Applied Cultural Anthropology Archaeology Curation History and Heritage Research

Amber Hatchett, Prehistory Research Project

I have had the privilege of interning at The Gault Lab, now known as the Prehistory Research Project. It has been an honor to help in the sorting and cataloging of artifacts that this site has produced. Here in the lab I have learned many new things and seen interesting artifacts. The Gault Site was divided into different areas, when it was being excavated, so that there could be samples taken from the different areas of the site. I have encountered many different artifacts found on the site while cataloging the lot bags. I will strive to give you an insight into the work I did here, and what it can tell us about what happened at the Gault Site.

There are many things that could happen during the curation process, and it’s important that we pay close attention when sorting. For example, if a biface projectile point is placed into the wrong group, we could potentially be losing out on information. If the proper precautions are not taken, then this important information could be removed during the cleaning process, which happens when the materials reach the lab but before the materials can be sorted. I have not come across this problem here at the Gault Lab, but it is always a possibility if people don’t pay close enough attention.

The Prehistory Research Project was once known as The Gault Lab or The Gault Project. This site is located on the property of Debra L. Friedkin and her family, although it was purchased a few years ago by Dr. Michael Collins, who then donated it to an archaeological field school. While we work for many different groups we still have a long way to go before we are done with the research for The Gault Site, where the greatest number of Clovis artifacts have been found. These materials date back farther than the oldest Clovis points uncovered, which makes this site date “between ~13.2 and 15.5 thousand years ago. The Buttermilk Creek Complex confirms the emerging view that people occupied the Americas before Clovis and provides a large artifact assemblage to explore Clovis origins” (Waters 2011:1599).

My Duties Here

In my time at the Gault Lab, I was tasked with sorting and cataloging lots. Sorting is where we look closely at the debitage and put the things that look alike into piles. We put the flakes into one pile, the angular chert into a pile, the bones into a pile, and so on and so forth. I know that this sounds like a mundane job, but everyone starts out sorting trays and trays of debitage and flakes.

Sorting is a very crucial part of understanding who, what, when, where, and why questions about the culture we are studying. If we don’t properly sort and catalogue everything, we could potentially miss something that could change the way we look at the past. For example, if a burnt piece of bone is mistaken for CaCO3, or calcium carbonate, then we will have missed a potentially helpful piece of evidence that could tell us about the civilization’s dietary habits. The small bones are evidence of what type of animals lived in that area. Not all of these animals may have been eaten by the humans that lived in that area but those small creatures could give us a clue as to what type of larger game lived there.

After completing the new tags and bagging up the artifacts that have provenience information, I would begin sorting through the screenings. Screenings are a way for us to further sort material and see the different stages of stone tool production. Usually my trays had 1/8th inch and 1/4th inch screenings from the site that they had been digging at. Screenings are done in the field at the excavation site. It’s where buckets of dirt are dumped into these big box looking-things that have a screen on the bottom. These buckets of dirt aren’t just buckets of dirt thrown around, they are samples of the area being excavated. They have potential to hold important data and their provenience is kept when they dig. For example, they would only include the dirt from the levels that they are excavating and write down the top and bottom levels, so we would know that this screening came from between these levels. Then the boxes are shaken so that any loose dirt will fall through the screen and the bigger pieces of angular chert, CaCO3, and flakes are left on top.

In the 1/8th inch screenings I would have to sort out the small flakes, CaCO3, bones, and shells. There have been a lot of shells found within these screenings. They are very tiny and are an off-white color, sometimes having a pink tinge. These shells give us no insight as to the people’s diet, yet they do give us a hint as to the plants and animals that also inhabited the area around the time that these people lived there. The little bones I found had evidence of being burnt, which suggests that perhaps these little animals had been cooked and eaten. Maybe they accidentally fell into the fire pits, who knows for sure because these little bones are too small to have been human bones, but they could have been small rodents that the native people could have eaten.

After sorting everything, I have to count all the tiny flakes, put them in a little bag, and make a paper tag for them as well. The shells and bones also get their own bags and paper tags, but they don’t have to be counted. The CaCo3 just gets thrown away, because we have already taken samples of it for that lot. Sometimes counting all the little flakes and angular chert can take an hour for each pile, because there are many to count and I often lose count so I would have to start over. Sometimes I would count out ten flakes at a time and place them inside the bags, so that I was going up by ten each time.

