A day in the life of an archaeologist: Sharing clay pottery

A day in the life of an archaeology curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania can vary greatly. On this day, Jim Herbstritt and Kim Sebestyen hosted a public outreach program in the museum’s multi-purpose demonstration space known as the Nature Lab.

The morning was spent in preparation for the program titled, “Pots of Clay and What They Say.” Materials were gathered, and notes were reviewed before heading over to the Nature Lab, a new multipurpose demonstration lab adjacent to the natural history exhibits on the third floor of The State Museum. Nature Lab features live educational presentations, as well as interactive, hands-on learning experiences.

A crowd of 40-50 children and adults gathered for the event, filling the benches at the rear of the room, as well as the tables that were set up around the speaker.

Jim discussed the types and uses of prehistoric pottery in Pennsylvania before inviting the group to try their hand at crafting and decorating their own pottery from modelling clay. The kids jumped at the chance for a hands-on experience. Before long, the curators had their hands full. Jim, Kim, and our summer intern, Naomi, guided the children’s exploration of the various tools used in ceramic production. There were shells and cordage used for stamping, as well as bone and wood tools for incising and indenting the clay. The young potters looked at actual examples of prehistoric ceramics from our collections as inspiration for their creations.

Archaeologists enjoy sharing their research and collections with the general public.  Their jobs at the museum provide us with a constant audience. Our goal is to educate visitors to the benefits of learning about our past and understanding change and adaption in cultural behavior. Archaeology provides history and heritage to many groups whose past would be lost from the documented record, but recovery of their artifacts provide the tangible evidence of their lives and a window to the past for our visitors.

Janet Johnson, a curator in the Archaeology Division at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, drafted this blog post.  

Kenneth J. Basalik – A Day of Archaeology, 2014

A day in the life of an archaeologist: 7-9-14

Today started early as I left the house at 6:45am to meet with a client at 7:15am. The meeting was supposed to involve a discussion of the findings of archaeological excavation in Chester County. Instead of discussing the significance of the archaeological finds, a different situation arose that needed attention. A project, for which the cultural resources work was completed four years ago, was set to go to construction. Unfortunately, the planned construction access area had just been blocked by the installation of a new utility pole. Construction access could be undertaken by another route, but that route had not be evaluated previously. In addition to a possibility of archaeological impacts, the new access area lay within a listed historic district and adjacent to two historic properties. The new access route needed to be evaluated for potential impacts to cultural resources, and quickly, or, because of scheduling related to endangered species habitats, construction could be delayed for a year. Fortunately I had forgotten [as I often do] to remove my laptop from my car, and so was able to use it to connect to my office, collect files from four years past, and verbally address the issues at hand. By 11am I was back to the office working on preparing documentation describing the proposed work, the preservation of the landscape using geotextiles, and the lack of impact by the proposed work. By 5:30pm the documentation was sailing through the ether to the client for review. I arrived home by 6:30 pm with the thought that tomorrow would begin early with a meeting to discuss review comments on the construction access, and maybe, just maybe, there would be time to discuss the archaeological excavations in Chester County.

Kenneth J. Basalik, Ph.D.
President – Cultural Heritage Resource Services, Inc.
Lansdale, Pennsylvania (USA)

Ilene Grossman-Bailey – A Day of Archaeology, July 2014

Ilene Grossman-Bailey, Jennifer Palmer, Wendy Miervaldis, and Chris Setzer excavting at Summerseat in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Ilene Grossman-Bailey, Jennifer Palmer, Wendy Miervaldis, and Chris Setzer excavting at Summerseat in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

