animal bone

First Comes the Fieldwork, Then Comes the Cleaning

My Day of Archaeology was spent following up on some recent fieldwork I conducted on the south coast of British Columbia.  Fieldwork is only one part of archaeological work.  The second and equally important part is lab work.  Lab work gives us the chance to clean up what we’ve just found in the field and look for all the little details we hadn’t noticed before.  Sometimes we end up finding another artifact in our muddy faunal collection.  Sometimes an artifact becomes just another piece of faunal bone.  You never know until you get those collections clean!

Me (brown hair) conducting the fieldwork that brought me to my Day of Archaeology

I recently spent some time in southern British Columbia as part of a large field project I’ve been a member of for a few years.  This year was different, however, because some of my own grad school research was also tied into our field season.  For those of you who follow me on Twitter or have read my blog, you’ve probably heard me talking about glass beads.  A lot of talking.  And a lot of glass beads.  This year in the field I wanted to do a little bit of follow up work by putting in a small excavation unit to try to better determine the stratigraphy of the area where the glass beads were found.  Or find out of there was any noticeable stratigraphy at all.  Research spoiler: there was, but it wasn’t the most noticeable.

During the course of this small excavation, archaeological finds were inevitable, given the rich history of the site and surrounding area.  Plus our excavation was going through shell midden.  In BC archaeology, shell midden plays a significant role and where we find shell midden we find artifacts and other archaeological materials.  One of the wonderful things about shell midden is that it preserves bone beautifully, so we often find a lot of fauna.  This small excavation was no exception to that.  In addition to the faunal bones, we also found one bone point, several small pieces of slate (which has no nearby source, so by default its presence is because someone brought it to that site), one more glass bead, and several small glass bead fragments.

My little cleaning station

These collections were brought back to Ontario with me (with full permission of the Indigenous nation we closely work with) and were in need of some cleaning.  Which brings me to my Day of Archaeology.  I started my day by pulling out my trusty cleaning tools and setting up a little cleaning station.  Some people go high-tech.  I like to stay low-tech.  All I needed was an Ikea clothes drying rack, a screen with some window mesh, a small plastic bin, a tooth brush, a toothpick, a small sieve, and water.

I started with the fauna first, seeing as how it takes the longest amount of time to dry.  Fauna can be a little tricky to clean.  If the cancellous bone (that spongey stuff inside of bones) is exposed it tends to be easily destroyed by toothbrush and water.  Other bones are simply too small and fragile to clean super thoroughly.  I put some of the bones into the small sieve and dipped them in the water to start.  Then, one at a time, I used a toothbrush to gently brush away the first from the bones large and sturdy enough to do so.  Following the fauna I turned my attention to the small slate pieces first, paying close attention to any sort of striations I might see on the surface of the slate (which indicates it was worked beyond simply being brought to the site).  My final bit of cleaning time was spent on the glass bead and bead fragments.  Using the toothpick, I carefully cleaned the dirt out from inside of the fragile, hollow bead.  I then carefully used the toothbrush on the small fragments.  Several hours later (you’d be surprised

The red fox mandible – notice the straight cut on the left side?

by how long cleaning can take), I had everything clean!

While nothing has been analyzed in depth yet, what I have I learned from the newly cleaned collections?

  1. We have a partial mandible of a red fox (which was determined to be red fox after consultation with several people online and via email)!  While red foxes are found in BC, they’re uncommon in coastal regions.  This mandible was also intentionally cut, which is something we might want to look into later!
  2.  There was a good variety of fish consumed, and species we’re all used to in BC – herring, salmon, and dogfish
  3. A juvenile seal was also consumed at some point (we found one of its vertebrae)
  4. We actually collected two artifacts!  The first was a very obvious bone point.  The second was a piece of bone that had been ground down as though it was en route to becoming a tool, but broke before it could be finished.
  5. The bone point had a neat, but unimportant feature to it.  The bone had been broken along the nutrient foramen (a small hole in bones for blood vessels that allow nutrients to be supplied to the bone marrow inside).  Because of this break I could clearly see the canal that the blood vessel rested in.  For a bioarchaeologist like myself, this was nerdishly fun to see.
  6. None of the slate pieces had any striations on them.  They were probably leftover pieces from whatever the slate was actually being used for.
  7. The glass bead was clear – no metallic interior coating like many of the other beads I had previously found.  That doesn’t mean the metallic coating was never there, it just means it didn’t preserve in the acidic BC soils.

