Lazy Friday Afternoon, Let’s do….Lab Work?

I’m just going to come straight out with the most exciting, best learned lesson from lab work. I’m a bone expert and can tell the difference between mammal, bird and fish bone to a T. Impressive I know. Besides this mind blowing fact that has changed my view of myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find out two things. First, that archaeology has a lot of work (aka lab work) to do once done with the grueling excavation process most people think to be the only part of archaeology, second that it can actually be quite entertaining and fun.

An array of bones

An array of bones


One could almost deduce that excavation is the easy part. After that, one has to take everything found, and separate it into bags according to what it is. If thats not a lot of work, you have to label everything exactly where it came from. And although we did not need to do this during our two hour lab experience, one also has to clean the artifacts and perve them. A challenging aspect of our lab work, specifically, was having to relabel and separate bags already labeled, we had to fix inconsistencies for artifacts, and didn’t always have the information right or in some cases at all. Therefore, having to label them as surface finds, in a case of a medicine bottle that came with no information. This emphasized the large importance of small details not being overlooked and following protocol to clearly and correctly label everything that needs labeling.


The grandeur of lab work

I think its pretty clear that there are many stereotypes about archeology, how it is basically Indiana Jones, right? Even if someone has overcome that stereotype, many people still don’t picture archeologist in a lab, sitting on turning chairs, in nice work clothes, listening to music, with bright pink painted nails, sorting through everything found at a site. But it is a large part of archaeology, and this lab experience showed exactly this. That without this last step in the lab, excavation would be worthless.

My statement earlier might be misguided though. Sitting in air conditioning singing along, or I was singing my heart out, while my classmates gave me a quizzical glances, to songs I love, learning about history and sorting through artifacts that were actually really cool and intriguing was something I enjoyed on a Friday afternoon.  More importantly though, something very necessary and important to the process of performing an archaeological excavation on a site. People tend to not look past whats put in front of their eyes. In this case, seeing artifacts go straight from digging to a museum. They miss one of the most important steps, and without this step, archaeology would not let us look back in the past, to help the better the future.




Ugh, Lab Work. So Boring…Right?

What people think archaeologists always do...

Archaeological field work…

When most people think of archaeology, they probably picture someone digging in a jungle searching for hidden treasures, or perhaps uncovering the tomb of some great pharaoh in Egypt. Sitting in a well-lit and comfortable lab re-bagging artifacts while listening to music usually doesn’t factor into the adventurer stereotype that many people may assume is what archaeology is all about. Working in a lab may even sound incredibly dull and uninteresting. However, this simply isn’t the case, and I can attest to the fact that lab work can actually be incredibly interesting and fun- while still fulfilling its primary purpose of processing, identifying, and analyzing artifacts.

...and what they actually do a lot of the time.

…vs. lab work.

Though originally our groups had no idea what to expect from our two-hour long lab work session, we took to our task of re-labelling and re-bagging artifacts fairly easily and quickly. The work was relatively simple when we got into a rhythm, but still managed to hold our attention. Even the seemingly endless fragmented animal bones were exclaimed over when we were told what part of the body they came from. Teeth, ankle bones, even bits of turtle shell were the source of many “Cool!”s and “Wow!”s. There was never a moment of boredom, and the time flew by because we were constantly learning more and more about the artifacts we were handling.

Despite being genuinely fascinating, lab work also serves several important purposes. As was the case with the artifacts that we were working with, sometimes mistakes in labelling or sorting are made in the field and accounted for and fixed in the lab. For instance, within bags that were predominantly mammal bones, we sometimes found a stray fish bone or bit of shell that had to be removed when we re-bagged the contents. Lab work is also important because it allows the archaeologist to clean and then more closely analyze the

Drill bits can be used in the lab to find the diameter of a pipe stem and thus determine what time period the pipe is from.

Drill bits can be used in the lab to find the diameter of a pipe stem and thus determine what time period the pipe is from.

artifacts. An artifact may be wrongly identified in the field for a number of reasons, and, upon analysis in the lab, be properly identified and dealt with accordingly. It may also prove difficult to determine what time period an artifact is from in the field, and access to special equipment, texts, or other tools that aren’t available during field work may be necessary.

Even though lab work may initially sound dull when juxtaposed against the “adventures” of field work, processing artifacts can, in fact, be just as enjoyable and interesting as finding them in the first place. Lab work allows the archaeologist to learn more about the artifacts they’ve found so they can accurately analyze them within the context of history. Because of this, lab work is a major pillar of archaeology that is necessary to understanding history to the best of our ability.

 Works Cited:

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“Archaeological Methods.” Alabama Archaeology. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.          <>.

“The Dig: Adventures in Archaeology.” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <>.

Tiver, Donald. “Becoming a Well-rounded Archaeologist.” Day of Archaeology. N.p., 29 July 2013. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <>.

Beer Jugs, Pottery and Archaeological Analogy

I was able to participate in archaeological lab work this week and I do not think I have ever been so excited to look at broken fragments of beer jugs like the one below.

19th century beer jug

Looking at a variety of artifacts from an excavation site in Annapolis, Maryland, I saw bags containing fish bones and mammal bones and at first look they all look the same. However, my professor was an expert in identifying bones and was able to explain distinctions between them. Small details like size and curvature along the bone edges can indicate to which animal a bone belonged. Over a course of two hours, I got pretty good at identifying pig toes. Also, we looked at different glass and we learned that vessel glass was most likely used as a container because it is identifiable by its shape. It is rarely flat like window glass.

Lab work was a chance to conduct cultural and historical interpretation from the artifacts we examined. For example, pieces of a jug we looked at like the one below shows agricultural adaptation specifically because of the small opening at the top. We can likely infer that this type of jug was used for liquids or the people who owned this jug wanted to regulate exactly how much they wanted to come out of the jug or put in. This piece of pottery is technological evidence that with analysis can give clues on the activities of the community during a time. An archaeologist can have an idea of the tool and pottery advancement, which can be telling of the social systems, and ideology of the people in the past.


The purpose of lab work is to reconstruct the past and archaeologists use analogy to help. In archaeology, analogy is used to infer the identity of and relationships among archaeological data by comparing them with similar phenomena documented in human societies that are living or recorded historically (Ashmore, 180). Unknowingly, I was using analogy during my time in the lab. When examining the beer jug, I was comparing it to what I had previously seen today’s society. I thought about the evolution of the beer jug turned beer bottle and noticed that because of its similarities in form, reconstruction was easier to understand.

Artifacts provide information about societies’ cultures, environments, people, and animals. Artifacts are common but it is the history behind the item that reveals the value; thus, all artifacts should be respected and deemed valuable.

For further information on archaeology analogy, check out Wendy Ashmore’s and Robert J. Sharer’s book Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology.

Works Cited:

Ashmore, W.J., and Sharer, R.J., Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. 6th Edition.

Wait, I Don’t Get To Dig Up Dinosaurs?


Archeology is a discipline often shrouded in myth from popular culture. Characters such as Indiana Jones and Movies like The Mummy tend to lead people to associate archeology with the discovery and analysis of human remains. While human remains are undoubtedly interesting, there is a huge amount of information to be gleaned from animal bones discovered at archeological sites.

In fact, there is an entire discipline devoted to the study of these bones:  Zooarchaeology. This include the study of bones, scales, shells, and even hair. Basically anything that at one point belonged to an animal. Bones and shells are the most studied, generally because they preserve the best in the archeological record. It is important to understand the differences between zooarchaeology and paleontology. Often thanks to popular culture the two different disciplines are easily confused. Both study animals of the past, however the difference lies in the fact that archeologists study animal remains as a function of their relationships to a human past. Paleontologists study bones as a function of their relationship to the history of life on earth as a whole, not just human.

Even without dinosaur bones, there is plenty of variety to be uncovered at archeological sites. The bones of animals are often recovered in large quantities.  I saw this first hand during an archeology lab exercise this week, where my task was to assist in the reorganization of a variety of artifacts and ecofacts from a site in Annapolis, Maryland. Some of these items happened to be large bags consisting of a jumble of bone and fragments, that looked something like the below image.

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Animal bones found at archeological sites could belong to domesticated herds, they could belong to pets, or wild animals hunted for food, or they could belong to pests such as rats and mice. So why does it matter. Why should we bother to separate out what type of animal each tiny piece of bone belonged to?

Studying animal bones provides knowledge about how people might have interacted with animals in the past. We have learned through bones such as these about what animal previous humans farmed, which they kept as pets and even which they chose to worship and/or sacrifice for religious purposes. Also from studying these bones archeologists can find indicators about the tools used in the past. Cut marks on the bone, can provide hints to the tools used to kill and butcher animals that did not die a natural death. The bones of small mammals such as rodents and birds, can even provide clues to the environment surrounding the exploratory site.

While there is no denying that the discovery of human skeletons tends to excite public interest, in many ways the tiniest rodent bone can provide just as much if not more information about the way those studied lived. Our relationship to animals and our manipulation of the environment has remained an important force throughout human history.