For the 1/4th inch screenings, I have to sort them into different piles as well. In this screening we can usually find angular chert, flakes, and more CaCo3. This information helps us to understand what these people were using their stone tools for and why. Sometimes angular chert can be mistaken for a flake or vice versa, so we must be extremely careful when sorting them. Flakes are usually smooth on one side, whereas angular chert has more signs of working. Both the flakes and the angular chert are larger in size, which means that when I went to count them and put them into bags I had to use bigger bags so that they could all fit into one bag. These bigger pieces of angular chert and flakes can show us the different stages of reduction. This can tell us how far along in the process of making tools these people were.

After I sort the screenings I make labels for each pile I have made, and when I am completely done with the labeling, tagging, and bagging, I have to make a copy of the provenience information and field notes, clip them to my catalogue sheet, which I have filled out while I sorted, tagged, and bagged artifacts, and then put all my little bags into one big bag. I set this big bag in a tub where it awaits further sorting; this helps us catch mistakes that may have been made during the first sorting process. The copies I made and the catalogue sheet go in a special tray that the next person to sort through my bags will use to verify information and/or correct mistakes. The original documents go back in the sleeve and bag in the binder that matches the coordinates of the lot that was bagged and tagged in the field.

Every day I came into the lab, grabbed a tray, and sat down at one of the tables. If it was a new tray I would start by going over to the binders and finding the tray’s provenience papers and field notes. It’s important that the information on the paperwork matches the labels on the artifacts that we know the provenience for. If the numbers did not match up, then it was my job to make a new tag with the correct numbers on them.

An archival pen and acid free paper are the best choices to use when getting an artifact ready for curation, because they won’t harm the artifact or disintegrate over time. If we don’t, then we could either ruin the artifact or have the information about the artifact disappear over time. After comparing the information, I then make a new tag for it and write on the artifact its provenience (i.e. 41BL323 6081.93-3) with an archival pen and then seal it with B72 solution. After the B72 solution is dry, I put the artifact and the new paper tag in a new bag. It’s very important that we use the correct type of pen, paper, and bags.

Tell-Tale Signs: What Flakes Can Tell Us About Tool Use

All the hours of screening and sorting are necessary in order to lay the groundwork for the real task of the archaeologist, which is to interpret the past based on those flakes and other materials. “Reduction and retouch occur at initial manufacture, during use, and during repair of tools and can therefore yield information about the organization of those activities and the organization of social and economic behaviors” (Shott and Nelson 2008:25). In this respect, lithic analysis is a very crucial part of the curation process. As stated by Michael Shott and Margaret Nelson, there can be changes made to the stone tools and they can happen at just about anytime. During any part of people using these stone tools that they were making, adjustments had to be made and sometimes those changes meant taking away pieces in order to make the tool better for the person using it. Sometimes people would heat up the tools, which would cause the stone to expand, and little pieces, which we call pot lids, would pop off. They make these little bowl-like craters in the tools. The pot lids let us know that people were heating their tools, whether by accident or on purpose, we cannot tell for certain, but it still gives us an idea about what they may have been doing or using their tools for.

Next we have to take into consideration the typology. Shott and Nelson say “typologies arrange an abundance of objects or subjects into relatively homogeneous groups….distinguished from one another by size, shape, material, color, or other salient characteristics” (Shott and Nelson 2008:26). Basically, we are able to classify the artifacts by their visible attributes. These typologies help us to better understand what these artifacts may have been used for back when they were in use. I have found some burnt pieces of stone and bone that have changed colors because of heating.

Along with typologies comes reduction; “many archaeologist assimilated the reduction thesis, the understanding that retouched tools vary progressively from first use to discard by decrease in size and change in form depending on extent and pattern of the resharpening that they experience. Not all tools are retouched during use, so the reduction thesis is merely common, not universal” (Shott and Nelson 2008:27). There are many stages of reduction, and those stages can help us figure out what type of point they were making. They also help us determine what kind of game they may have been hunting in the area. Depending on the type of local game, the points and blades had to be retouched so that they could serve their purpose. Sometimes the point needed to be more slim than it was to begin with, and other times it needed to be bigger or longer, so they would make the new point to fit their needs.

