Working in the Laboratory
The most common popular perception of archaeology is the image of the archaeologist at work in the field. It is primarily in the laboratory, however, that the material remains recovered during excavation are made meaningful. As described in this and subsequent chapters, laboratory analysis provides the basis for the archaeologist’s reconstructions of culture history, technology, paleoenvironments, subsistence strategies, diet, social and political systems, and ideology. This chapter provides an outline of the common types of laboratory work archaeologists do, beginning with the initial processing of recovered material and then focusing in particular on the analysis of artifacts, ecofacts, and human remains.
After studying this chapter, you should be able to
- outline what happens to material remains between the time of discovery and analysis.
- discuss the different ways of creating artifact types.
- outline the key variables and attributes that are used to determine how stone tools were manufactured.
- outline how archaeologists can identify the probable use of a stone tool.
- outline the key variables and attributes that are used to determine how pottery was made.
- outline the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of NISP and MNI for quantifying animal remains.
- outline how archaeologists analyze sediments.
- outline how human skeletal remains are used to determine the age of the individual at death and whether the individual was male or female.
- define all the glossary terms found in the chapter.
biface – Tools, usually stone, that have been modified on both of the major surfaces. (p.123)
blade – A stone tool that is at least twice as long as it is wide, and has at least roughly parallel sides. (p.125)
china – A category of ceramics based on the type of clay and its porosity, and requiring a firing temperature between 1,100 and 1,200 degrees Celsius. (p.127)
coprolite – Human feces and other animal waste, preserved through drying or mineralization. (p.137)
core tools – Stone tools that are produced by removing flakes from the original cobble, with the remaining core of the cobble becoming the tool. (p.125)
curation – Refers to the process of properly housing and maintaining an archaeological collection for the duration of its lifespan. Curatorial work usually involves ensuring researchers in the future can easily locate and understand all important information associated with the archaeological collection, including when it was excavated, who excavated it, where all the artifacts were found on the archaeological site, and reports and publications on the site. (p.123)
curation crisis – A mounting problem in North America where archaeologists have excavated more artifacts than they can store in repositories designed to curate archaeological collections permanently. (p.138)
detritus – Waste from the manufacture of artifacts, usually stone. Also known as debitage. (p.125)
earthenware – A category of ceramics based on the type of clay and its porosity, and requiring a firing temperature between 900 and 1,200 degrees Celsius. (p.127)
fabric – Also known as the ceramic body, fabric refers to the composition of the clay. (p.127)
flake tools – Stone tools that are made from a flake originally removed from a cobble. (p.125)
flintknapping – Manufacturing stone tools by chipping or flaking. (p.125)
microwear – Wear on tools from use by people, usually only seen under magnification. (p.126)
minimum number of individuals (MNI) – On a broad level, it means the minimum number of individuals of any category of material remains represented by an assemblage of bone. In practice, however, it usually refers to the minimum number of individuals of a particular species. (p.130)
Munsell system – The standard system of measuring color in archaeology, based on hue, chroma, and value. (p.132)
NISP – Acronym for number of identified specimens. (p.131)
orphaned collections – Refers to an archaeological assemblage that has been severely neglected or ignored for many years, resulting in poor curation and/or destruction to artifacts in the collection. Some orphaned collections lack provenience, meaning that archaeologists are unable to discern where artifacts found. (p.138)
pedological – Having to do with the study of soils. Pedology is also known as soil science. (p.131)
porcelain – A category of ceramics based on the type of clay and its porosity, and requiring a firing temperature between 1,300 and 1,450 degrees Celsius. (p.127)
stoneware – A category of ceramics based on the type of clay and its porosity, and requiring a firing temperature between 1,200 and 1,350 degrees Celsius. (p.127)
terra cotta – A category of ceramics based on specific types of reddish clay and its porosity, and requiring a firing temperature less than 1,000 degrees Celsius. (p.127)
textiles – Fabrics manufactured by spinning or weaving plant or animal fibers. (p.129)
trace-element analysis – Subjecting materials to analysis to determine their composition. (p.127)
trepanation – Removing a piece of bone from the skull of a living person; also known as trephination. (p.138)
type – A category of artifact based on typology; types may be descriptive and/or functional. (p.123)
typology – A system of artifact classification based on physical attributes and/or presumed function. (p.123)
unifaces – A stone tool that has been modified on one side only. (p.125)
Archaeological Laboratory Work
Balme, Jane, and Alistaire Paterson. 2013. Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Analyses. Oxford: Blackwell.
Maschner, Herbert D.G., and Christopher Chippendale, eds. 2005. Handbook of Archaeological Methods. New York: Altamira Press.
Banning, E.B. 2000. The Archaeologist’s Laboratory: The Analysis of Archaeological Data. New York: Kluwer.
Sutton, Mark Q., and Brooke S. Arkush. 1996. Archaeological Laboratory Methods: An Introduction. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Group.
Sobolik, Kristin D. 2003. Archaeobiology. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.
White, Tim D., Michael Black, and Pieter Folkens. 2011. Human Osteology. New York: Academic Press.
Larsen, Clark Spencer. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Odell, George H. 2004. Lithic Analysis. New York: Kluwer.
Orton, Clive, and Michael Hughes. 2013. Pottery in Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
DNA in Archaeology
Matisso-Smith, Elizabeth, and K. Ann Horsburgh. 2012. DNA for Archaeologists. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
The Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information website, hosted by the Society for Historical Archaeology, is an excellent on-line source for working with bottles from archaeological sites. It is very comprehensive, and includes instructions on ways to identify bottles, how to classify them, and much more. The site includes many photos.
The Eskeletons website, hosted by the University of Texas, is an excellent, interactive web site for learning more about the human skeleton and comparing human skeletons with those of other primates.