And there you have it!  My Day of Archaeology!  It wasn’t the most glamorous or exciting of days, but not every day of archaeology is!  Sometimes days are a little more quiet than others.  It was the necessary step two of a three step archaeological process.  Step one, the fieldwork, is done.  Step two, the cleaning, is now finished (and drying).  Coming up next will be step three – writing up the research.  Which will require more than just one day of archaeology.

Do you see the nutrient canal on the side of this bone point? It’s that groove in the middle, moving towards the right from the top to the bottom!

Phil Jeffries (MOLA): a hybrid job is never boring

I hold a hybrid job role within MOLA, being both an Archivist and a Senior Archaeologist for watching briefs. Combined, these provide me with a variety of different tasks and settings in which to spend my working days.

Within the MOLA Archive team I am principally responsible for preparing all the finds and finds records from sites, in readiness for their deposition into the relevant accepting public repository. Much of the material I handle relates to excavations from within Greater London and therefore is ultimately to be deposited into The London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre (LAARC) run by The Museum of London, which has its own standards to which the prepared material must conform.

So many rows - he's getting data vertigo...

Phil in Archive-mode, checking finds data tables

Whilst having several small – medium sized finds projects currently on the go, I am also overseeing a long term finds archive project which has been opened up for the public to get involved with. This volunteering opportunity is concerned with preparing all the finds material from the excavation of the Guildhall Yard in the City of London during 1992-1997 (Site Code GYE92).

GYE92 is perhaps the largest finds archive to be prepared by MOLA and also one of the largest ever to be received (eventually) by LAARC. To give you an idea of the scale of the project, there are some 2339 boxes of finds/environmental remains stored on 157 shelves across three bays of the building we occupy, plus larger objects yet to be discovered off site. There are over 20,500 Accessioned Finds, some of which are on display in the Guildhall and others already noted as missing in action. In order that the material is archive worthy, the finds must be packaged and labelled according to LAARC’s standards and these must then run in numerical sequence within boxes of material type. The boxes are then stored in material and numerical sequence on the shelves. All the finds must be checked against and systematically logged onto the finds or environmental inventory spreadsheets which have an initial combined cell count of over half a million cells. Where appropriate, errors, omissions, additions and amendments noted must also be updated on MOLA’s primary Oracle database and a running Archivist’s Note of un-resolvable errors/omissions kept to accompany the final archive deposit.

We currently have a pool of 6 members of the public volunteering on the project two days per week and for the last few months they have been processing the bulk animal bone from the site, (all 924 boxes of it)! Typically the volunteers can come in and once settled, get on with the day’s tasks with minimal direction, however I’m on call to assist with queries as and when they arise. This might be concerned with relocating non-bone material that has incorrectly made its way into the animal bone boxes or resolving discrepancies with context numbering or packaging policies. The information that the volunteers collate is then updated onto the final Excel finds inventory which is growing by the day as new discoveries not captured on the original database are brought to light during re-packaging.

Whilst not preparing finds or chasing up their present whereabouts in a building the size of an aircraft hanger or overseeing the volunteers, I might well be involved with other archive duties such as checking field records or converting digital files into archive storable versions. Alternatively, I may be dealing with one of the fieldwork watching brief projects I have been assigned to look after in the capacity of a Senior Archaeologist within the Field Team. Two of these projects are what can be described as long term and intermittent in nature and involve me monitoring certain key ground works on infrastructure projects that span several years. A watching brief is usually undertaken on sites where the proposed construction works do not require an archaeological excavation to be conducted or follow on from earlier evaluation trenching or archaeological excavations close by and are usually undertaken by one attendant experienced Field archaeologist.

Be Safe!

Phil with his Archaeologist Hat on now (c) MOLA 2013

The job essentially requires a high degree of observation under less than ideal circumstances, where a few minutes may be all the time permitted to make quick records of archaeological features and natural strata as they are removed by the machines at work. My projects require me to remotely monitor complex construction schedules via phone and email with lead engineers on the sites and organise myself to be on site when the latest sequence of excavations for new foundations, utility trenches, shafts or general ground reduction is due to begin. The sites I visit are varied and fall in numerous London boroughs, from public spaces such as the streets of The West End and central London parks to industrial sites of former power stations or basements of residential and commercial properties. Generally, schedules rarely stay on track and an anticipated site visit might be put back on the proposed day as problems arise with anything from a break down of a machine to discovery of asbestos or particularly reinforced concrete. In this case I have to be pretty flexible with my diary and be accommodating to working on several separate pieces of indoor archive work which will ultimately be interrupted. As well as actually creating the primary field records during my on site monitoring, I am also responsible for producing reports based on these observations, this brings me into contact with several other departments such as the Drawing Office, Photography Studio and Geomatics/Survey team. All in all it’s rare that I get two successive days that might be described as repetitive!