July 9th, 2014
I work as a professional archaeologist and I’m active on the board of the Archaeological Society of NJ. Today my work combined field work and office work. I performed a pedestrian reconnaissance of a location proposed for a bridge replacement in a rural part of Burlington County, New Jersey that is still very close to areas that have undergone significant development. The project requires an archaeological survey under New Jersey laws protecting freshwater wetlands. I walked over the entire project area and took photos. I looked at the topographic relief, setting, vegetation cover, and levels of disturbance, in order to assess the potential for prehistoric and historic archaeological resources. I spoke with a colleague about prehistoric sites in the vicinity of the project site. This afternoon, I examined historic maps and wrote up the field work portion of my report. Another aspect of an archaeological practice involves teaching and to that end I reviewed texts and articles, including a fascinating one about Richard III’s remains found in a car park in the UK, for an upcoming Spring 2015 Introduction to Archaeology class. I also looked over the results of a local dig I did with volunteers in my town in Bucks County last month toward writing up the results and planning the next dig day.
Ilene Grossman-Bailey, Ph.D., RPA
Senior Archaeologist
Richard Grubb & Associates, Inc.
Cranbury New Jersey (USA)

A Day with Macedonian Archaeology – Promotion of the new archaeological website

For our anniversary, 15 years of continuous archaeological excavations at the site Golemo Gradiste, near the village Konjuh, we have recently created a website Through the website we wanted to convey the magic of Golemo Gradiste and its beautiful surroundings to all interested professionals and admirers of natural and cultural heritage. It’s my pleasure to present our new web site at this occasion of the Day of Archaeology because in this way it will be presented to the right audience.


I would like to point out that as an international project, which was realized with Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, USA, and the Museum of Macedonia, today Archeological Museum of Macedonia, the research conducted at Golemo Gradiste it’s a project with the longest continuity in our country. This is due primarily to the great scientific potential of the site was recognized from the start and funded jointly by Gettysburg College, Dumbarton Oaks, the Getty Foundation and the Ministry of Culture of Republic of Macedonia.

The archaeological site of Golemo Gradiste at Konjuh is a rare example of a city founded in the late 5th or early 6th century in the province of Dardania within the Eastern Roman Empire. Situated on a high and elongated acropolis; a broad, gently sloping terrace between the northern foot of the acropolis and the Kriva River; and a narrow area at the south foot of the acropolis, the city represents the late phase of Roman urbanism, heavily fortified and significantly altered by the insertion of ecclesiastical architecture. Its municipal plan, fortifications, and churches represent the early phases of development of European urbanism and religious heritage. Covering an area of ca 17 ha, Golemo Gradiste near Konjuh is the largest and so far best investigated town from the 6th century AD in the north-eastern part of R. Macedonia.


On the naturally fortified acropolis, an even stronger fortress was created in the 6th century. There, through archaeological excavations 1998-2004, were revealed also gates, streets, stairs, and several residential and public buildings founded on the soft bedrock. A number of them, e.g., a large cistern for water, are visible today. With its dominant position overlooking the wider area, the hill of Golemo Gradiste was of stratigic importance for the safety of the city and its inhabitants during the restless times of the 6-th century. The site is also famous for the numerous chambers cut in the rock, found on the southwestern side of the hill. It is believed that they served as cells for monks in the past.


Excavations since 2005 on the northern terrace have revealed two large residential complexes. One was a multi-unit structure, in which dwellings, storerooms, and workshops clustered around an internal courtyard. The second residence, displaying several spacious rooms, a kitchen area, and a colonnaded courtyard, undoubtedly belonged to a member of the elite. Between the two residences, a large, three-aisle basilica (35 x 15 m) with various unusual features came to light. Among its annex rooms a piscina for baptism is located in an apsidal hall. Fragments of exquisite relief sculpture found in both the Rotunda and the basilica point to a local, mid-6th century workshop.

Goran Sanev, MA – NI Archaeological Museum of Macedonia


Curator Takes Vacation Only to Visit More Museums: How Taking My Work With Me Changed Everything

Mixing business with pleasure is not uncommon practice in the field of archaeology, as most archaeologists will tell you that they love their jobs. Sometimes, however, an opportunity will present itself so serendipitously that it can hardly be called “work” at all. Such was the case for me on a recent family vacation to Europe, where I came face to face with an important archaeological collection at the British Museum in London.

