The Other Side of Archaeology

By Katie Barbour, Archaeology Laboratory Analyst

It starts in a field. A hiker notices ancient pot fragments sticking out of a river bank. A road crew uncovers a forgotten homestead. An archaeologist discovers a disturbed area under ground using ground penetrating radar. Then the work crews come in with their shovels, trowels, buckets, screens, Munsell books and journals. Out of the ground and into bags go ceramic, glass, metal, stone, animal bones. Then it’s off to the lab to clean off the dirt and get things ready to catalog. That’s where I come in.

The "clean lab."

I work in what is called the “clean lab” at the Indiana State Museum. It’s called the clean lab because, once artifacts end up here, they should be as clean of all field dirt as they possibly can be. I take the material and begin the slow and exacting process of sorting, identifying, cataloging, tagging and numbering each item. It takes a special person for this tedious, uncelebrated task and, for better or for worse, I am that person.

Somebody's watching me ...

The material I am currently working with is a huge collection of Native American artifacts collected from the Mann Site near the Evansville area. The amount of material is stunning. There are a ton of chipped stone cores and flakes, thousands of points and blades, more types of pottery than I can count, just thousands upon thousands of pieces of ancient manufactured goods. When this material — the figurines, quartz points, effigy pipes — first made its way to the lab, I was blown away. But now, about two years into wading through box after box of stuff, I’ve grown use to it all. Ceramic figurines? Yawn. I’ve cataloged nearly 400. Your site has a couple of lamellar blades? Ho hum. I’ve already cataloged over a thousand and have thousands more to go. Lucky for me, I enjoy organizing things. Besides, every so often, I come across something that I find truly remarkable, like a groundstone gorget with an etching of a big-nosed god or an awesome ceramic staff topper decorated with teeth marks.

Stone blades! Get your stone blades here!

These obvious signs of humanity, teeth marks, replicas of animals that people thousands of years ago revered, the occasional finger print found in a mundane piece of daub, are the things that thrill me. They tell me that we humans, no matter where we are from, have always been manipulating and interpreting the world around us. And long distance trade is nothing new. Some of the obsidian in this collection traces back to Bear Gulch in what is now eastern Idaho. Catlinite, used to make beautiful stone pipes, is found in Minnesota and Canada. Talahatta quartzite, used to make points, only occurs in central Mississippi and southwest Alabama. All of this stone ended up in good ol’ Indiana, probably in a market stall. “Stone blades! Get your stone blades! Ten for a dollar!”

These are the things that run through my head as I sort, count, number, weigh, catalog each blade, point, rim sherd and awl. This is a big project! But my job is to create a searchable catalog and organized artifact boxes for future research, interpretation and exhibition. I look forward to seeing this amazing material on display one day at this museum. And, if you happen to notice a very tiny number on a pot sherd or projectile point, that’s my handiwork. Hope you enjoy!

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One Response

  1. Whoa, this was very insightful.

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