Works Cited:

Ashore, W.J., and Sharer, R.J., Discovering Our Past: A brief introduction to Archeology. 6th Edition.

Archaeological Lab Work: Buttons, Marbles, and Glass, OH MY!

Have you ever wondered what the job of an archaeologist entails? Is archaeology as action filled as it is depicted in the Indiana Jones movies?


(For your listening pleasure!)

This past Friday, I was lucky enough to put some of my own lingering questions about archaeology to rest. Through laboratory work with my archaeology class, I got a glimpse into the life of an archaeologist. Unfortunately, I did not take down any bad guys or run through any deserts, but needless to say, the experience proved to be quite interesting.

My hopes were not especially high for the lab work section of my archaeology course. Frankly, I was under the false impression that it would consist of manual labor in an eerie basement (plus, who really wants to do any sort of work on a Friday afternoon). However, I quickly realized just how terribly I had misjudged archaeological lab work.

Upon opening my first bag of artifacts from the Dunn Site, I became invigorated by the idea that I held ancient relics in my hands and that they represented a little piece of history. Most intriguing to me were not the well-preserved glass bottles and pottery, but rather, the little pieces—the buttons, the marbles, even fragments of glass. Was the button that of a rich man or did it belong to a little girl? Did a little boy use this marble in the schoolyard? Each of these items awaits an archaeologist to uncover its unique story

Native American Marbles

Native American Marbles

US Armed Forces Button

US Armed Forces Button

After recovering an artifact from a site, an archaeologist must create some order in what otherwise may appear to be a random set of objects. Thus, they work to classify the artifacts according to certain criteria. First, artifacts are generally classified according to material: glass, metal, ceramic, or stone. Within these groupings, archaeologists may sort them further. For example, glass may be sorted into two divisions: window glass and vessel glass. Once categorized, artifacts can be stored and then labeled based upon their respective trench unit and stratigraphic layer in which they were found.

While many people believe that an archaeologist’s main focus is to find an artifact, in reality, all of this work is completed with the main goal of finding out the effect that an artifact had on a culture–to determine that the button belonged to a rich man and the marble was, indeed, used by a boy in a schoolyard. In the end, the tiniest of artifacts can reveal the most about a past culture.

Works Cited:

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Art as a Memory of a Society

The Spanish conquest of common day Mexico altered the lives of the indigenous people immensely. Not only was the land changed, their social and political systems tested and altered, their way of live and religion were violently altered. Italian anthropologist’s, Carol Severi, study of this revealed the new religion that emerged from the situation the indigenous were thrust into. Christianity was delivered to the natives and their old religion was thrown out; but when the priests who taught Christianity left generations later, the natives had to adapt to a religion that used to be taught to them, and they created a blended religion, a mix of the new and old. Interesting enough, this was expressed through their art.  Dona Sebastiana was adapted, a version close enough to Saint Sebastian, but with enough differences to show the blend of old and new and creation of a new symbol. This art tells a great deal about the society.

Image of Dona Sebastiana

Image of Dona Sebastiana

As Severi brushed on in lecture, this relates to Aby Warburg and his study of art, mainly, his assertion that art serves more than visual pleasure. Warburg believes that art constructs the memory of a society, that art serves as a social memory as a society can choose what it what to presents to the rest of the world. This is a completely different spin on the view of art then I have ever heard of, but it is simply logical.  Art is a type of expression. People want to express parts of their lives that mean a lot to them, why else would one spend hours and a countless amount of effort constructing it if it wasn’t important.

Struggles, triumphs, changes, traditions, leaders, commoners, monuments, terror, love and so many more parts of a society are expressed through art as these are the important parts of this society, the parts they want the rest of the world to know.  Take Paris, a majority of the art associated with it is the Eiffel Tower. Because it represents the city and thats what its known for. Art from many societies express their leaders, as they hold much importance and influence the society greatly.

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Art is a form of expression that others can’t change. Sure, there will be art where its non monumental to a society. However, much art holds that emphasis over a society. More than that, images are necessary to exercise a certain kind of thought, thoughts that the societies hold and express and share with the world through art.


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Anthropology, Images, and Social Memory

Carlo Severi, an Italian anthropologist, has studied the connection between images and social memory. By asking questions such as, how images contribute to a society’s understanding of itself, and where history and tradition intersect, Severi has uncovered incredible findings about the aesthetic world. Perhaps the most important discovery of Severi’s is the necessity of images and how they allow cultures to interpret thoughts and build a common memory. He explains the value of seeing images as more than aesthetic materials; instead they have both historical and theoretical value that connects a society together.

