Crowdsourcing Science

Today at the Virginia Museum of Natural History I am preparing materials for a project that I am calling “Crowdsourcing Science.” This all started last fall when I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to excavate with archaeologists from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and volunteers from the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV) at the Great Neck Site, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


One of the features encountered during excavation was a pit densely packed with with shell and bone.  We decided to bring all of the material from the feature back to the museum for flotation. The result was 19 gallon-sized bags of flotation heavy fraction containing lots of fauna, some plant remains, a small amount of pottery, and (so far) a few lithic flakes.


We have started sorting the flotation at the lab but quickly realized that the volume of material would take months, if not years to complete. Besides the large volume of shell, we have already sorted out crab, drum teeth, gar scales, limpets, ray tooth plates and vertebra, and thousands of fish vertebra.


The crowd sourcing idea came about as the result of discussions about an activity I was doing with a group of high school students. The students came to the museum for a day of activities. They learned about the site, they helped with the flotation of a sample, then they helped sort a dry sample we had previously floted. They got quite a bit of sorting done and I couldn’t help but wish that I could have more groups of people help sort the flotation samples.


Fortunately, I happen to know an organization that has groups of people who would be interested – the Archaeological Society of Virginia. The ASV has chapters all over Virginia. Some members helped excavate the site and many of the members who were not in the field are still interested in the project. They can’t all come to me – Virginia is a pretty big state – but perhaps I could come up with a way for the samples to go to them. The next challenge was that while I could give them a presentation and start the sorting process with them, I can’t meet with them all regularly to work on the identifications as they sort. That’s when I came up with the idea of the “Identification Kits.”

Below you can see one of the Identification Kits developed for assisting with flotation sorting. As we work on sorting flotation in the lab, I pull an example or two of each type of thing we are finding, label them, put them in plastic boxes, and create sets for groups to use.


The boxes in each kit can be laid out and available for viewing by anyone helping sort the flotation samples.


To date I have four groups signed up to assist with sorting flotation. After I have given them each a presentation, the group will receive a kit, a gallon bag of material to sort, and lots of plastic bags to store things in when they are done.  Of course, then I’ll have all of those bags of specimens to identify, but I’ll deal with that problem later.




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

A typical day at URS

By David Ramage Archaeological Technician URS Corporation

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

A normal day for me working in the URS laboratory usually involves working with soil samples. Before you are even able to get the tank ready you need to take a sample from the soil that will be retained and used for something else such as pollen sampling.  We need to take a 500mL sample from the original soil sample brought into the lab to be set aside as our retained soil.  Afterwards, what we do is we set a float tank up outside the office and fill that with water.  Then we take measured samples from the soil samples sent in from the field and run the through a screen that is submerged in the water.  This separates the soil from the artifacts allowing us to gather small artifacts that would usually be missed by other excavation techniques.  After we have the artifacts from the floatation tank, we give them a day to dry and then put them in bags to be picked through in the future.  My normal day revolves around this process of separating the artifacts from the soil in the float tank.  The process doesn’t always take all day so if I have time afterwards I usually prepare samples for the next day.  Overall it is a part of the job that requires you to pay attention to what you are doing and using your best judgment with time management.



Average Day in the Office – Mary Jachetti

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

Today, I am picking a flotation sample that came from the Dyottville Glass Works site (36PH037), a glass factory site that was run under several different owners from 1771-1923 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA).  The most notable of the glass works owners was the late Dr. Dyott, an apothecary, who ran a Utopian-like society for his glass workers. The flotation sample, like many other samples from the site, is almost completely glass. An almost straight sample of glass is unusual in float, with seeds and rocks being the usual. The glass ranges from small, flat or slightly curved fragments of window or vessel glass or manufacturing debris (various sized and shaped glass fragments created by the manufacturing of glass vessels), to semi complete vessels and whimsy fragments such as Jacob’s ladders and flip flops.

On an average day for a lab technician, any of the following could occur: checking- in incoming artifacts, washing and bagging; mending, marking, or gluing a large feature or a completed project; floating soil samples or picking float; researching a specific artifact or patent; cataloging; or helping prepare a display for a public outreach event or private client showing.  Occasionally, we rotate out into the field or help with work overloads in different departments. I have assisted with some minor GIS work as well as historical research.  The day does not always begin or end at the office or in front of the computer. Some days, lunch is spent learning about pottery types or special artifacts in a seminar session or the afternoon is spent educating visitors, either at the office or at a public outreach event. The job changes and evolves. It may not be as glamorous and glitzy as my roommates and fiancé think that the day of an archeologist should be, but I love my job and I’m glad that I’m always doing something different and learning something new.

By: Mary Jachetti, Lab Technician