for audiobook entertainment.

This kind of work is more tedious than glamorous, but it’s an important step in interpreting the archaeological record.  Ceramics are used to study all kinds of interesting topics, including trade, social status, and ancient technology.  We sometimes even find residues of ancient foods and drinks in ceramic vessels.

Right now, I am most interested in my piles of sherds as a way to date the different floors, buildings, burials, and other deposits I have excavated.  In the Maya area, archaeologists are constantly refining our knowledge of how local ceramics changed over time.  Our knowledge of Maya ceramic types allows us to quickly put together the basic timeline of an archaeological site.  (We also use other methods of dating, such as radiocarbon dating, but for various reasons those are not always feasible, useful options.)  Without that timeline, we couldn’t begin to understand the events that took place in the past. By carefully recording and publishing the ceramic finds from our site, we contribute to our discipline’s broader knowledge of ancient Maya ceramics.  We create representative collections of sherds for others to study, and we reassemble whole ceramic vessels that will eventually by curated by Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology and History.  Some of the nicer Maya dishes may even end up in the national archaeology museum.

Other project members, who hail from Guatemala, the US, Europe, and Japan, are busy analyzing the stone tools, human bones, animal bones, and other artifacts excavated at our site.  Each provides an important, different piece of the puzzle in our quest to understand ancient Maya society.

Next time you break a dish in your kitchen and clean up the pieces, stop to think about what a future archaeologist might someday learn from your discarded trash!

Friday is actually the day I do the least.

In a typical week, I am shattered by Friday morning. I’ve spent the week staring down a microscope, collected a lot images, and/or passed a couple afternoons staring at a green and white screen of the SEM. I have learned that it’s not good to spend too much time in the microscale. It’s important to remember that while the work I am doing is very detailed and requires a good bit of microanalysis, there also is a wider cultural component that is important on the macroscale. This morning, I have been reading some archaeological theory about the spread of ancient technology, operational chains, and the cultural importance of material production. This is the part I enjoy the least, but, as I’ve been reminded on several occasions, is just as important as the analytical details. In fact, there is little reason to even begin the analysis without a Bigger Picture reason for doing so.


Figure 1. This is my desk in its clean state.  That stack of papers is what I’ve been reading for the last 2 weeks. Usually there is a stone cold half-cup of coffee sitting there as well.




Actually, this is where the real work is done. All of the sample analysis and data collection would mean nothing if I didn’t spend many more hours pouring over the results, trying to tease out some sort of meaning from black and white images and long series of numbers. This is the part where I get to make charts! And data tables! This is the part I enjoy most.

In the afternoon, I was able to escape back to the lab and do some initial prep work for the petrographic work I am planning for next week. Here is the rig I am using:


Figure 2. I’m using a polarizing microscope with an attached video camera. There are four lenses from 4X to 40X, and the homogeneity of the concrete samples and variable particle sizes of the inclusions  mean that all lenses are useful at some point or another.


Before starting a quantitative point count, I take some time to get the know the sample. That involves having a look to see what the components are, if there is anything unusual about the sample, any unexpected components, etc. I take notes on a high resolution scan of the thin section and capture images of what I’m seeing down the eyepiece (you can sort of see an image on the screen there). For these initial examinations I usually work with the 4X objective lens and move up in magnification as needed. When I feel like I have a good idea what I’m dealing with, I set up the parameters I’ll need for the point count.

Figure 3. Here, I’ve mounted a computerized microstepper to the microscope stage, which moves the slide a specific distance. This way, I can be sure that the step distance between each is point is standardized and precise. The microstepper and PETROG software have been generously loaned to me for the duration of my research by the manufacturers.


At each point I identify and record what I am seeing with the 10X objective lens. The software allows me to record the data in a database for subsequent analysis. (I also keep paper records because the computer I am using is rather old and prone to crashes) What I’ve done this afternoon is program in the area of the thin section I want to count, the number of points I am aiming for (500-600), and the step distance (1 mm). Now I’m all set to do the full point count on Monday, which should take me about 6 hours.

When I’m finished with the microscope work, I will have generated a good description of the concrete fabric, recorded the size and nature of voids and cracks, and quantified the types of aggregate. I’ll also have a good idea which areas I want to target with finer detailed analysis with the SEM. All of this will (hopefully!) go a long way toward determining the original mix designs of the concrete, which I will compare across the site.

So that’s a typical Friday for me in the lab. A bit of reading, a bit of playing with data, a bit of exploration, and some planning for the week ahead. I have a few more samples to get through this summer and then I’ll be collecting more samples at the end of the summer. I am hoping to have everything analyzed by this time next year and to have my thesis submitted by the end of next fall. Fingers perpetually crossed.