In June 2013, I accepted my first “real” job out of graduate school as Curator of Collections for the Marco Island Historical Society (MIHS) in Marco Island, Florida. I had finished my M.A. in Museum Studies at the University of Florida (UF) just six months prior, and in the meantime had been teaching an undergraduate anthropology course at UF while working as a Curatorial Assistant in the Anthropology Division at the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH). My first assignment for the MIHS would be to develop a permanent exhibit on the prehistory of Marco Island for installation in the Marco Island Historical Museum. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn about Marco Island, not to mention life as a museum curator.

For those who are unfamiliar with Marco Island, it’s as picturesque as it sounds. The largest of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, Marco’s natural crescent beach and fertile waters make it a hotspot for retirees, vacationers, and fisher folk alike. However, many visitors don’t realize that Marco is also home to one of the most famous archaeological sites ever discovered in North America.


Just another day on Marco Island, Florida. Photo by Austin Bell.


In 1895, a retired British military officer named Charles Durnford was tarpon fishing in the area when he was informed of an unusual find in the muck of Key Marco (now Marco Island). Not wanting to miss out on the action, he quickly set sail for Marco to perform his own excavation. It was not long before he too uncovered incredibly well-preserved artifacts made of wood, gourd, and cordage, materials that often do not survive in archaeological sites. Knowing the potential significance of these rare items, Durnford took them all the way to Philadelphia in hopes of conferring with his friend at the University of Pennsylvania, where by chance he encountered Frank Hamilton Cushing. Cushing, a famous anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, confirmed the importance of the finds and was duly inspired to make his own visit to Marco. What Cushing found in his subsequent visits (1895 and 1896) is the stuff of legend, an archaeological site so spectacular that it has yet to be replicated in more than 115 years of archaeology in Southwest Florida. Among the finds were painted wooden masks, finely woven nets, fishing floats made of wood and gourd, and beautifully carved wooden figureheads, some of the finest examples of prehistoric Native American art ever discovered. The most famous of these is the “Key Marco cat,” now housed in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. The cat is so well-known that it’s been featured on a United States postage stamp (see picture)! For archaeologists and archaeology enthusiasts, the Key Marco site serves as one of best known examples of a “wet site,” where biological materials not ordinarily preserved can add greater context to our understanding of prehistoric cultures.


The “Key Marco cat” on a 1989 U.S. postage stamp. Image courtesy of the Marco Island Historical Society.


While Durnford’s cavalier removal of artifacts from Key Marco would be frowned upon today (i.e., illegal), he had the foresight to not only write up his findings in The American Naturalist (1895), but also to donate the objects to the esteemed British Museum in his home country. The fifteen objects remain there to this day, one of which (a wooden tray) has been on permanent exhibit since 1999 as a representative piece of “the Americas.”


The Southeastern United States section of the British Museum’s “North America” exhibit. Note the Seminole patchwork shirt at the top. The wooden artifact on the floor in the back is from Marco Island. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013). © Trustees of the British Museum.


The “wooden tray” discovered by Durnford at Key Marco in 1895, as seen on public exhibition at the British Museum in London. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013). © Trustees of the British Museum.


As fate would have it, my family had organized a trip to Europe months in advance of my hiring at Marco Island. Not wanting to miss out on a rare opportunity to spend “quality time” with my parents and two sisters (not to mention our first ever family vacation overseas), I informed the MIHS of our plans and they generously allowed me to go ahead with them. The British Museum was already on our itinerary, but with my new interest in the Durnford Collection, I put in a last-minute request to see the objects themselves. Given the short notice and my relative inexperience in the field, I was doubtful that such a request could be honored, but I figured “why not ask?” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when the good folks at the British Museum quickly replied with an enthusiastic “yes,” as I’ve come to realize that people in the museum field often bend over backwards to help a colleague. So it came to pass that on July 4th, a date on which I normally would be celebrating my home country’s independence from Great Britain, I stood inside the British Museum’s Ethnographic Collection Storage building by the grace of several wonderful and accommodating staff members, thanking my lucky stars (and stripes) to be in Great Britain. It was there that I came face to face with the Durnford Collection, an experience I am unlikely to forget.


Excitement builds as we pass through the gate to the British Museum in London, England. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013).


Formulating a strategy for exploring the world-renowned British Museum in London, England. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013).


