by Elizabeth S. Paynter – Heritage Resource Specialist & CART Lab Director
On March 30th, the Governor of Virginia issued a temporary stay at home order in response to Covid-19. The Archaeology and Collections Branch (ACB) offices and labs at the James Lee Community Center had already been closed. Staff had been evaluating the best resources available for working collaboratively from home. In speaking with friends and family who are not familiar with the archaeological field, however, one question kept recurring: “What can an archaeologist do from home?” The question surprised me. It is easy to imagine that I spend my time digging up my backyard in carefully controlled squares by stratigraphic layer. It is true that some archaeologists have probably done this in their personal time. (Raise your hand if you are an archaeologist who has systematically dug and properly recorded a spot your yard.) Nonetheless, all ACB staff uses a computer for many tasks necessary to the archaeological process. To be ethical stewards of our cultural heritage, archaeologists must research, analyze, record and report. Digital tasks are necessary companions to working with sites, physical artifacts and archaeological features.
It is important to keep in mind that, like any job, not all work is done concurrently. This is often due to the nature of specific tasks, efficiency, or circumstances of a particular project. Some digital tasks occur before or after active excavation and handling of artifacts. I am the County Archaeological Research Team’s Lab Director. Daphne Ahalt is the Assistant Lab Director. Daphne and I manage all lab related activity including the movement of physical artifacts through processing and evaluation. The research and data required to properly manage the artifacts and analyze them is extensive.
Lab work takes time, especially post-excavation. Let us set aside that some clean artifacts from several projects have yet to be identified, cataloged and recorded. Let us also set aside that due to these unique circumstances, artifacts that would typically never leave the lab during processing are waiting to become a Work From Home (WFH) cataloging project. Instead, we will delve into a small bit of CART’s digital work. Field information must get transferred to our computers in order to track, identify and understand the artifacts as well as the site. Like so much of archaeology, this digital work is collaborative between the field and lab.
One of the first things that we do before processing artifacts is enter provenience (location) information into our computer system. The specific horizontal coordinates and the vertical depth where each group of artifacts was recovered goes into our artifact database. The artifacts and their provenience are tied to a field specimen number that can be tracked through the lab. This information is entered when there are enough artifacts to make both data entry and artifact processing, such as cleaning artifacts, a worthwhile activity. Later, at a time when most convenient, we add information to our database about the soils that surround those artifacts such as soil color and soil type. We often also include information about any tests where no artifacts were discovered. The specifics about the surrounding soil and knowing areas that were negative help us better understand the overall site.
While these are only small examples of digitized information, they are important examples. Retaining exact location of the artifacts and features as well as where no artifacts are recovered is vital to interpreting a site and understanding our history. Computers play an important role in data retention and data analysis. For more information see Computers and Data Management in Archaeology.