When the artifacts are excavated, the precise location of where they were found is recorded and all of this information is kept with the individual artifact on an artifact tag. At the end of the day, the artifacts are brought back to the lab.
Most artifacts are gently cleaned in water and left to dry thoroughly. Then, each artifact is given a catalogue number- this is a unique number given to each artifact. Most artifacts have the catalogue number written on them- but in a conservationally sound way. We lay a strip of nailpolish on the artifact, let it dry, write the number on it, and seal it with another strip of nailpolish. This way it is very hard to separate the artifact number from the artifact. And by using nailpolish, we are making sure that the artifact number does not permanently adhere to the artifact- this way, it does not compromise the integrity of the artifact, and we can change the number if necessary.
Iron and other metal artifacts are treated very differently. If we were to leave metal artifacts out to dry, they would crumble, eventually decompose, and vanish. We need to halt the corrosion process of metal- and we begin by keeping them wet. Iron artifacts are sewn into mesh bags to prepare them for chemical treatment. This keeps each artifact separate from the others and ensures that they do not get separated from their artifact number. Then, we store the bags in water until they are ready for treatment. Iron artifacts will sit in a solution of sodium hydroxide dissolved in water- sodium hydroxide is a chemical which is found in oven cleaner, actually. This chemical halts the corrosion process of the iron; it may take as long as a year for this part of the process to finish. Then, we put the iron bags back in water, to leach out all of the sodium hydroxide and return the artifacts to a neutral pH. At this point they can be left to dry, as they are now stable.
Now, all the artifacts must be measured. Then the artifacts are described and identified on a computerized database and all of the location information collected during excavation is recorded here. Each artifact can have up to forty individual descriptive bits of data entered on the database. In an individual field season, we may find between seven and ten thousand artifacts.
All of this information will allow
us to reconstruct the site long after the archaeologists have filled in
the excavation. Archaeology is a slow process. Archaeologists are concerned
about maximizing the amount of information found about each artifact; not
maximizing the number of artifacts found. All of this information that
we collect can be used to reconstruct the site and the lives of the people
who lived there.
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