Severi’s study of Mesoamerican and Catholic culture represents the importance of images and social identity. The Spanish conquest of Mexico not only took away political power and basic agency from Native societies; it also replaced their culture with European principles and values. Indigenous religions were systematically destroyed as people were forced to adapt to a foreign culture. Since worldview is fundamental to societies, this destruction of culture caused incredible strife for Native people. As one can imagine, affected societies struggled to hold on to previous traditions in the face of major social change. The common memory of historical Mesoamerican societies used images to hold onto their religion as the Spanish converted the area.

A major theme in indigenous Mesoamerican religion is respect towards death and the dead. However, death is seen as dark and evil in many Anglo-Saxon cultures and adaptations of Christianity. Upon the Spanish attempts to convert societies to Catholicism, a sect of people retained culture via the incorporation of Dona Sebastiana, or the Saint of Death. Paintings, sculptures, and other religious materials were created to depict Dona Sebastiana and death’s triumph over Jesus. Catholics from Europe obviously do not condone such iconography.

By retaining an important figure as they were being converted to a new religion, native Mesoamericans were able to hold on to a piece of their culture. Images created in honor of Dona Sebastiana allowed communities to build a image and interpretation of the Saint of Death and ultimately allowed a common memory and tradition to be created. Besides the significance of Dona Sebastiana in historical religious terms, the icon also represents the inversion of the death of Christ, revealing the triumph of death rather than the opposite, which is traditionally celebrated in Catholicism. Moreover, in social terms, there image of Dona Sebastiana’s arrow piercing Jesus shows the conflict of enemy cultures. All in all, Severi’s presentation illuminated the connection between social changes, images, and common memory.

by Kathryn Marshall

Wait…This Isn’t History Class.

History is the study of the past, usually in a narrative sequence of events. History places events in nice neat time periods ignoring the complexities of how the transitions occurred. Archaeology helps provide the understanding of how these changes occurred through examining and analyzing culture. One of the ways this is done is through fieldwork.

In class we examined the Cultural History of Anasazi; Anasazi is the archaeological term used to describe one of the four prehistoric Puebloan peoples in the region of the American Southwest right above Mesoamerica. In the Cultural History we learned that Anasazi culture dated back as far as 1,500 BC and has been spilt into eight time periods based on their tools, religion, architecture, and agriculture. The first time period is framed from 1,500BC- AD 50, where they used cave campsites for storage but in the next time period from AD50- AD500 they developed pit houses. Pit houses were built partially underground with a mound above the surface and a hole in the roof called a sipapu that symbolized the entrance into the spirit world.

This is a reproduction of a pit house at Mesa Verde National Park. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

This is a reproduction of a pit house at Mesa Verde National Park. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

Over time agriculture became more developed which led to communities being formed as well as a spiritual structures called kivas. The communities kept expanding to large pueblos and many kivas until the seventh time period from 1350 AD- 1600AD where the kivas started to become very scarce. Then the last time period from 1600AD- present the Spanish arrive and establish missions.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Example of how the Pueblo Society became.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Example of how the Pueblo Society became.

All of this is a great framework of history of Anasazi but it doesn’t tell us the hows and why. We know from 1350AD- 1600AD the kivas became very scarce but why? What happened to the religion that could have caused that, did the Katchina cult development have any bearing on the disappearance of the kivas? These questions are where archaeology becomes helpful. To explain, Patricia Lambert of Utah State University and Brian Billman and Banks Leonard of Soil Systems excavated a pit house near Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado in the late twelfth-century A.D where they found a lot of inconsistency to the cultural history layout. The site was a Pueblo III habitation, during this time period pit house have been long outdated and replaced with large pueblos. They also found that the sipapu had been sealed and the criteria for cannibalism had been met. With this newfound information we can start to make theories as to why these particularities had occurred. Some believe the land was a marginal environment not fit for agriculture which wouldn’t allow this particular area to have time to create large complex housing. The cannibalism could have occurred simply from a lack of food and desperation; however other believe it could have been a spiritual offering since the sipapu had been sealed.

As you can see history gives us a nice framework to work within but archaeology allows us to closely examine and analyze the convolution of these events through culture.


