In the lab: Artifact analysis

By Chris Dial

When people think of Archaeology they conjure up images of the great pyramids or of a whip toting, gun-slinging b-film heroes but the reality of archaeology isn’t quite as glamorous. Archaeology is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more than what Hollywood would have you believe.


The author, Chris, washing artifacts prior to analysis.

Archaeology is a series of processes that ensure good scholarly work, and they must be followed to make sure the work being done is scientifically valid. To begin with you have to actually put a trench into the ground however that is a different blog post. This blog post is going to focus on what happens after you put a shovel in the ground and the sifting is done for the day.

So what happens to artefacts when they come in from the trenches?
When artifacts come out of the field they are given a special lot number that is tied to where they were excavated, or their provenience. They are then washed and put on drying racks. Then, they are put into bags on which their lot numbers are written, the units and levels they were dug out of, and the date as well as the initials of the excavators.

After that process the real work begins. In this stage of the process the artifacts are taken out of their bags and sorted by type of artifact, such as ceramics, lithics, or bone (faunal material in archaeology-speak). The ceramics are then divided by size and temper. Here at Singer-Moye there are two main types of temper that are present in the ceramics: sand/grit temper and shell temper. There are fiber tempered ceramics here at the site but they are from an earlier stage of occupation and not as prominent within the context of where we are digging. The ceramics are further separated by whether or not there is decoration on the ceramic. There are a few types of decoration that appear here at the site including punctated, stamped, and incised. Punctated decoration is when a person pokes holes in the ceramic before it is fired.¬†Stamped decoration is when a person uses a paddle that has a design on it and presses the paddle into the ceramic when the clay is still wet. Inscribed pottery is when a person uses a stick or stylus to inscribe designs into the clay while it’s still wet. There is also rim decoration as well. Once all the sorting is done the ceramics are counted weighed in their groups and as a whole and then put into new bags and labeled with the quantity and weights. They are then done and ready for the final stages of analysis.

Lithics are done in much the same way. They are sorted, weighed, and labeled, but the categories are different. The main category here is the coastal plain chert lithics. They come in two different subtypes, white/yellow opaque and honey transparent. These categories are color categories. We have also been finding ground stone artifacts.

In all, the analysis process is but a step in a much larger process that archaeologists use to help us answer our questions of the past. It’s tedious, but it’s a necessary step in our research.

About Dr. Jennifer Birch

I am an archaeologist who specializes in the Archaeology of Eastern North America. Conceptually, my interests are underpinned by the desire to understand how the lived experiences of individuals and communities articulates with long-term, large-scale processes of social and cultural change. My current research is concerned with the development of organizational complexity and diversity in eastern North America. Ongoing projects in Northeastern North America include: - Geophysical investigations of Late Precontact Iroquoian Villages - Regional synthesis of data on Iroquoian settlement patterns, including intra-site patterns, interregional interaction, and geopolitical realignment Ongoing projects in Southeastern North America include: - Multi-scalar investigations of the Late Woodland to Mississippian transition in the Deep South - Household and community archaeology at the Singer-Moye site
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