shell midden

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!