When looking at debitage and analyzing the data, “recording of length, width, and thickness” (Andrefsky 1998:97) is essential. It can give us more information on the types of tools that were being mad. There are many attributes to flakes and those must be considered when trying to analyze it and get it ready for curation. Those attributes are “chert length, chert width, flake length measured from the point of percussion to the last point of detachment from the core, flake width measured at the midpoint perpendicular to the longest axis of the flake, flake thickness measured at the midpoint of the flake, flake length measured along the axis of flaking, maximum width, distance from point of percussion to maximum width, bulbar thickness, estimate of material granularity, estimate of percentage of cortex, striking platform width, striking platform depth, angle of the striking platform, battering, number of exterior preparation flakes, angle of divergence between the axis of flaking and the longest axis of the flake, hinge fracture, position of cortex, and flake form” (Fish 1979:28-35). It would take too long to discuss all of these attributes, so I will discuss some of them.

First, we have to look at flake length. “Flake length is usually measured as a straight line distance from the proximal to the distal end” (Andrefsky 1998:97). The proximal end is where the striking platform is found. This is where the hammer stone was used to strike the core in order to take off a flake. The flake length is measured perpendicular to the flake width. The flake length is one of the easiest attributes that can be measured because it’s one of the obvious points to distinguish and “[measure] consistently” (Andrefsky 1998:97).

Second is the flake width which “can be recorded at a number of different locations on the specimen, but is usually recorded as a straight line distance perpendicular to the flake length line” (Andrefsky 1998:97). The width is another important measurement we have to make. It can also help us determine the types of tools being made, but it can also tell us at what stage of production it was in when it was taken off the core.

Third is the flake thickness; “flake thickness is measured in the same manner as flake width….the distance from the dorsal side to the ventral side of the flake, perpendicular to the flake length line” (Andrefsky 1998:99). This measurement can also tell us the stage of production. All of these measurements are important to have because of the things that they can tell us about the manufacturer, and what may have been being manufactured. If we didn’t have all of this debitage, we would not be as far along in our studies of stone tools, mostly because we would only have the tools themselves and that can only tell us so much.

Sometimes these flakes were being reused as a tool themselves. The flakes can be very sharp, so they could be used as a knife to cut material, meat, grains, vegetables, or anything else they may have needed to cut. The flakes can tell us if the tools were being heated or painted, depending on the residue left behind. Like the potlids, that is evidence of heating. I have also found some flakes that look like their color had changed, which is also evidence of heating. I am not sure why they were heated to change their color, but they were. We won’t know for sure why people did these things to their tools, but we will know that they were in fact doing these things.

Some Clovis

The Gault site gained its fame from the sheer number of Clovis points found in the area, along with the amount of debitage found there. This site is incredible because it is one of the few known archaeological sites that has evidence of manufacturing of stone tools. A lot of sites that have points found in them don’t have any evidence of people creating these tools in that location. These sites are mostly kill sites or abandoned camp sites. So it is easy to see all of the excitement at the discovery of such a production site and how much this site has produced.

According to John C. Whittaker, “the earliest North American culture of which we are absolutely certain is the Clovis culture” (Whittaker 1994:41). He says that these cultures have been dated back to around 9500-9000 B.C. We know this by the way that they made their points. “The Clovis people made large spear heads, fluted with a single large flake scar forming a channel up each face” (Whittaker 1994:41). This is very different from other cultures that archaeologists have recorded from here and around the world. Each culture has its own distinct pattern of making stone tools; they each leave their own mark, which makes it easier for us to tell the difference between cultures because no two cultures are exactly alike.

“Clovis point preforms are large, generally being more than 10 cm in length. They are extremely straight in longitudinal section and biconvex in transverse section” (Collins and Hemmings 2005:11). These characteristics are but a mere portion of how we can tell that they came from the Clovis period. Along with points, there are “large, thin ovate bifaces without the flute scars, basal bevels, and biconvex cross sections characteristic of the point preforms” (Collins and Hemmings 2005:12). There were a lot of bifaces found at the Gault Site, along with all the debitage. So naturally, there was a lot of debris found in the area.

Now, not every point or biface was perfect. Mistakes have been made, and they were tossed away. These people couldn’t use every failed biface or point that was created, so they would just toss them aside and begin again no matter at what stage of production they were in when the mistake was made (Collins and Hemmings 2005:15). If they were in the last stage of production and they took off a flake that was too big, they would toss the whole thing aside and begin anew. To me this would be frustrating, having to start over when I was almost done. Although, if they didn’t make mistakes, then there wouldn’t be anything left for us to study and know what not to do when attempting to create a stone tool.

