The Cultural Resources Survey Program’s Archaeology laboratory oversees the processing of all the artifacts that are excavated in the field. It is the Archaeology Lab’s responsibility to process the artifacts and records produced by CRSP projects to comply with the standards of the Museum’s Anthropology department and provide a thorough artifact analysis for CRSP’s reports. The CRSP lab produces invaluable data for further scholarly research, as well as knowledge for the general public through CRSP exhibits.
The CRSP’s Lab responsibility begins when the bags of artifacts collected from archaeological fieldwork are brought back to the museum. A lab technician will put the bags in numerical order and record the provenience information onto a Bag List form, which helps track which stage the artifacts had been processed and which lab staff performed the task. A provenience is the specific location within an archaeological site where an object (artifact) was found, and each provenience is given a label during excavation (see Field Archaeology) . These provenience labels are the key to relating an artifact to its original location. At all steps of the laboratory processing, special care is taken to make sure that artifacts and their provenience information are kept together.
The next step is cleaning the artifacts. Most of the artifacts are cleaned by using water and brushes (either toothbrushes or paintbrushes). There are, however, a few types of artifacts that are dry brushed or left alone such as charcoal, fabrics, prehistoric pottery, or any object that appears too fragile and may be more damaged if it comes into contact with water. The artifacts are put into trays to dry and labeled with original provenience information, and the label from the original artifact bag is cut out and placed with the artifacts.
Identifying and Cataloging the Collections
The most important step in the lab process is the identification of the artifacts. The cataloguer analyzes and records the material make up of the artifact as well as noting any distinguishing traits such as shape, decoration style, manufacturer’s marks, wear use marks, and so forth. The information is entered into a database using letter-code system developed by the CRSP lab staff through the years that standardizes the basic descriptions and categorizes the objects by material, type, use, and identification. The code list provides uniformity within the catalogue so that a certain type of item is not identified by different descriptions and simplifies the analysis and interpretation of the collection. An artifact inventory report is then generated for the project director of the excavation.
The goal of the cataloguer is to procure as much information as possible from the artifacts in order to present a detailed report that will help the project directors interpret their projects. The artifact catalogue can help determine if there are any sites in a project area; and if so, how many? The artifacts can also indicate the type of site being excavated – a domestic household, a commercial site (i.e. tavern, blacksmith shop), or maybe a prehistoric seasonal camp. The artifact report provides date ranges as to when a site was occupied, and if the occupation was continuous or interrupted with periods of abandonment.
Artifacts can show the changes that have occurred over time at a site like architectural additions to a house or a tavern that was later converted into a house. The cataloguer’s research can help ascertain the economic status of the site’s resident (site with many high-end artifacts vs. cheap and readily available artifacts), trade routes (goods made locally or regionally versus imported goods from great distances), possibly their diet (varied diet that includes beef, pork, chicken and wild game vs. wild game only), as well as answer a host of other questions. The identification and research completed on the artifacts is integral in understanding the history of the site.
The artifacts are then re-bagged by each provenience. Within each provenience the artifacts are bagged according to their material type – i.e. all metal into one bag, ceramics into another bag, etc. All the information on the original bag label is put on each of the archival plastic bags and all the bags within each provenience are put into one bag with the original bag label included.
Accessions and Collections
If the artifacts are associated with a site, they may become part of the permanent research collections of the museum - a process called accessioning. An Accession Form will be filled out and given to Anthropology Collections which in return give us an accession number: e.g. "A2007.01". The ‘A’ stands for Archaeology, the '2007' is the year the CRSP lab staff requested the accession number, and '.01' is the next sequential number that a site was entered into the Anthropology Collection database.
In addition to this accession number the CRSP lab staff will add unique provenience numbers and specimen numbers for items being accessioned. Provenience numbers are a sequential order of numbers given to each excavation unit and level (for example Unit 1, Level 1 is given a provenience number 1, Unit 1, Level 2 is given provenience number 2, and so on). A Specimen number is given to each artifact entry in sequential order within each provenience. The specimen numbering starts over again with each new level. By combining the accession, provenience, and specimen numbers a reference index is created to link an item to its available archaeological provenience record.
The site is also given a New York State Museum number (NYSM#) which is an identification number supplied by the CRSP office. The artifact bags are sequentially ordered in archival boxes and all related paperwork associated with the site is collected and organized into archival folders. In addition, a digital copy and a printed hardcopy of the artifact report is made. Then the site with all its artifacts and paperwork is moved into the Anthropology Collections for future researchers.
The Cultural Resources Survey Program's Archaeology Lab participates in various public outreach programs throughout the year in the promotion of archaeology. The CRSP lab provides tours for high-school and college groups, as well as interested groups from other institutions. In addition, during the state's annual Archaeology Month, the lab offers a behind-the-scenes tour to the public in which the lab directors give presentations on the procedures and the research that is involved in processing artifacts.
The lab also designs exhibits using artifacts recovered from excavated sites that best illustrates the history of the sites occupation. These exhibits are displayed during Archaeology Month, as well as within the New York State Museum itself. The lab provides technical assistance and advice to callers or visitors who have inquiries about artifacts history or care. Additionally, the Archaeology lab field questions from the landowners' from whose property the artifacts are excavated. The Archaeology Lab programs and policies help assist with the State Education Department and New York State Museum's mission of educating the public and ensuring the data that CRSP generates is accessible to the general public.