Student Blog — So You Don’t Like Working Outside?

For every day in the field excavating, you can estimate about 3 days in the lab to deal with the material recovered…Stephanie shines a light on some of the more hidden aspects of archaeology. — Kate

Throughout the 2018 field school we have been steadily accumulating artifacts from the days we have been on the Nassau Mill site, BcGn-23. By Thursday May 17, we had finished collecting most of this year’s artifacts [ Although a big whack just came in on the 28th! — Kate ]  and have over 6000 artifacts from 12 new contexts plus the previous 34 contexts of which we continued excavating about 15 of these.

Artifacts freshly washed and waiting cataloguing as soon as they are dry. Photo Stephanie Hudson.
Artifacts freshly washed and waiting cataloguing as soon as they are dry. Photo Stephanie Hudson.

When you think archaeology, I would assume you picture Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, people whose main job is in the field gathering artifacts and avoiding explosions. And while these media perfectly show the destruction of sites that comes from archaeology, though in a slightly different manner, these media do not show what takes the most time and is one of the larger parts of archaeological work…Lab work!

I know I’ve enthralled you in what I’m about to describe to you, but it is not dull like you may have been led to believe. Lab work consists of cleaning artifacts, letting them dry, cataloguing, recording the information in a database, and finally storing or displaying the artifacts. This is the time when artifacts are categorized, identified, and historically placed to date the site. This part is not shown in media; and the real-world issues come from those last two processes. This issue is called backlogging; and occurs when artifacts are either not recorded or left without a proper storage facility. This has become an increasing problem in the discipline and in particular North American archaeology.

Recording and storage or displaying artifacts is a problem not just faced in general North American archaeology but also on our site. Last year’s field school had numerous artifacts, over 12000, that were not all recorded by the end of the course and had to be continuously recorded by volunteers during the fall semester. Even during this year’s first lab day we were recording catalogued artifacts from last year’s final excavation days, and we may not have everything recorded digitally by the end of this year’s field school.

It is not yet clear on how to tackle backlogging issues besides working through the artifacts, but then the issue of new sites and their artifacts becoming backlogged and so on becomes the main problem. It seems like a never-ending process that will keep people in the labs forever, but it also gives archaeologists jobs that are not directly out in the field. That may sound strange to you…“an archaeologist that doesn’t work in the field?!” But if we look at it percentage wise with field work and excavation being around let’s say 30%, that still leaves 70% of archaeological work left to do. That is lab work and writing papers and articles about the site to give to in some cases both the public and other archaeologists interested in the site and what it tells us.

Therefore, hearing that I am partial to lab work and don’t fancy myself an outdoorsman doesn’t mean I would be less of an archaeologist, what it means is I have a different part to play in an archaeological excavation that is no more or less important than those out on site digging up the past.

When I think of Lab days, I think of inside jokes, insane laughter, and soundtrack music played in the background. It sounds silly but honestly our lab days are some of my best memories, as it holds a day when everyone is together, and laughter is never short; and that may be the one thing I miss the most when June rolls around.

–Stephanie Hudson