Artifact Type Collections

by Elizabeth PaynterCART Lab Director

An artifact type collection is a collection archaeologist’s use for comparison to aid in identification. It is sometimes referred to as a comparative collection. Any artifact that exhibits features that we may want to note and identify can be added to this kind of collection. The type collections at the Fairfax County Archaeology and Collection Branch is a mixture of reproductions and artifacts where the original location it was found is unknown.

We have type collections of various artifacts including flakes from making stone tools, projectile points, prehistoric ceramics, historic ceramics, nails, faunal bone, and glass items. Type collections help the catalogers properly identify artifacts. Artifacts that are diagnostic, which have either a beginning date of manufacture and an end date of manufacture or a date which is the height of popularity, are incredibly important in this type of collection. But not the only important feature of a good type collections. Other information about objects and object types can be identified by comparing with artifacts that have that same attribute. Faunal collections can help us identify the animals people were eating in the past or animals that were in that location. Examples of stone tools can explain the type of activity that occurred on a site. Attributes of flakes produced as by-products from making stone tools give information about the manufacture of those tools.

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CART Bi-Weekly Update

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In Review: Some of our Blog Post Links

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Interested in archaeology? There is a lot of information even on this website alone. Looking for something specific, here are some past blog posts that might be of interest.






Projectile Points





Archaeological Testing and Methods

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Tips to Avoid Ticks!

As spring and summer is upon us, a fun video from Fairfax County Health Department: tips to prevent tick bites.



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Whatever Floats your Artifacts

by Robin RameyCART Assistant Lab Director

Here at CART we utilize three primary screening methods to recover artifacts: (1) dry screening, (2) water screening, and (3) flotation. While dry screening and water screening are great methods for recovering most of the artifacts from cultural sediments, flotation is the best method for retaining the tiniest and most delicate artifacts and ecofacts. That’s why CART collects a flotation, aka “flot” or “float,” sample from each layer of sediment within every archaeological feature that we excavate.

In the field, a float sample is taken by collecting approximately 3 liters of sediment from the chosen context and depositing it into a sample bag. The bag is then labeled with the sample’s context information and two pieces of brightly colored flagging tape inscribed with the same context information are placed inside the bag. This way, if the label on the exterior of the bag rubs off or otherwise becomes illegible, the sample’s context information is not lost. The sample is then transported to the lab to be processed at a later date.

There are a variety of techniques used for processing float samples, ranging from set-ups that require little more than a 5-gallon bucket and a stirring stick to fully automated flotation machines. Thanks to our friendly neighbors at Mount Vernon who graciously allow us to use their facilities for flotation, CART’s float samples are processed in an apparatus called a flotation tank (for more information about Mount Vernon’s flotation set-up click here). However, regardless of technique or set-up, the principles behind flotation are the same.

Flotation tank – top view

Flotation works by exploiting the physical properties of different materials in a soil sample to sort them based upon their density. The flotation process entails adding water (and sometimes other agents) to soil samples and then somehow agitating them in order to separate out and collect artifacts. Agitation helps break up any clumps that may have formed between various components of the sample and the addition of water physically separates those components into two density categories: those that are less dense than water and those that are denser than water.

The contents of the soil that are less dense than water float to the top of the apparatus where they can be collected with very fine mesh or cheese cloth. This portion is called the light fraction. The light fraction usually consists of small (and mostly organic) artifacts such as seeds, charcoal, plant parts, and fish scales. Components that are denser than water—such as rocks, minerals, and some bone—sink below the water line and are collected in a separate layer of mesh. This portion is called the heavy fraction.

Burned maize kernel recovered from Old Colchester Park and Preserve (photo courtesy of Justine McKnight)

Once float samples have gone through the flotation process and been given adequate time to dry, the light fraction and heavy fraction are bagged separately, each retaining one of the pieces of flagging tape bearing the context information. CART staff and volunteers then pick through the heavy fraction to isolate just the cultural artifacts. The light fraction is sent off to be analyzed by faunal and archaeobotanical experts. Artifacts recovered from flotation samples such as the burned corn kernel pictured above, can help CART archaeologists learn more about the diets, seasonal patterns, gardening or agricultural practices, and environmental conditions of the occupants at sites we investigate. To learn more about the archaeobotanicals found at Old Colchester Park and Preserve, check out our previous blog post.


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CART Bi-Weekly Update

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Wrought Nails

by Melissa Hallman CART Archaeological Intern

Very rarely can you excavate a historical site of a standing, or formerly standing structure and not come away with nails or nail fragments. Just to be clear, these fragments rarely look like the perfectly polished nails on display in museums. Some field archaeologists have taken to calling highly oxidized nails from an excavation site “Cheetos®” due to their being incrusted with rust; this oxidation morphs previously sharp and angled pieces of metal into cragged and rough blobs. Despite their seemingly simple function, there is a surprisingly wide variety of nails that can be found at a site. In general, for construction purposes, there are three different types of nails that can be found at a historical site: wrought, machine-cut, or wire. Wire nails which are used today, came about in the late 19th century. While other nails types, including less expensive machine-cut nails which were formed from sheet iron, were invented towards the end of the 18th century. Hand wrought nails, which date back to before the early 1800s, were often preferred due to their durability and variety of uses (Nelson 1968). Prior to the invention of machine cut nails, hand wrought nails were the only type available to the colonists (Hume 1969). They were made by blacksmiths, the various heads hammered onto square iron “nail rods,” and the type of head depended on the intended use of the nail. One of the more common nails found is a “rose head”, the nail having been struck four to five times to create a faceted appearance on the head of the nail (Carson and Lounsbury 2013). Additional wrought nail heads usually took on the shape of either an ‘L’ or a ‘T’ but others were developed with more specific uses. Nevertheless, rose head nails were primarily favored in the ongoing construction in the colonies. In addition to the heads, the tips also varied based on their intended use. While we are most familiar with a pointed tip, spatulated tips, which were usually struck with a hammer once to flatten the metal at the tip were less likely to split the wood they were being driven through (Carson and Lounsbury 2013).

See also Archaeological Data: How Can Artifacts “Say” Anything about the Past?


Carson, Cary, Lounsbury, Carl R. (editors). 2013 The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg. The University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina.

Hume, Ivor Noël. 1969 A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.

Nelson, Lee. 1968 Nail Chronology as an aid to dating old buildings. American Association for State and Local History, Tennessee.


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