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.

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Virginia Indian Festival

Please join CART and other groups at the Virginia Indian Festival: Saturday 9 Sept. 2017

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CART Bi-Weekly Update

25 August 2017

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Virginia Indian Heritage by Dr. Wood

Talk by Dr. Karenne Wood of the Virginia Indian Program on the history and culture of Virginia’s Native American peoples.

Sunday, August 27, 3:30 to 4:30 at Pohick Regional Library

Dr. Wood is the director of the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in Charlottesville. She directed a tribal history project for the Monacan Nation, and served on the National Congress of American Indians’ Repatriation Commission. In 2015 she was named one of the Library of Virginia’s”Virginia Women in History.

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Archaeological Functions

by Elizabeth PaynterCART Lab Director

When identifying and cataloging artifacts, archaeologists have several methods to increase the understanding of a site based on the collection of artifacts found. One of these methods used is classifying artifacts by function. Function identifies the general purpose or use of an artifact.

Stanly A. South (1928 – 2016) was one of the leaders in establishing historical archaeology in North America. His work was pivotal and his system for classifying artifacts by functional relevance is still widely used in North American historical archaeology. He organized artifacts into nine functional groups: kitchen artifact, bone, architectural, furniture, arms, clothing, personal, tobacco, and the activities group. Now, archaeologists often refer to these as “South’s functions” or simply as functions.

Some common artifacts we find grouped by function:

Kitchen Historic Ceramic Tableware, Glass Bottle
Architectural Nail, Brick, Windowpane
Arms Lead Shot, Gun Flint
Clothing Button, Buckle
Tobacco Pipe Stem, Pipe Bowl

At CART, we have added a few functions to help us analyze activities that occurred on sites. One such function that we added is the toy group. Items such as marbles are classified in this function.


The system is imperfect. Often, archaeologists only find fragments. It can be difficult to determine what an object actually is. The function is then determined by the fragment of an artifact’s most common form or use. Another problem is that occasionally items were repurposed or used differently from their original intention.

Despite any drawbacks, functions are still extremely useful. They allow us to extrapolate patterns that occur on a site and help us determine who lived there and what they may have been doing. On sites where people have lived during different periods in our history, functions are an analytical tool we use to understand how a site may have changed over time. Perhaps an area was once a domestic site, but later was used agriculturally. On larger sites, functions can help us understand the areas of activity. Not only can we determine this from the data itself, but once functional groups are placed on a map based on where each artifact was found, it often brings a site into focus.


South, Stanely A.
1977 Method and Theory in Historical Archaeology. pp 92 – 137.  Academic Press, Inc., New York. http://nautarch.tamu.edu/class/313/2012files/South,%20Stanley%20A.%20Method%20and%20Theory%20in%20Historical%20Archaeology.pdf accessed August 17, 2017

Hall, Melissa
2016 Archaeologist who Made First Excavations at Bethabara Dead at age 88. Winston-Salem Journal 25 March. http://www.journalnow.com/news/local/archaeologist-who-made-first-excavations-at-bethabara-dead-at-age/article_d2673ea9-777a-52dd-b2aa-ed2e5a381fc7.html accessed August 17, 2017.

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CART Bi-Weekly Update

11 August 2017

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Fairfax 275: “Beginning from a White Oak Tree”

CART principal investigator and FCPA Senior Archaeologist Christopher Sperling, Gunston Hall Director Scott Stroh, and Fairfax County History Commissioner Debbie Robison discuss history, road, maps and people of Fairfax County.


Also check out other interesting videos about 275th Fairfax County Anniversary.


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