As our summer archaeological field work continues, artifact lab analysis is also well underway. Excavations are really just the beginning of the archaeological discovery process; analysis of the artifacts is critical to understanding the whole of a site.
In the lab we are currently working with materials from Bray School, the Wren Yard, Brafferton, the Coffeehouse, and Anderson’s Public Armory sites. Once the artifacts have been turned in at the lab, there is an ordered series of activities which take place.
In order to record all pertinent data related to an artifact, we need to be able to clearly see all aspects of the fragment, which means . . . washing. Our field school students, interns, and volunteers work in our wet lab washing materials using water and a toothbrush. Certain materials such as a bone combs, metal buttons or fragile ceramics are not washed with water. They often find their way to our Archaeological Conservation Lab for more specialized care.
After being cleaned, the materials are allowed to air dry before being sorted by artifact type such as nails, animal bone, ceramic, glass etc. The materials are then rebagged and readied for our catalogers.
Catalogers digitally record how many fragments of material are present in each context as well as color, patterns, vessel forms, inscriptions, artifact function, and anything else which is distinguishable or unique. Once completed, the materials are set aside until field and lab archaeologists decide which features or contexts containing artifacts should be crossmended * in order to add to our knowledge about a site.
Before any crossmending takes place, the fragments must be numbered with their respective context information (where they were excavated from on the site). Our lab teaching assistants from the field school are in the process of numbering past seasons from the Bray School site. We start by coating a broken surface of a fragment to prepare it for numbering and then use a nib pen and black ink to label the artifact with its information. Once dried, the materials are returned to their bags until we pull them for mending.
Mending can be a long process. It takes a well-trained eye to notice all the variations in a piece of ceramic or glass which help identify the fragments and their associated pieces, but it is well worth the effort and often rewards us with information about the site which we never would have known without the mending.
Additionally, many individual artifacts or artifact types are researched to better establish trade patterns, material date ranges, manufacturing technologies, to answer larger topical or regional research questions, or even to identify something we’ve never seen. The archaeological collection is comprised of roughly forty million artifacts related to the historic city of Williamsburg making it one of the largest collections of its kind. Much of our time is also spent researching, reviewing and studying artifacts from previous excavations and comparing that analysis to new sites.
With each new bag of artifacts that enters the lab, there is the possibility of a new story, or new information to help unravel an old story. Either way, there’s always a story. If you’d like to see some of the lab work in person, tours are offered every Tuesday for hotel guests and annual pass members. We’d love to have you visit!
*Crossmending refers to the reconstruction of ceramic and glass vessels. Where “mendable” pieces come from different contexts (say a trash pit and a layer) the process allows us to establish feature relationships on the site. It also provides vessel forms and counts.
Kelly Ladd-Kostro is Associate Curator of Archaeological Collections for Colonial Williamsburg.