Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A typical afternoon in the lab

When we return from the field, the artifacts we collected while surveying have to be processed for study. As you might guess, after a few hundreds or thousands of years of existence, our pottery sherds are not exactly very clean. The first order of business is therefore to clean all artifacts to facilitate the identication and conservation process. Witness two enthousiastic pottery washers in the picture below.

The artifacts are then laid out to dry in seperate baskets. Each basket of artifacts is carefully labeled according to provenience. It is extremely important to conserve this organization. Without it, archaeologists would not be able to reconstruct the context within which the artifacts were found and their historical significance. The next step is to sort the artifacts. As you may gather from the two following pictures, artifacts are laid out on a table and organized.

Before going too far, let me take a step back and devote a few lines to the wonderful world of pottery. As Jeff mentioned in his blog, pottery constitutes the great majority of our finds, and this is true of most archaeological projects. While ceramic fragments may seem banal to many, they have great value to an archaeologist. Not only can they provide a means of dating a site, they can also supply a large amount of cultural information. For example, non-local pottery can point to the existence of trade; differences in local assemblages may betray dıfferent cultural practıces; a large number of coarseware and storage container fragments scattered throughout a small area may indicate a small farmstead rather than an elite or public building. Oftentimes, the majority of finds are undiagnostic, meaning that the appearance of the sherd does not provide enough clues to make any secure judgments as to its date or function. Diagnostic sherds include decorated pieces (painted or molded), rims, handles, bases, and any unusual fragments. These are diagnostic because they often enable us to recognize what kind of vessel is being observed and to place the find within a ceramic cultural and chronological typology.

Sorting the pottery on the table is a preliminary organizational step. Sherds are sorted according to whether they are body fragments, rim fragments, decorated pieces...etc.

Once this is accomplished, the experts swoop in and catalogue which time periods seem to be represented in a site's artifact assemblage. The picture below shows our two directors on the left, Dr. Ann Killebrew and Dr. Gunnar Lehman, laboring over the finds from one of our tell sites (blogpost upcoming!).

After the pottery reading, each artifact is marked with a fine black marker. The information includes the field season number, the site or collection unit number, and the individual sherd number. This system, though tedious, prevents any future confusion as to the provenience of the artifact in question. Below is a picture of Rachel, Florence, Lauren, and Amanda (from left to right) patiently marking pottery fragments. If you don't enjoy this type of detailed work, make sure you don't tell your field director that you have good handwriting!

The penultimate stage consists of drawing selected artifacts before they are bagged and placed into storage. Since the artifacts are not allowed to leave Turkey it is important to collect as much information as possible about a season's finds in order to be be able to perform analytical work in the intervening time. Of course, drawings are also important for publication purposes.

In the next post, we will give you a taste of some of our more exciting finds. As a teaser, I will mention an all time favorite: tombs... (and yes, bones too).




Lauren K. said...

It looks like you guys are having such a great time! Canada is way less exciting than Turkey.

Wendy A. said...

Oooh, tombs and bones. I better see some pictures of that!;)

Q: Do you also try to put these pottery pieces together after figuring out their artifact assemblage? Or do other people take care of that?

Jeffrey Rop said...


Great question!

On our project, we did not make much of an effort to piece the pottery sherds together, although I did see Gunnar make one join almost by accident. In general, the ceramics one finds on a survey are too damaged (from being on the surface and from being subject to ploughing) and scattered for attempting this.

On an excavation, where the sherds are found buried and within a small excavation pit together, this is attempted (and it isn't very fun!). At my previous field school, it was the poor students who spent hours in the sun searching, fruitlessly for the most part, for sherd joins.


Wendy A. said...

Cheers Jeff! :)