Archaeology Curation

Bradley Hernandez, The Prehistory Research Project

I previously had the experience of working as a volunteer at the Gault site when I was a student at Austin Community College in 2012. The main purpose of my internship was to decide which academic path I would like to follow, archaeology or forensic anthropology. I chose archaeology because it is a topic of interest; also the Gault Lab archaeologists have an excellent reputation [note: as of 2014, the Gault lab is formally called the Prehistory Research Project].

My internship supervisor gave me the task of cleaning material recovered from the Gault site and showed me how to clean the artifacts and curate them. Artifacts are discrete objects which bear some modification from their natural state attributable to man. One of the first and basic tasks of archaeology is that of differentiating such modified materials from materials that are unaltered from their natural state.

The curating process requires a few days to be completed depending on the amount of artifacts in the bag. Curation is an integral element of the archaeological process and refers to the long-term management and preservation of archaeological materials and their associated documentation. This process begins with the washing of the artifact using a toothbrush to remove dirt particles.

Once the artifacts were completely dry (usually within a day’s time), I had to prepare the inventory sheet to record the findings. I had to identify what type of artifacts were found. For example, I had to identify a uniface, biface, flake, core, angular chert, or projectile point. I also had to record the names of the excavators, the date the artifact was recovered, the elevation, and provenience before finally assigning a number to each stone artifact. I also found fragments of animal bone, complete and broken pieces of shell, and a seed. The organic materials do not receive a specimen number, although they still get documented on the inventory sheet. While curating the artifacts, all the non-cultural rocks, dirt, and some of the calcium carbonate are thrown away.

I have to consider the alteration process while curating the artifacts. Alteration may take several forms, resulting in archaeological materials of different character:

  1. Natural objects may be purposefully modified or moved by man to serve some end. Tools, utensils, and weapons are familiar artifacts of this kind.
  2. Natural objects may become modified in physical form as the incidental result of use. The worn surface of a cobble pestle or the dulling of the sharp edge of a stone flake used as a knife represent examples of modification of this kind.
  3. The process of manufacture, preparation or use may result in waste materials which may not be used further but which nevertheless reveal human activity. Flakes removed in shaping a stone tool, the discarded shells of seeds, the ash remaining from a log burned all represent this modification. The waste material (flakes) is what I had to study and curate in my internship.

The identification of stone artifacts poses special problems for a beginning archaeologist for several reasons. These reasons include the facts that many stone artifacts are minimally shaped, the fact that primitive ways of working stone involve processes closely replicated in nature, and the general lack of knowledge concerning the properties of stone and the methods whereby it is worked by man. As a prerequisite then, it is necessary to become familiar with the nature of stone and the technology of working it.

Primitive methods of working stone fall into two broad categories: that of flaking on and that of grinding on the other. Knowledge of the basic processes and the effects they produce will greatly enhance the ability to recognize lithic artifacts.

Once all the artifacts are identified and recorded, the next step is to write down the identification code on the artifact and a sequence number according to the location where the artifact was found. This identification code is given by the Smithsonian to every archaeological site in the United States. The Gault site received the code 41BL323. Forty-one denotes that the site is located in the state of Texas, BL is an abbreviation for Bell County, and 323 is the number assigned to the site.

After every artifact has received the proper number, I put each artifact in a new plastic bag with a tag inside that specifies some basic information about the artifact, such as provenience, type, quantity, and date. The tedious part of curating was when I had to separate and count the little pieces of 1/8” flakes and angular chert. I always left this task to the end. Once everything is processed, I put all the artifacts in a new bag, make copies of the paperwork used, and turn it in to be checked into quality control.

One task Dr. Michael Collins assigned to me was to weigh and count flakes of different sizes. The purpose of doing this was to help the archaeologists from the Gault Lab to test a theory. They believe that there was an undisturbed Pre–Clovis occupation or occupations at the Gault site. The analyses of weights and flake counts will be used alongside other research to investigate the stratigraphic integrity of the units in order to see if physical, biotic, or anthropic processes may be causing any downward drift of flakes through the soil. Other future analyses will include formal examinations of the bifaces and other modified flake tools from both Clovis and older-than-Clovis stratigraphic layers. In addition, refitting studies and the analysis of technological analysis of technologically-diagnostic débitage will be performed, as well as research into the geologic of raw materials.

I also learned a little bit about stone tools while working at the Gault Lab. One time Dr. Collins showed us several stone artifacts recovered from the Gault site. I was amazed by a spear point, which was almost 4 inches long and in perfect condition. This spear point was so light that did not seem to be made of stone. I learned more about stone tools technology during my internship at the Gault Lab than in all of my archaeology classes combined. In the lab I have the opportunity to touch the artifacts and to see the way the tool was made. In my archaeology classes I only read about archaeological terms. Some of these terms do not make complete sense until you actually apply them in real life.

While working at the Gault Lab I received the proper guidance of several professional archaeologists. My supervisors always answered all the questions that I had about my future in the field of archaeology. Thanks to the internship at the Gault Lab, I am now more interested in archaeology than before.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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