Artifact Analysis &
Space, Time and Form
Taxonomy, Systematics and Nomenclature
First described in 1909
Associated archaeology with geologic
classification of stone, ceramic and metal artifact
deposited by people who used them and their
location in a site reflects cultural, economic,and
Allexcavated artifacts should be kept as a
unit until everything is completely catalogued.
Sampling large collections of artifacts due to
Characteristics of artifacts
A group of artifacts that belong together.
All artifacts from a site
All artifacts from a particular provenience.
A particular type of artifact.
Differences in artifacts through time or space.
defined units of classification.
Each type is separated by some difference.
Lumpers and Splitters
Some analysts group artifacts in fewer, more
Splitters group artifacts into more, narrowly
Types based on form.
Change in artifacts through time.
Based on presumed function.
Classification provides a base for further
Fundamental analytical step
Kinds of Classification
Quantitative vs. Qualitative
Classification of Pottery
Uses of Classifications
Reconstruct Past Lifeways
Material object put to use
Ways of making or using objects
Discovery of new process
Change in use
Spread of technology
Quantitative and Qualitative
Use of artifacts
Replication/Reconstruction of artifacts
Case Study: Examples from the Lost Towns
of Anne Arundel Project, Maryland
Excavations at Grassy Island have recovered a huge
quantity of 18th century artifacts.
How did we process, sort and record the garbage of a
What important questions did we ask to give meaning to
the objects and their relationships to the site?
What stories were told by the objects about the people
who used them and the world they lived in?
Field Lab Procedures
The operation of a field lab was an important part of the five seasons spent on Grassy
Island. Labs were hardly glamorous - unless you fancy garages, fish plants or school
rooms - but they provided a base for processing excavated artifacts. All artifacts entering
the lab arrived with a provenience card assigned on the site by the archaeologist and
were recorded on a daily log sheet. The provenience card had to be retained with the
artifacts at all time and it was important that only one provenience be handled at a time
to avoid an artifact with an archaeological "identity crisis".
Different artifact categories found on Grassy Island needed different cleaning methods.
Glass and most ceramic material was washed in lukewarm water using a soft brush to
remove the dirt. Metal, bone and other delicate material was not placed in water but was
brushed. Artifacts requiring special conservation treatment were flagged.
Once the washed ceramic and glass artifacts dried, a thin coat of clear nail polish was
applied on the surface on the artifact. Provenience numbers were carefully written on the
dried polish with ink and a fine point dip pen. Numbers were never written on the edge of
the artifact because the number had to remain visible even after mending. Metal and
other artifacts which were not physically numbered were bagged with a provenience I.D.
tag or label.
We used eight main artifact categories for the Grassy Island excavations: 1) Ceramics;
2) Glass; 3) Metal 4) Organics (e.g., leather and bone); 5) Lithic (e.g., gunflints and
projectile points); 6) Composite 7) Other (e.g., plastic) 8) Unidentified. Most of these
categories have many subcategories but in a field situation most sorting is done by the
major categories. After the Grassy Island artifacts were processed in the field lab they
were sent to Halifax for finer sorting, mending and cataloguing.
Mending and Cataloguing
Most archaeological artifacts are found in fragments. The mending
of the Grassy Island artifacts took many months. Think of hundreds
of jigsaw puzzles, only with lots of missing pieces.
First mending was done within archaeological lots (for example,
54C1) and then sherds were crossmended between lots, sub-
operations and even operations, establishing important connections
between archaeological contexts. Once mending was completed,
the mended Grassy Island fragments were catalogued.
Lab researchers consulted illustrated books, contacted museums
and compared their material to other collections to determine ware
type, date range, function, vessel form, and country of origin (or
What did they learn?
Stone projectile points were discovered, revealing the presence of
Aboriginal fishermen on Grassy Island over 1500 years ago.
A small collection of artifacts was also excavated that suggests the
seasonal use of the island by French fishermen in the 17th century.