The objects themselves are relatively unremarkable, at least when compared to Cushing’s finds of 1896. The collection consists of several shell tools, some potsherds, a few wooden float pegs, some highly deteriorated netting and cordage, and several other fragmented wooden artifacts. What struck me almost immediately, however, was that these were the very artifacts that Cushing looked at in 1895, probably in a setting similar to this one (with these same artifacts strewn across a table in a non-descript room), and inspired him to take his now famous expedition to Marco Island. Not only were these fifteen objects an inspiration to Cushing, they basically set off the more than 100 years of stellar archaeology conducted in Southwest Florida since him. As a student and practitioner of both museology and archaeology, everything finally made sense in a way that sitting in a classroom never could. I had gone from the person who preserved artifacts to the person artifacts were preserved for, if only for a few fleeting hours. All those years of wondering “who will ever look at all this stuff?” seemed to wash away and my confidence in my career choice reinvigorated. Given the age of the objects (ca. 500-1500 A.D.), the fact that they had been in collections storage for nearly 117 years, and the understanding that conservation techniques were not what they are now, their condition was remarkably good. For someone who had worked with archaeological materials from Southwest Florida for the better part of five years, the thought that someday, long after I’m gone, someone will be looking at an object or collection of objects that I helped curate and be equally excited and inspired seemed to make it all worth it.


The Durnford Collection as it appears 117 years after its excavation. Photo by Austin Bell (July 4, 2013). © Trustees of the British Museum.


The point of this article, however, is not to boast about my travels or associate myself with a renowned institution like the British Museum; people visit their collections all the time. The point, rather, is to share the inspiration I felt as a professional who can sometimes take for granted the amazing things I get to work with on a daily basis. At this point in my career I am more “museum professional” than “archaeologist,” so I’m obliged to advocate for the role that museums play in preserving artifacts that archaeologists uncover. Without museums, objects like those in the Durnford Collection wouldn’t be around for new generations of hungry eyes to feast upon. What’s more, there will almost certainly be new technologies and methods of analysis for museum collections in the future, much the way that radiocarbon dating didn’t exist in 1895. This makes the role of the museum all the more important in archaeology, allowing professionals and amateurs alike the opportunity to interpret and re-interpret the meaning of material culture for centuries to come. As I now try to incorporate what I’ve learned from the British Museum into the exhibit on Marco Island, I encourage you to think about what artifact or collection of artifacts has inspired you. While it’s all just “stuff,” so often it’s the inspiration for anything from a simple idea or personal revelation to a life’s work. Little did the makers of the artifacts discovered by Durnford know that hundreds of years later, their creations would be written about in books and inspiring people from a new locale halfway around the world. So, if you find yourself lacking that personal connection to an artifact (or archaeology in general), I implore you to visit your local museum. Heck, don’t just visit it, ask for a tour of the collections. After all, museum people get excited when other people get excited about museums, so as I said before, “why not ask?”; the worst they’ll do is say “no,” but the best they’ll do is change your life!

Researching the oldest residential street in the USA

By Deirdre Kelleher Doctoral Candidate Temple University Department of Anthropology Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA

Today I spent the morning reviewing and revisiting copies of historical maps of Elfreth’s Alley in Old City Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA).  The Alley is considered one of the oldest, continuously-occupied residential streets in America and is a National Historic Landmark District.  As part of my dissertation research at Temple University, I have conducted fieldwork at Elfreth’s Alley the past two summers.  This summer, with the help of fantastic volunteers, we began exploration of the back portion of two properties owned by the Museum of Elfreth’s Alley (124 & 126 Elfreth’s Alley).  In the afternoon, I met with my advisor Dr. David Orr to discuss my research plan for the rest of the summer based on the results of shovel test pits in the back lots.  This evening, I am going to review more paperwork and field notes in preparation for the field work next week.