Conclusion: Not So Flakey

Although not everything is all sunshine and rainbows in the world of archaeology, fortunately for me, every new discovery is intriguing. This feeling of excitement and energy is what I felt every time I went through those lab doors. I felt like I was a part of something bigger than I could even fathom, and the role I played while working here at the Gault Lab is not insignificant or demeaning in any way. If I hadn’t sorted tray after tray after tray of materials, we wouldn’t have completed Area 15. We would still be working on it to date.

Coming into the Gault Lab has been like coming home. I am greeted with hellos and smiles, which I gleefully return. I can go up to anyone here and ask them about anything and get an answer to my questions. Or I can just listen to all the conversations going on around me, about the site or recent news about archaeology. I’ve learned so much about archaeology just by listening to Dr. Clark, Nancy, Tom, and everyone else here. I did not think that there was so much out there that I could get connected to in order to stay up with recent findings in the archaeological world! There are a lot of resources you can use to see what people are discussing and what they have been finding on their own research. Some of the research I don’t think has been officially published as of yet, so they are more of a work-in-progress trying to get outside opinions. For example, many of the archaeology societies have an online discussion board that if you’re a member you can log on and see what is being discussed and put your opinion out there to see what others think, and if someone might agree with you.

In my time at the Prehistory Research Project I have learned a great deal about archaeology. It may not look or sound much like what archaeologists do or what people generally think that we do. Yes, we go out and dig in the ground but there is a lot more that goes into our research. We have to be able to map out a grid, know our Northing and Easting, keep our lots in order, be meticulous, be observant, and know how to take accurate notes in the field. These things all contribute to a successful research project and data analysis. If archaeologists didn’t keep good field notes and bag and tag important artifacts, then we would not have the knowledge we have now. In fact, it would be quite difficult to understand what was going on in past societies.

Everything that I have done in the lab means something. I personally sorted about 10-15 trays while I was there. It may have sounded mundane and time consuming, but I helped get Area 15 done! It was thrilling when Nancy told me that we had finished Area 15 and that it was time to move on to the next project. I was able to handle flakes, angular chert, bones, and shells that had been in the ground for thousands of years! It was all surreal! I couldn’t have gained the knowledge I have now without the help and hands-on experience I was able to achieve from the Lab.

Sorting and cataloging was my main job in the lab. Everyone has to start out on sorting and washing. It’s not just that we can walk into a lab and automatically jump into a special project without knowing exactly what we are dealing with. This knowledge comes from starting at the bottom and working our way to the top. It was hard work and took up a lot of time. Yet it was fulfilling and a great learning experience. I would definitely suggest that if someone wants to become an archaeologist that they don’t complain about the “low station” they are placed in in the beginning. We all have to start below to rise higher in the workforce.

I enjoyed sorting and cataloging,  because it really helped me focus and make sure that I was staying on task. I counted at least a couple thousand flakes and angular chert. The whole time I felt like I was involved in a piece of our history. Every once in a while, I would pause and really look at some of the flakes and chert I was sorting through. I would point out to myself where I thought the striking platform was and look at the bulbs of percussion. It’s so fascinating to me that people could do this to stone. Break chunks off and create an atlatl, an arrowhead, a spear point, a blade, and so many other tools. It is truly amazing.

 

References

Collins, Michael B. and C. Andrew Hemmings. 2005.“Lesser-Known Clovis Diagnostic Artifacts I.” In La Tierra: Representative Clovis Points Seriated by Extent of Reshaping. Journal of the Southern Texas Archaeological Association: Volume 32, Number 2.

Andrefsky Jr., William. 1998. “Flake Debitage Attributes.” In Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fish, Paul Robert. 1979. “The Statistical Data.” In The Interpretive Potential of Mousterian Debitage. Tempe: Arizona State University.

Shott, Michael J. and Margaret C. Nelson. 2008. “Lithic Reduction, Its Measurement, and Implications: Comments on the Volume.” In Lithic Technology: Measures of Production, Use, and Curation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Whittaker, John C. 1994. Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools. Austin: The University of Texas Press.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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