However, the vast majority of artifacts recovered from Grassy Island
date to the site's occupation by New Englanders between 1720 and
1744. A few later 18th century ceramic sherds were found in the
tavern cellar depression and probably relate to sporadic domestic
use of the island after the destruction of the town.
The ceramics in particular illustrated Canso's wide-reaching trade
links, with wares originating in France, the Mediterranean, the West
Indies, Great Britain, Turkey, China, and New England. The
presence of the French ceramic and glass wares tends to confirm
other evidence of a largely illicit trade link with Louisbourg.
Redwares made in the New England region are common in the
collection, as would be expected given Grassy Island's New
England connections. There is no evidence that pottery was
manufactured locally .
Artifacts excavated from the How and Heron properties
suggest a comfortable, upper middle class lifestyle,
especially the high percentage of expensive Chinese
porcelain teawares, an 18th century status symbol.
Wig curlers, stock (neckcloth) buckles, ornate sleeve-
links and shoe buckles recovered from the site tell us
that gentlemen living on Grassy Island continued to
dress the part, despite the relative isolation of life on a
In the 18th century, homes were often places of
business and it is easy to imagine a well-dressed
Edward How settling accounts over French wine served
in beautiful English leaded glasses.
Many of the artifacts recovered from Grassy Island relate to the
consumption and preparation of food. A curious lack of ceramic
flatware vessels suggest the residents used pewter for plates. Pewter
plates were not likely to have been broken and discarded to remain
as evidence in the ground.
Miscellaneous activities were suggested by the presence of various
tools, including a small table vise probably used to repair jewelery or
other fine metals. Lead musket balls, gun parts and fish hooks were
also found, as were interesting domestic artifacts that evoke 18th
century life like candle- snuffers and the insert for a box clothing iron.
Large quantities of clay smoking pipes were also found on Grassy
Island, with telling clusters in courtyard work areas and at the site of a
tavern. Indeed, the large quantities of pipes and drinking vessels
helped to identify the tavern. The tavern excavations also yielded far
more coarse ware vessels than fine ware vessels. A completely
opposite proportion occurs in the ceramic assemblages from the How
and Heron properties, indicative of the activities of a middle class
domestic household versus that of a tavern.
The presence of clusters of
window glass helped us to locate
the windows at the How
property. The location of Edward
How's front door was marked by
its hardware, including the door
A variety of building hardware
was recovered from Grassy
Island, dominated by thousands
of wrought iron nails.
Museum Reconstruction: Edward
Manufacturing and using tools in the
present to compare to the past.
Preserving objects after excavation.
Often needing specialists and special
facilities, such as cold or dry storage,
humidity control, etc.
CONSERVATION OF WATERLOGGED WOOD
When water evaporates from wood that has been
saturated for centuries and is partly decomposed, the
wood shrinks and distorts. This picture shows an
untreated fragment of Iron Age wood, excavated in about
1914, allowed to dry naturally.
Wood is stabilized by replacing the water with impregnants
that also add strength to the decayed wood. The aim is to
preserve both the shape and the surface detail. It has,
however, proved difficult to find preservative materials that
do not themselves destroy the wood in the long run.
The preferred method, at present, for conserving very
decomposed wood, such as Iron Age wood from bogs, is
impregnation with PEG in water solution, followed by
Iron Age scabbard. Impregnated with sugar and a very little glycerin
and freeze dried in 1994
Textiles should be removed together with
the surrounding soil, so that their
extraction can be completed in the
workshop, under the best conditions and
without using consolidants.
Water soluble consolidants together with
freeze drying. The textile is sometimes
given a very weak lanolin treatment if it
seems very brittle.
Iron Age Dress
Iron rusts when it is exposed to water and
oxygen. The process is quicker in the presence
of salts, sodium chloride for example. Buried iron
objects are changed partly or entirely to
corrosion products, which obscure the object's
original appearance. Significant traces of the
original surface may lie within this corrosion.
The object and the soil are impregnated with an
acrylic lacquer. The surface is then exposed.
The object in its bed of soil can now be
displayed in a box .
Iron pin in soil Stirrup
The Archaeological Conservancy