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

by Erica D’EliaAssistant Laboratory Director

By now you’ve probably realized that CART archaeologists have recovered a lot of “stuff”, from wrought nails to ceramic sherds to glassware. Every artifact we find has to be thoroughly analyzed and documented; it can be a daunting task. You might be wondering how we make sense of data; that is, how do we take our raw data (the artifacts) and distill it into a format that is useful for analysis. The answer is threefold: cataloging, our typological system, and our database. These three parts function together to provide us with a wealth of data in a standardized format ready to answer questions about the past.

It’s often said that for every hour spent in the field, three hours are required in the lab to process the artifacts. This is because each artifact has to be carefully washed, analyzed, and cataloged. I’ve mentioned cataloging a few times now. What I mean by that is the process of examining each artifact’s various attributes (like function, manufacture technique, decorative style, color, and so on), grouping like artifacts together, and recording all of this information. None of this would be possible without our typological system. Our typological system makes us think about and record our data in particular ways. Each laboratory has different methods for cataloging. The Colchester Archaeological Research Team Lab places each artifact into predetermined categories (or fields) using three-letter codes. I often find it easiest to sort from the most general characteristics (what material is this made of?) to the most specific (how was it decorated? which part of the vessel is it?).

Let’s look at a few examples from our current excavations.

Wrought Nail2Rosehead Nail2






This object is metal so I record MET in the category field. It is a nail; ANA goes in the field for object. It’s made of iron (FER) and its manufacturing technique is hand-wrought (WRO). Now onto the specifics, this particular nail has a rose head (I can clearly see an apex and 4 planes where it was struck by the hammer during manufacture) and a pointed tip. I record RSE and PTN. It’s rusted, as most of the nails we find are, so I record that it is oxidized (OXD). I then indicate that it is whole (WHO) and that it is an historic (HIS) artifact used for architectural (ARC) purposes. If I also have another similar nail, but with a flat flared (or spatulated) tip, it has to be cataloged separately.


My second artifact is ceramic, category CER. It’s pretty small, so it could be either hollowware (bowls and cups) or flatware (plates and platters). Since I’m not sure, I record TGW (tableware/toiletware) as the object code. Its white porous body and cream colored appearance tell me it is creamware (ECR), a type of white refined earthenware (EAR). It has no decoration, so I skip over the description fields and move on to describing its appearance. I note that is has been clear glazed (CRG) and has a white body (WHB). Then I record that it as a sherd (SHE), meaning that there is glaze on both sides and that it is an historic (HIS) artifact related to kitchen (KIT) and domestic (DOM) activities.

Each catalog entry, or record, gets assigned a two-part number. The first part is its field specimen number which tells us where it was found. Each record within a field specimen is assigned a sequential number as a unique identifier in our database. Our nail is recorded as 3858.01 and the creamware as 3858.02. Later these records will be data-entered into AMAS, our Artifact Material Analysis System. This is a Microsoft Access database which allows us to store and query our data.

Cataloging Sheet

The power of AMAS is that it lets you query, or question, your data. For example, let’s say I wanted to estimate the date of our current site. I know nails and ceramics are very useful for dating because of changes in manufacture technique and style.

I specify that I want to see all records from our current site (area “C”) which are nails (ANA) and what type they are (the TT1 field). When I run the query 532 records come up. Of these one isn’t identified, 38 are square (which could be either wrought or machine cut) and 493 are wrought.

AMAS Query


I run another query on ceramics, this time asking to see all records for ECR (creamware, 1762-early 1800s), EPL (pearlware, 1775-1840), and EIW (whiteware, 1820-1900). This time there are only 71 records and all but one are creamware. Since I know that wrought nails are most common until about 1800 and creamware production begins in 1762 and falls out of favor by the early 19th century, I can conclude that our site was occupied in the mid-18th century. Of course, I could refine this further by adding more ceramic types to determine if creamware is one of the newest or oldest ceramic types present, but that’s a project for another day.

Typological systems, cataloging, and databases are all great tools for archaeologists to use, but they still require a lot of training and skill to know what kinds of questions to ask about your data and to see and interpret the patterns present.

See also: Computers & Data Management in Archaeology



About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Artifacts. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Archaeological Data: How Can Artifacts “Say” Anything about the Past?

  1. Pingback: Archaeo-Puzzle | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

  2. Pingback: Wrought Nails | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

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