Archaeological record

Digging on the Web

On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy preparing to head off to the field (in sunny Tuscany (!!)), square away some data, and finish work on some tech consulting.  That last bit is a clue that I’m not really a “normal archaeologist”. Actually, I’ve never met an archaeologist that I’d consider normal –  which is what attracted me to this field in first place. But even among archaeologists, I’m something of an odd-ball.

I have a background in Near Eastern archaeology, and did my dissertation research looking at interactions between Egypt and the Levant (modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon) in the Early Bronze Age. But for various reasons, both personal and professional, I shifted gears toward the digital side of archaeology, co-founded a nonprofit with my wife (and boss!), and for the past 10 years, I’ve loved almost every minute of my work day. Except writing grant proposals (but there are some necessary evils in all work).

My research and professional interests focus on archaeological data, and much less on digging and field work for myself. This focus means I have a very different professional network, set of collaborators, and work life. Though I work closely with other archaeological professionals, I’m also heavily engaged with folks well outside the discipline, including Web and information scientists, digital librarians and archivists, technology companies, “digital humanists”, and researchers in scholarly communications.

I keep such odd company because I’m really interested in improving the way archaeologists communicate and share their research. Archaeology is intensely multidisciplinary and collaborative. It involves inputs from all sorts of different sciences, and many archaeologists work together in large teams. Sharing the results of all this research needs to reflect the collaborative nature of the field, and it needs to speak with people in other disciplines and walks of life. That’s why I’m so interested in making it archaeological data more open, easier to share, and easier to reuse.

My primary project is Open Context. It’s a system for publishing archaeological data, openly, on the Web, for all to browse and reuse. On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy indexing tens of thousands of detailed records of archaeological contexts, objects, bones, and other material from Kenan Tepe, a major excavation in Turkey led by Bradley Parker. This collection represents the monumental effort of almost 10 years of field work. You can browse around its photo archives and see many thousands of pictures, mainly of dirt. Though it is free to access and use, the data are priceless. Excavation is a destructive process, and the documentation describing such excavations will be the only record available to revisit and re-analyze excavation results. That’s why comprehensive publishing with platforms like Open Context, as well as archiving with digital repositories like tDAR, the ADS, or the CDL is so important.

As this blog post should make clear, I love working with the Web. And what I like most about it is that I work with a growing and vibrant community of like minded people who want to see more from archaeology than costly journal articles read by a narrow few. The developers of ARK, Portable Antiquities, all the collaborators of Pelagios, and the bottom-up group linking archaeological data, are all hugely talented and make my work life rewarding and fun. All this makes archaeology (for me) as much about community and the future as it is about the past.

Archaeology Lab Rat in West Virginia: Day 455

Happy Day of Archaeology 2012 folks!

Presently, I am a curator for the research facility at Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville, West Virginia.  We are the first curation facility for archaeological artifacts built within the state (opened in 2008) and we house thousands of artifacts either excavated by state/federal organizations or personal collections donated by citizens.  The complex consists of not only the research/collections wing but is also home to the Delf Norona Museum.

My job varies on a daily basis but today I continued inventorying artifacts from a Fort Ancient Native American site formerly located in the southern part of the state.  Notice I use the word “formerly.”   Like so many archaeological sites worldwide, the site was destroyed after excavation and no longer exists.  It is now home to an industrial plant, one reason why our jobs as archaeologists are so valuable!  We are recording a past that may not be around for the future due to industrialization, roads, or any number of other destructive changes that can occur to the land.

Shell Tempered Cord Marked Sherds

Around 10:30 am, I looked up from analyzing a few prehistoric ceramic sherds and saw the observation window filled with a group of inquisitive, happy kids visiting the complex for a field trip.  I must admit, it has taken some time getting used to having people stare at you while you work throughout the day, but I now welcome it.  Who knows, maybe there is a future archaeologist in the crowd!

Possible future archaeologists!

This afternoon, we were fortunate to have Christina, one of our regular volunteers come in.  She is currently working on processing a large artifact collection that was donated to the facility many years ago.  She spent a few hours washing  lithic artifacts that will ultimately be labeled, sorted, and made available for researchers.  I don’t know what we would do without all of our reliable, hardworking volunteers!

For me, Day of Archaeology 2012 ended with inputting data into our always growing database (with some background 1980’s genre music playing from the internet radio to break the silence).  While it’s far from being glamorous, it’s priceless work.  At the end of the day, I’m just trying to do my part to preserve a little bit of West Virginia’s past for our future.

Inventorying prehistoric ceramic sherds



Counted Out and Counted In

The Hampshire Arts & Museums Service archaeology collections are stored in c 18,000 boxes, using c 450 cu m of space.  The largest single collection is Danebury and Environs which equals about 10% of the whole.  The Service uses MODES as its object database and although it has 60,000 records relating to archaeology the coverage is far from comprehensive.  A current initiative involves volunteers in checking the records against the actual material and refining it where appropriate.  Beneath a colourful representation of an Iron Age battle scene (Danebury Ring) Jane King sorts through the records relating to human remains, before checking them against the material in store.

A museum archaeologist

As the archaeologist and curator for the Lost City Museum every day is different for me.  One day I might be entering the museum’s catalog records into the computer and the next I am doing research on trash middens or getting down and dirty while restoring the museum’s adobe pueblos.  The museum where I work is an archaeology museum devoted to the study of the Virgin River branch of the Ancestral Puebloans (you might know them as the Anasazi). As a museum archaeologist I don’t get into the field as much as I would like, but the trade off is that I get to handle some pretty awesome Ancestral Puebloan artifacts.

Pueblo restoration

Giving the Lost City Museum's adobe pueblos a facelift.

My predecessors conducted more fieldwork than I have been able to for two reasons. One is that the valley where the museum is located experienced a lot of growth over the past 25 years, and often the places where people wanted to build their houses were located on archaeological sites. The landowners would sometimes grant the museum archaeologist permission to excavate as much of the site as possible before construction began.  The excavation of these sites has led to a backlog of artifacts to be processed and cataloged because as is often the case in archaeological fieldwork, the excavation of the site is the easy part, and the processing of artifacts is the tedious (and unglamorous) part of the process. I would guess that most museums with archaeological collections have some sort of backlog of collections that were excavated and essentially forgotten without an analysis or formal report on the findings of the site.

This backlog has led to the second reason why I am not currently conducting field research. There has been a shift in the past five or ten years towards analyzing what is already present in a museum’s collection to obtain information about a site or a culture because the information is already available. Excavations are expensive, and there are perfectly good artifacts sitting in museum storage waiting to be analyzed. Another reason for this shift is connected to the realization that archaeological sites can be better preserved by not excavating them and waiting for technological advances that make archaeology a less destructive process. Advances in technology already allow archaeologists to “see” what is at a site through the use of ground penetrating radar, which means archaeologists can make better informed decisions on when, where, and how much of a site to excavate.

The great thing about my job as a museum archaeologist is that I get the best of both worlds. I can help out on the projects of other archaeologists, do site visits with site stewards, or conduct research on rock art sites when I need to get out into the field, and I have the satisifaction of knowing that I am helping to protect prehistoric artifacts that are over one thousand years old. Plus, as a museum archaeologist I get to see all of the great stuff that isn’t out on display!

Cleaning a pot on display at the museum.


The Big Picture: Archaeological Records after the Project is Done

Greetings! I’m Jolene Smith. I work for the Department of Historic Resources in Virginia, USA. I decided to post on Day of Archaeology because I am most certainly not what most people would consider a “typical” archaeologist. I manage digital and paper records and mapping for nearly 43,000 recorded archaeological sites in Virginia through our government agency, which is also the State Historic Preservation Office.

Sometimes I miss being out in the field, but certainly not today. It’s currently 100°F/38°C outside at lunch time, so I’m very happy in my air conditioned office cubicle.

Distribution of Sites in Virginia by County

Distribution of Recorded Archaeological Sites in Virginia (work-in-progress!)

My work so far today has been very heavy on GIS (Geographic Information Systems). I spent the morning creating a quick map showing the density of recorded sites in Virginia’s counties for a publication of the Archeological Society of Virginia (our state’s wonderful avocational archaeological organization). It’s still a major work-in-progress, but I’m happy I was able to easily generate this data. The ASV hopes to use this info as a guide for where to conduct future archaeological surveys. With a little more work, I’ll be able to clean up some errors, pretty it up, and label everything so the data will be easily understandable.

I spent much of the rest of the morning working on creating records for a large project conducted by a CRM (cultural resource management) consultant, making sure the GIS mapping is accurate and matches the information in our databases and in the printed site form records. Quality control is a big part of what I do. It’s fundamental to remember that archaeology is inherently destructive, so it’s critical to have good, clear records.

Here’s what I have on tap for the rest of the day: I’ll work with some more consultants to create records for new archaeological sites and add information to previously recorded sites. I’ll also be responding to a few emails from members of the public interested in recording small cemeteries in our inventory. Then, I’ll probably review a few archaeological projects that have been conducted at the future sites of mobile phone/telecommunications towers as part of Section 106 compliance to make sure that there won’t be impacts to important archaeological deposits. Quite a variety, isn’t it?

Day in the life of a HERO

My name is Helen Wells and I’m the Historic Environment Record Officer (HERO) at Leicestershire County Council.  There are archaeologists here in both the Museums and Planning sections – I’m based in the latter.  I do work with the Museums archaeologists though, including Wendy Scott (the Portable Antiquities Scheme officer).  My job is basically to look after a database of all the county’s known archaeological remains and historic buildings.  It’s a fascinating job – I’ve been here since 2004 and I’m still enjoying it!

Before I start describing my day, I thought I’d give a bit of background about how I became a county council archaeologist.  (more…)

Day in the life of an archaeological planning officer 3.30pm

Since lunch I’ve been going through a draft written scheme of investigation (WSI) for a development in Chepstow. The WSI is required to meet a condition attached to the planning consent for a residential development. An archaeological evaluation (trial trenching) of the site was carried out prior to the determination of the planning application, but this was restricted due to there being occupied buildings on the site. The scheme therefore will commence with further evalaution work and then, depending on the results, could lead to an archaeological excavation on indentified areas of the site, although it is possible that little additional work will be required, if the construction of the current buildings has destroyed all of the archaeology.

Checking a wsi can be very boring and tedious and you can feel that you are being pernickety but experience has shown that getting the wsi right can save a lot of time and trouble at a later date, as all of the archaeological work will be governed by the contents of the wsi. In general this wsi was very good, I had discussed the contents with the archaeological consultant previously, with the only major issues being the need to include the objectives of the Research Framework for the Archaeology of Wales ( and to remove the need for an OASIS record to be used as OASIS does not cover Wales.