Tedious is a word that can sometimes be given a bad reputation. But it shouldn’t. This was one of the discussions that occurred back in the lab at the University of Washington. However, there is no better word to describe lab work. The process goes as follows (and bear with me):

  • Artifacts collected from a unit, let’s use FMIA-SCHOOLHOUSE-07162015-009 as our example, first need to be washed.
  • Afterwards, all the artifacts are laid out on a tray and paper towels with their original provenience information (plastic level bag, paper bag, and bag slip) and left to dry.
  • Once all the artifacts have been dried thoroughly, the cataloger needs to “Check Out” a unit by writing their initials on the Lab Catalog Register.
  • The cataloger then sorts out the artifacts, grouping them into Basic Groups, Material Categories and Artifact Classes. For example, an iron nail (a common find at the Schoolhouse) would be catalogued as European American, Metal, Ferrous which would be abbreviated to EA-ME-FE. All of this information is written out on a Lab Catalog Record form along with the cataloger’s name and date.
  • After all of the artifacts are sorted, grouped and counted, each class is weighed and that information is recorded on a separate Artifact Inventory Form that records counts and weights for common Material Categories and Artifact Classes.
  • Following weighing, the cataloger creates a new plastic bag for each Material Category or Artifact Class and a new bag slip for each of these bags. The plastic bags record basic provenience information including the Field Catalog Number, Unit Coordinate, SC for Surface Collection or Exacavation for an excavation unit, the Artifact codes. Bag slips include this data in addition to the number of artifacts contained within the bag, weight and the number of bags created for the entire unit.

Plastic Bag

  • Once all the artifacts are sorted, weighed, counted and cataloged, the cataloger pulls the Artifact Control Card from the index file, records their name, the date, and total number of bags for the unit and level and refilled within the Lab Control Card index file.


Although the process may seem long, in practice t did not feel that way. I worked on a unit that had a high number of artifacts and spent at least 90 minutes on it. A lot of it was repetitive work, rewriting the Field Catalog Number and whatnot, but time flew by real quick. By the time I checked out another unit, I was genuinely shocked at how much time had passed by. Tedious the work may be and time consuming, but all for good measure.

This isn’t the type of lab work where where I was constantly checking the time, but rather was continually surprised when I did check the time to realize how much time had actually passed. It was easy to get lost in the work and just let my mind wander as I washed and sorted and cataloged.

Volunteering in the lab was also an opportunity to see a different side of archaeology. As undergraduate students, we have read endless archaeology-based articles and books related to a class or topic. We know the importance of field research and its role within the discipline. As field school students, we experienced this physical aspect and the great toll of doing archaeology (on sites?  The body?). Getting dirty is part of the job. As students in a lab, we saw the time commitment it takes to catalog everything in an easily tractable way. And it turns out, tedious isn’t so bad. It’s the little details that, although can make us go a little insane, helps stay sane in the long run.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *