What happens to artifacts after they get dug up?

Last week, Tedd Levy (Old Saybrook Historical Society Trustee) and Robert Lorenz (photographer) visited our staff at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.

Tedd and Bob were curious…

What happens to artifacts after they get dug up?

Tedd and Bob have watched archaeologists excavate at the battlefield site of the “Siege and Battles of Saybrook Fort” on Saybrook Point in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Although the two men knew that the artifacts go back to the museum, they wanted to see all the gory behind-the-scene details of what happens in our laboratories!

After an artifact gets dug up in the field, it begins (what we call) the artifact lifecycle.

When still outdoors and as soon as it’s dug up, an artifact gets paperwork, which includes the artifact’s important attributes, unique to each artifact. Paperwork includes the date the artifact was found and who it was found by. But more importantly, the project it’s associated with, the town and state, the archaeology site number, the artifact’s depth below surface level, its material type, and most vital – the Cartesian grid coordinates of where it was found (i.e. North 127, East 12 – or South 3, West 15).  See our previous post about setting up our grid to learn more about Cartesian coordinates!

The artifact comes back to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center and goes straight to our Dirty Lab, or Wet Lab.  By the lab’s  name, you can probably guess…it’s full of dirt and water! We weren’t that creative…but the lab’s name describes what goes on inside.

In the Wet Lab, the artifact gets washed, cleaned, brushed, etc., all the while sticking with its important paperwork. Essentially, archaeology is a destructive process. An archaeologist needs to recreate the entire site back in the lab using the paperwork completed out in the field. The archaeologist can figure out exactly what was dug up and where – a recreation of everything removed from its original location.

After the Wet Lab, the artifacts mosey on over to the Clean Lab. We weren’t really too creative with the name of this Lab, either…

In the Clean Lab, the magic really happens.

First, the artifact gets added to our Collections Database, meaning the artifact and all of its attributes (assigned when it was dug up) are added to our database. The artifact also gets a unique identifier – an Inventory Number – and a proper clean bag to be stored in. Together, the artifact’s inventory number, the artifact, and it’s “Artifact Tag” (which has its attributes neatly typed) are stored in the clean bag – it’s home.

However, this is when our staff takes a REALLY close look at the artifact. Staff will look into what the artifact actually IS!

Staff might match it to our Comparative Collections to identify the artifact. Our comparative collections span from nails to ceramics, buttons to buckles, toys to lithics, irons and engines and car parts, Google Image to historical books, and a vast library of both online resources and stacks of academic and in-depth articles and papers. Honestly, not to be full of ourselves or anything…but a lot of this knowledge comes from our staff! We each have unique set of interests, or a network of colleagues, who can help identify the fragments of human life that are left behind.

If the artifact is in need of special  care (e.g. if the artifact was an ecofact – organic, like a charred seed or nut, or if it is metal – especially iron) the artifact is tagged and sent to our Conservation Lab, where Doug Currie (Head Conservator) determines and performs the proper method of conservation for each artifact.

The artifact lifecycle doesn’t end there…stay tuned for more.