archaeological lab work


By Brian Seidel, Assistant Lab Supervisor, URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey, USA


Flotation is the process by which the smallest and most delicate artifacts are separated from soil for analysis.  Artifacts collected using this method can provide important information related to: reconstructing past diet and food consumption patterns, past environmental conditions, and the broad range of activities performed within an historic property or site. Soil samples collected during feature excavation are processed in a flotation tank that utilizes water pressure to separate the soil from the artifacts. During this procedure very light artifacts (light fraction) float to the surface and are collected in a catch bag, while the remainder of the artifacts (heavy fraction) are collected in a fine mesh screen as the soil and artifacts sink towards the bottom of the tank.

This week the heavy fraction from feature 364 at the Gunnar’s Run Site (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) was picked in the URS lab (Burlington, New Jersey, USA). This feature was a brick lined circular shaft. Today I cataloged the recovered artifacts. This included several varieties of seeds; raspberry, grape, squash, cherry, chestnut and a variety of yet to be identified seeds.  Other items found included; 19 beads, lead shot, nut shells, wood fragments, small glass fragments, a Whiteware sherd, brick and coal fragments.

Flotation is the process by which the smallest and most delicate artifacts are separated from soil for analysis — Brian Seidel

Thoughts while at work in the lab…

Amy Joy Litterer
URS Corporation
Burlington, New Jersey (USA)

I start my day examining recently cleaned items which had been discarded into the soil, or nightsoil, within the past few hundred years. I cannot help but wonder how these items were lost, and what emotional ties people had to them. Fading marbles, broken dishes, medicine and alcohol bottles, rusted and corroded jewelry, dismembered doll parts, and whimsical glass shapes that flow and bend, and inevitably, broke and were tossed away, all find their way to my hands before I pack them away for the next stage of their journey. Once these items were fun, useful, or valuable to someone, but they lay covered in dirt for quite some time and only now have they been cleaned for the first time in a century or more, and it is time to sort and count and allocate them to bags containing the remnants of similar items from the same location. While bagging these artifacts, I wonder where they will go after I am done packing them into their temporary bags and boxes, whether they will find a home in storage after being catalogued by my co-workers, or if they will come together again as whole items and go on display, for all Philadelphians to marvel at the tools, toys, and treasures of yesteryear. But for now they are in my hands, and I separate another small piece of redware from the piles of glass, porcelain, and nails.”

A Sense of Pride and Identity

By Alexander Lukens
Archaeological Technician
URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey, USA

Beginning each day with archaeology in mind stirs great excitement.  Working primarily as an archaeological lab tech and sometimes field tech for URS Corporation in Burlington, New Jersey (USA), I am quickly picking up on the fundamentals of life as an archaeologist in the Philadelphia area.  My daily duties can include a wide range of activities from the initial excavation of sites in the field through processing and studying what we find. The lab is where you could say it all comes together, some days more literally than others.  Today, for instance, I am responsible for mending artifacts from a project undertaken for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Interstate 95 highway redevelopment.  This exciting local project includes sites dating all the way to prehistoric times but todays work is focused on exploring the household sites of the industrial revolution. Sorting and mending these artifacts provides a glimpse into the variety of objects an average household may contain and can also tell us about the lives of the specific family whose property we are studying. Not only does this practice illustrate presence, it also delves deeper into a further understanding of the object and its sometimes bizarre form and function. Although the purposes of the objects are not always evident, it is still exciting to see where the research can take you. Contributing daily to the disclosure of Philadelphia’s forgotten knowledge in an archaeological way gives me a sense of pride and identity. Having grown up in the Philadelphia area, being able to experience the local history in a hands-on way contributes to shaping me both as an individual and as a professional in the archaeological community.

What’s that you say? Interning in an Archaeology Lab? Awesome!

By Kim Jovinelli Internship, Independence National Historical Park Archeology Lab
MA Candidate in Museum Communication University of the Arts, Philadelphia 2013 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Archaeology has always been a large influence on my life. From a young age, I had been exposed to such historical wonders, they almost didn’t seem real. I remember thinking, “How did [insert artifact name] get here?”

and “What makes it so important that it gets to sit behind glass for everyone to see?”

It didn’t hurt either that my father, Anthony, exposed me to movies portraying a Fedora clad, whip brandishing Archaeologist pretty early (though I realize now that Archaeologists don’t traipse the globe hunting down the bad guys and finding the [insert precious lost treasure here]). I was fortunate in that my parents both saw Archaeology was my passion and they nurtured that drive throughout my life. Which lead me to where I am now. Currently, I Intern in the Archaeology Lab at Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia(Pennsylvania, USA) as part of my curriculum for an Masters of Art Degree in Museum Communication, in the hopes of working with archaeological or historical collections in the future. A typical week includes some usual archaeological lab work (labeling artifacts, mending artifacts, cleaning artifacts, etc), but then there are those days where I get to play with wonderful bits and pieces of the past. Under the supervision and guidance of Deborah Miller, Collections Manager (Independence Park Archeology Lab), I have been in the beginning stages of repacking and cataloging the labs collection of wood items gathered from the site where the National Constitution Center currently stands. To some, this may seem like a daunting task, but I find it fascinating. Yes, there are those random planks or small flakes of wooden items of unknown makeup. But once in a while, there are those items that are so fascinating they require a long look and some deep thought. I like to solve puzzles by nature, so pondering the origin and use of these items is of great interest and keeps my mind working.

Along with the above mentioned project, I am also working to scan and digitize photographic slides taken when the original dig took place from 2000-2003. As someone who would like to work with collections in the future and also someone who sees a more digital future brewing, a skill even as basic as being able to convert slides to digital format and organize them in a cohesive manner is of great use. I am also in the process of pulling and packaging the labs bone (fauna) collection to be sent out for This comprises my typical week. To say it is what I had hoped it would be is an understatement. It is what I can see myself continuing with in the future. My experience at Independence National Historic Park will follow me wherever I may roam, and I like that.

Ceramic and wood artifacts in the Independence National Historical Park Archeology Lab.

Last day of work, for now.

By Carolyn Horlacher

Lab tech, URS Corporation

Burlington, New Jersey, USA  (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum webmaster)

Today is the beginning of my last week working full-time in archaeology for at least two years. It is bittersweet.  I began working at URS Corporation in Burlington, New Jersey, USA (right outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) as an intern during my senior year in college and now almost three years later I am leaving to start a new academic venture.  In September I will be starting my first year of graduate school at UMass Boston.  I am spending today wrapping up unfinished projects. This includes marking and gluing mended objects, cataloging artifacts, doing historic research and beginning to pack up the contents of my desk.  I am primarily working on the lab work for a site excavated in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. It is along interstate 95 and is part of a project URS is conducting for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Currently, I am working on gluing a cut glass lamp shade that belonged to a gas lamp. It was excavated with a household assemblage and dates to the second half of the 19th century.  Gluing mended artifacts is one of my favorite lab tasks, it brings everything full circle!



Becoming a well-rounded archaeologist

By Donald Tiver

Archaeological Technician

URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey, USA  (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum webmaster)

Today I worked on my handwriting skills as I marked and glued plates and cups that could mend. It’s a fun exercise in concentration and accuracy. When that got too exhausting I switched to washing and turned various old marbles, spools and glassware fragments into shiny and presentable relics, as close to their original presentation as they will probably ever be. Along the way I slowly gain new perspective on identifying artifacts and, though I can’t say it’s easy for me yet, it does come easier every day. Working with each varied part of the processing of artifacts will certainly work toward making me a well-rounded archaeologist.