Honey, I Shrunk the Artifacts

by Avery Jones Archaeological Intern

I began volunteering here just under a month ago. I have since begun an internship which will fulfill the last 2 credits I need to earn a B.S. in Anthropology from James Madison University. During my time with C.A.R.T. I have had the privilege of assisting in the field and in the lab. As Jean discussed in earlier blogposts, the team is currently excavating a cellar feature. After sifting the dirt through quarter inch screen, the remaining dirt is bagged for water screening. With the addition of a second water screening station , it is now possible for volunteers to help out in this stage, as well. Once the finer sediments are washed through window mesh, we are left with a matrix of rock granules with (now visible) tiny artifacts mixed within. A couple days of drying and we are ready to start picking.

Figure 1: The Set-up

In my opinion, picking is very similar to field excavation, but on a micro scale, and with the luxury of air conditioning on these hot and muggy summer days. Like fieldwork, it is also a process that requires a thorough attention to detail which might seem tedious to some people. One of our regular volunteers in the lab, Steve B. , says, “You either love it or you hate it.” With a shrug and a smile he adds, “I kinda enjoy it.” Asked what he enjoys about it, he responds, “finding beads!” I have to agree with Steve. Every find is somehow exhilarating, but when you come upon something like a bead or a straight pin, it’s really special.

Figure 2: The rock and artifact matrix ripe for picking. An animal bone stands out in right center.

Under the magnifying glass, the mass of tiny rocks are somehow transformed into something actually quite beautiful as thousands of mica fragments sparkle in the light. It is against this backdrop that the artifacts are hidden in plain view. I grew up gazing at the pages of Where’s Waldo? and I Spy books and picking artifacts reminds me of an interactive version set to expert mode. Artifacts that we are finding include beads, straight pins, lead shot, eggshell, animal bone, fish scales, metal fragments, flakes from stone tool production (lithics), glass and ceramic sherds (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Animal bone, eggshell, seeds, fish scale/bone, glass, lithics, lead shot, straight pins, ceramic sherds, and metal.

Each of these types of artifacts have the potential to shed light on the lives of the people who once lived on this site. Beads and straight pins may give us information on women who are largely under- represented  in the historical record. Lead shot, stone tool fragments, flora, and fauna remains may suggest what they ate, as well as, how and where they got it. Ceramic sherds can provide dates for occupation based on manufacturing technique and design. In answering questions such as these, we begin to see how the products of our picking can provide information on environment, trade, and social interaction. We begin to get a sense of the world in which these people lived. For me, it becomes extremely gratifying as these artifacts begin to tell us their story. The knowledge that this work is providing an integral service to a greater understanding of not only the past, but the people of the past, makes the hours spent picking worthwhile.


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.
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3 Responses to Honey, I Shrunk the Artifacts

  1. Steve Brooks says:

    Thanks a lot, Avery, for letting our best-kept secret out of the bag…now everyone will want to be a picker! Superb write-up and pics!


  2. Steve Brooks says:

    Gotta love my fellow volunteer pickers. Yesterday, when I proudly announced finding a pinhead (yes, just the tiny bright green head of the pin) while picking, my fellow volunteer picker working across from me quipped, “How many angels are dancing on it?” To cadge a line from Rodney Dangerfield, “I can’t get no respect.”


  3. Pingback: Day 24 of Virginia Archaeology Month | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

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