April Beisaw, Archaeology 100, Class #15

A Case for Cannibalism,” ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1994

Amélie A. Walker, Anasazi Cannibalism?, Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997

Archaeological Crime Scene Investigation

The relationship between humans and their objects is quite interesting, especially when trying to determine what type of person someone was solely from the physical items surrounding them. A lot can be told about a person’s death as well as the life that he or she may have led. In murder scene archaeology, often times the victim was caught off-guard and was surprised by the attack. Even through art (photographs as well as paintings) we can see many different aspects of a person’s death, life, and what kind of person they were without even knowing their name.


In a George Bellows painting, a crime scene is depicted. Three German soldiers are shown invading a Belgian home. This took place right after World War I. An interesting thing to take note of is the fact that throughout the years, war conflict has become more and more anonymous. During World War I, the soldiers could see their victims come to terms with the fact that their lives were going to be taken from them. However, as the concept of dehumanizing the enemy became more and more imperative throughout warfare, now people may not even see it coming. They may not ever know who killed them. In this Bellows painting, a woman sees the three German soldiers and her dead family members (most likely). She clutches a chair and a table as she recognizes her fate. She knows that she will most likely end up as the people on the floor had. In most George Bellows paintings, there is a sense of impending doom or approaching danger.


In another crime scene piece of art (this time a photograph), the photographer, as well as the victim, remains anonymous. Without knowing anything about this person lying dead on the floor, an archaeologist can use objects in his room in order to understand the life that this man has led. We know that this took place in mid-March, 1946 because of the issues of Post magazine lying on the ground. We also know that the certificate on the dresser was a recent accomplishment. There is also a pistol and a flask hanging somewhere in the room, showing lack of use for them but lingering affection for these objects. The clear ashtray shows that the pipe was not being used; perhaps it was a gift to the victim. We can tell that this young man was religious because of the Bible and rosary beads in his room. We know that the victim may have enjoyed the comics section of the newspaper, as it was open to that section while lying under the bed.

These pieces of artwork show that archaeologists do not necessarily need to be in the room of the crime scene or even know anything about the victims in order to learn something about the types of people they were and the lives that they led. These crime scenes make us think about our lives in general and how we will be remembered. It raises certain questions about our lives and memory after we are gone. Will our deaths be recorded? Will we be analyzed by archaeologists in the future? What will be remembered of us after we are gone?


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Crime Scene Investigation

There is a natural human fascination with mysteries, crimes and murders. Just look at how many shows dealing with these topics exist on television. While it’s fascinating to watch these actors “solve” ridiculously twisted mysteries that have been conjured up for the audience’s amusement, what is truly impressive is being able to do this without writers and with only one picture of the crime scene. What Dr. Beisaw demonstrated was more than simple entertainment; it showed just how useful archaeology is in today’s world.

This show is one of many, many examples of crime and murder related TV shows on air today.

This show is one of many, many examples of crime and murder related TV shows on air today.

Archaeology can be about more than locating and dating pottery from the long gone past. The techniques and methods of archaeology can be applied to many situations to help explain something we don’t understand or don’t have an exact record of. (Even with a record it’s important to check facts and keep bias and left-out facts in mind.) If, from the smallest fragment of a plate an archaeologist can tell you many things about the culture of the people who likely used it, then just imagine what an archaeologist could do with the details of an everyday mystery.

What makes an archaeologist so fit to understand the unexplained is their ability to draw information from the placement of an artifact and to learn from what the purpose of an artifact is and what it represents in a culture.

In the case of the crime scene photo Dr. Beisaw analyzed, she was able to learn the most about the victim not from his fingerprints or DNA analysis, but from the objects around his room. She could almost certainly place the month and year of the murder by noticing which magazine issues were present. She knew the victim was a young man likely in, or just out of high school by a certificate near his dresser and from child-like objects still on his wall. She knew it would likely have been uncomfortable to sit at the desk in his room due to the awkward height of the chair. His shoes were poised in a manner that suggests this young man was caught while getting ready to leave. She knew that during this era it was likely for families to rent out rooms when their children left so the victim may not be the young man who once lived in this room. And she knew he met his fate by being struck from behind due to the positioning of his body.

Documenting a crime scene is actually very reminiscent of documenting an archaeology site. There are a lot of parallels between these sciences.

Documenting a crime scene is actually very reminiscent of documenting an archaeology site. There are a lot of parallels between these sciences.

At first glance, most people wouldn’t notice these details and draw these conclusions. We usually leave actually solving the mystery to the police or the detectives in our TV shows while we sit back and relax. But you don’t need to have police training and experience to see the truth of the mystery for yourself—you just need an eye trained for details and the knowledge of how to use those details to come to a greater understanding of what is in front of you.

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