It’s incredible what can be revealed when the vestiges of time are removed. A seemingly ordinary piece of rock turns out to be a unique piece of art. A small sherd of ceramic is cleaned and exhibits a mark telling us precisely who made it, and where and when it was made. These small, yet significant discoveries are the privilege of the archaeological field lab. We take plastic bags from the field excavation and surface collection, which are teeming with nearly as much dirt as artifacts, and we clean and sort them. Often, we find and see things that went unnoticed in the field, where they were obscured by a layer of dirt or overlooked as workers hurried to do their job.
The field lab is made up of some rather simple tools and equipment. On picnic tables we lay out plastic trays, bowls, and a handful of toothbrushes. Field bags are poured onto a tray, then sorted by material type. Glass and ceramic artifacts are washed in the bowls with plain water and a toothbrush. We are careful to watch for anything that may be rubbed off by the toothbrushes—the remnants of a paper label, or a delicate decoration. Metal and rubber artifacts are cleaned with a dry toothbrush, and organic and synthetic materials (such as bones, paper, or leather) are dry brushed unless they are too fragile. After everything has been cleaned, it is laid out on a drawer of a stackable drying rack for at least one day. Ceramic can absorb water, so we are careful to make sure that it is completely dry before it is re-bagged.
Megan dry-brushing some metal
Kathy and Megan cleaning artifacts
Though field lab work is more mellow, and often simpler than the field excavation work, it is an equally important component. For the Kooskia Internment Camp project, which produces significant amounts of artifacts (nearly two hundred bags in the first week and a half), a field lab is especially crucial. Getting even a small portion of the artifacts cleaned in the field saves valuable time later on, when more energy should be exerted on research and analysis rather than cleaning. Furthermore, cleaning artifacts in the field often reveals something that may influence field work. For instance, the lab crew may discover that a certain area is producing artifacts that have a higher concentration of Japanese porcelain, and could therefore suggest that an excavation unit be placed in that area.
Porcelain tea cup, hand-painted and gilded
Hand-painted porcelain saucer
Porcelain vessel with dragon motif
The field schools students really enjoy working in the lab, and not only because it’s a break from the more exerting work done in the field. I too enjoy teaching them how to recognize, clean, and identify different types of artifacts. For all of us, it is exciting to watch an artifact transform in our hands once it has been cleaned—something that is not always possible in the field. Not to say that every artifact we clean is exciting (the volume of non-diagnostic glass shards, nails, and small bits of metal does get tiring), but the treasures which occasionally come along make up for any tedium. Some of the fascinating and favorite artifacts include the Japanese porcelain pictured above, which likely were transported to the site by the internees. Another spectacular item is what appears to be a hand-carved animal figure on a flat piece of soft stone, with an anthropomorphized face. It is still unclear if it was made at the site or brought there. Other items tell us about the mundane aspects of the internees’ life. A metal denture mold reminds us that they did have access to dental care at one point. Nail clippers tell us that they had access to basic grooming tools. Bottles and ceramic dishes with maker’s marks give us an idea of what products they used, and how the camp was supplied with its basic equipment, such as tableware.
Carved stone figure, possibly an otter, possibly made at the site
Button, possibly left over or re-used from the prison
Ceramic base with maker’s mark
Glass bottle made by the Owens-Illinois Company