Counting and Sorting in the Lab

By Angela Garra Zhinin URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey USA

My day in archaeology was a continuation of a week’s worth of sorting and counting catfish bones from a household feature excavated from a site in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA).  I work for URS Corporation in Burlington, New Jersey and we are conducting investigations along Interstate 95 for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.  So far, I have helped sort over 11,000 fish bones from one level of this specific feature, along with some bones from other various animals.  Although we do not analyze the fish bones here in this lab, I noticed some repetition that could be presorted before being sent off for further analysis.  Judging by the amount of a certain type of catfish bone, I was able to determine that there were at least 65 catfish in this particular provenience.  It didn’t surprise me to learn that a fisherman was listed at this property in the Mid-19th Century, and these bones could possibly be linked to him and his family.

My day in archaeology was a continuation of a week’s worth of sorting and counting catfish bones from a household feature excavated from a site in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA)–Angela Garra Zhinin

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

A Day at the IUP Excavation of the Johnston site

Friday was a busy field day, so I didn’t have a chance to post about our field school at the Johnston site in Western Pennsylvania. My colleague Sarah Neusius and I are in the Anthropology Department of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. We are excavating a large Late PreContact period Native village dated to the 14th-15 th century A.D. We are about to start the last week of the six week field school. This is the 4th season we have worked at the site.

Dr. Sarah Neusius and Students during site excavation

Dr. Sarah Neusius and Students during site excavation

The site was occupied by people from the Monongahela Culture who lived in Southwestern Pennsylvania from the 13th to 17th  centuries A.D.  They are known for their circular villages, shell tempered pottery and post enclosed storage pits attached to circular houses.  The site was first discovered in the 1950s by Dr. Don Dragoo of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA.  He conducted excavations in advance of the construction of a dam on the Conemaugh River to protection Pittsburgh from flooding.  It was thought the site would be destroyed by floodwaters back up by the dam.     We began to look for the site in 2002 and discovered that it was buried by flood deposited sediment which has protected the site.  For example, deer and other animal bone is well preserved.  Deer bone is the most common type of animal bone found at the site.

Excavation of well preserved deer jaw.

Excavations have found  the large posts used to construct houses and  stockades like this one.

Profile of Large Postmold

Large stockade postmold at the Johnston site.


Posts in the post enclosed pits have been found as well.

After the excavation of a post enclosed pit, profiles of the posts are visible.

After the excavation of a post enclosed pit, profiles of the posts are visible.

     This reconstructed house shows how the postenclosed pit might have looked under its bark covering.

Both the house and pit might have been covered with bark.

Reconstructed Monongahela House

Betsy Ross’ Pitchers

I have been an archeologist in the U.S. National Park Service for 24 years (can it really be that long?), where I now serve as head of the History Branch at Independence National Historical Park (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Today, June 27th, I spent several hours working with colleagues preparing a small exhibit commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This temporary exhibit will feature two ceramic pitchers we recovered in Independence Park during the excavations at the site where the National Constitution Center now stands. The pitchers were found in the bottom of a privy pit (outhouse) that once stood in the backyard
behind the house where Betsy Ross spent her last years.  Did Betsy throw them away?

Pitchers found in the bottom of a privy pit

Made in England between about 1816 and 1820, the pitchers bear images of two War of 1812 naval engagements in which the fledgling U. S. Navy was victorious over the mighty British Navy.  English potteries produced many such designs specifically for  export to the American market. In so doing, they were helping an adversary celebrate a victory over their own navy. I don’t know if they appreciated the irony in that. I do know that they were glad to find a willing market for their goods.  Whatever they meant to the British potters, for Betsy Ross’ family they probably marked the stirrings of national pride sparked by the War.
During the course of the day I also spent time meeting with a colleague from our maintenance staff trying to figure out the safest way to remove an obsolete 1970’s ventilation duct from inside the vault that protects some of the remains of Benjamin Franklin’s house at our in-ground archeology exhibit in Franklin Court. There was yet another meeting today. This last one involved deciding on how the archeologists and the museum curator in the park could best assist a team of faculty and students from Drexel University’s Digital Media program in adding accurate details to a 3D digital reconstruction of the 18th century house in which a African American coachman lived. The reconstruction is base on another site we excavated within the park.…and of course, as every day, there was lots and lots of paperwork to fill out. I do work for the government, after all.

Jed Levin
Independence National Historical Park
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA