Poetic Archaeology 10

labeling supplies

scissors cut paper for rocks

neat handwriting please

Hmm, what a coincidence. Madeleine O’Brien probably has similar supplies in her lab. This photo may make another appearance elsewhere on this blog….

Meghan and her crew took some time to work in the lab during the worst of our last Mid-Atlantic heat wave. The crew is washing the artifacts they’ve found so far and labeling them with provenience data. This information details where the artifacts were found on a site. Here in the US, it usually includes the official site number recorded with the state and a “lot number.” The lot number is shorthand for the field location, which is often too long to fit on small artifacts.

Try writing something like “18XY9999, F1 SW1/4, TU 1, 20-30 cm” on a quarter—you won’t see much of the coin’s face when you’re done. But “18XY9999 / 39” (where 39 is the lot number) takes up much less room. 18XY9999 is a fictional site number. The 18 represents Maryland (which was the 18th state alphabetically when the system was established). XY is shorthand for a county name (totally fictional—no county name in Maryland begins with an X). 9999 is the next number in the county list that was assigned by the state.

F1 SW1/4 means the southwest quarter of Feature 1. And TU 1 means Test Unit 1. Large features (such as a cellar) are often excavated in sections. On a project like Meghan’s, she won’t excavate the entire cellar. She’ll drop a couple test units in it to see what shows up. 20-30 cm represents the depth below surface where artifacts are found. Archaeologists work in the metric system, so it’s centimeters and meters for us, not inches and feet.

When the artifacts are bagged up for museum storage, an inner paper tag and the outer plastic bag (or box) will be labeled with the full provenience information such as below. (We’ll print sheets with multiple paper tags and cut them with scissors. Many get used in bags of stone artifacts. Hence, my attempted play on the old standby for making choices.)

Some glass, oyster shell and mammal bone in the labeling process

Meghan’s crew is well-skilled. They’re not only excellent field archaeologists and lab technicians, but they’re also good at artifact analysis. They can tell the difference between 18th-century English manganese mottled earthenware and 19th-century American Rockingham yellowware. In my experience, not all archaeologists can.

There’s been some rain, and the worst of the heat has broken. The crew will be heading back to the field soon. Soils should be easier to excavate now that rain’s fallen, at least for a short while. But summer’s not over by a long shot, and we’re still in drought conditions. Still, the fieldwork will wrap up soon, and Meghan will get started on the report. She won’t have to worry about impossible artifacts and unexpected visitors like Madeleine OBrien of Death Out of Time does.

38 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology 10

  1. Curious as to why the usage of metric for Archaeologists? Is it to keep consistency between different groups from different parts of the world?


    • If I remember my history correctly, use of the metric system in American archaeology came in during the 1970s. There was a push in the US to “go metric” to be more consistent with most of the world. I think it caught on in academic circles for various reasons (mainly the academic view that Europe is more intellectual than the US). In the “contract world,” it became a general requirement when the National Park Service began to require it for all reports written for that agency’s projects.

      You’d think NASA would have required such standardization. Back in the ’90s, one of the Mars missions failed because no one noticed some engineers/designers were working in the metric system while others based calculations on the American system. Multi-million dollar “Oops.”


      • Thank you. You are most informative. 🙂 That’s my history lesson for today.
        I use metric everyday for work, it’s a standard. But whenever I need a 5mm Allen key, all I can find is a 7/32. They haunt me, I swear it.
        Silly NASA. You’d think they’d notice something like that.


    • You’re welcome! I’m never sure how these “poetic archaeology” posts will go over. But people do seem to enjoy the view into “the raw and violent world of international archaeology” as the Monty Python boys put it so well. 🙂


  2. Oh yes, almost forgot to tell you; liked your clever poem (haiku or kudzu or whatever they call those things). I can’t do those because, believe it or not, I have a hard time knowing when a sylable (sic?) starts or ends. Label me “illitererate.”


  3. I’m glad that the weather is starting to calm down, it must be rather frustrating when you’re trying to get work done! 🙂 I’ll bet you have to be a good team worker to get your stuff done successfully! 🙂


    • Good teamwork can be the difference between doing great work while having a great time and doing adequate work while fantasizing about ways to make your coworkers disappear. 🙂 Good project directors recognize the crew members’ various strengths and try to work with them.Recognizing when the crew needs a break is essential. 🙂


      • Well it sounds like you’ve got a great team with you and you’re right, it really does make all the difference! There’s very little point if you don’t share the same goals and attitudes! 🙂


  4. Love that haiku, very clever and cute. Another informative and interesting post on archaeology. You really do have a knack for teaching, as I know I’ve mentioned before.

    Do you have to memorize all those numbers and what they represent? I can only imagine that your mind is spinning random number and letter combos at the end of the day.

    More and more I can see the difference between the writing you do for archaeology and writing fiction, or even writing your blog posts. Totally different writing animals. Do you have to tell yourself, “Okay, right now I’m Novel JM, not Archaeology JM.” 🙂

    This brings to mind how I have to alter my vocabulary and speaking style when I converse with adults. After spending all day with children, I have a tough time making the transition from childspeak. Heck, it’s usually good for a laugh or two.


    • Haha—you get used to the shorthand. And you learn when you can safely “forget” the information from a completed project and remember what you need for the current one. 🙂

      That’s a great question about writing for archaeology vs. writing novels. Death Out of Time really surprised me because the writing IS so different from the day job. And I didn’t consciously have to think about the differences. But Summer at the Crossroads is a different beast. That was the first novel I wrote. And it’s very different in style and tone from Death. Part of that, I think, is because Summer is a more “mainstream” piece of fiction rather than a specific genre. But I think another part of it is that I hadn’t fully separated my fiction style of writing from my professional style.

      That’s part of what I’m trying to improve in Summer. And part of the difficulty is making sure I don’t lose the “mainstream” tone and turn the book into something it’s not. Does that make sense? The main characters in Summer are dealing with events and people firmly grounded in the real world—not time travelers. The sentences and paragraphs shouldn’t be overly short and action-driven, for example. We’ll see how I do when I go back to it after I finish draft 3 of Death….

      I think Death shows an improved understanding of good fiction writing. (I hope, anyway. I know it’s not fully there, yet!) It is my second novel. I tried to get a little flavor of the “real archaeology” in there, but not too much. I don’t want to put readers to sleep with an archaeology lecture. 🙂 But from the very beginning, I was conscious of the fact that it isn’t my “academic” style. (Well, except for things like scenes with no POV…. 😉 )

      I have a hard time imagining you doing childspeak since I see your professional and creative side. 🙂 You do great adultspeak on the blog and in emails. 😉 But I can see how hard transitioning between the two could be!


  5. Another informative post. 🙂 I imagine you, like me, wish the US would adopt the metric system once and for all. Makes so much more sense. I worked with kg and centimeters for body measurements and cc’s for liquids, and I still have a hard time remembering what a quart vs. a pint is. (And yes, I just admitted that.) 🙂


    • It would be so much simpler. Once you learn metric, it’s really straightforward and easier to remember things like how many centimeters are in a meter. Everything’s based on Base 10! But American (er, English)? 12 inches to the foot, but 3 feet to a yard? 2 pints to a quart but 4 quarts to the gallon? Where’s the logic in that? (Don’t worry, I had to check my refrigerator magnet with its measure conversions to get the numbers right. 🙂 )

      I have to think of some new ideas for poetic archaeology. Meghan’s project will wrap up at some point. Can I start a new one on something else she does? Or will I need something new altogether? Hmm….


        • Ooh, now that idea has some great potential! Some spooky haikus could come to mind. Hmm, Meghan gets to work with the police? There could be a mystery series in this…. Oh wait, Ruth Galloway! 🙂

          But a different twist is always to be found. Thanks for the idea! I will be sure to credit it to you when this one takes shape! 🙂

          Look how many bloggers you are inspiring! Your publisher should be very happy with your social networking. 🙂


    • I think I can handle past centuries better than all the changes in this one. 🙂 We all have different strengths. I have an eye for detail, but I also marvel at people like you who are so creative in different areas!


  6. JM, I love the archaeology posts. How does Meghan’s team decide when to go back out to the field after bad/uncooperative weather? Is there any sense of urgency because of what has already been excavated? When her team is inside cataloging the items, do they feel itchy to get back outside? Just curious.

    Hope the heat is getting more manageable in your area.


    • You and other readers ask such great questions about these posts!

      A number of factors go into the decision when to go back out. Field conditions are a major consideration. If the soil is now super wet from heavy rains/snows and flooding/melting, we have to wait until excavation conditions improve.

      But sometimes project deadlines trump conditions. Large construction projects lose significant money if they’re delayed by something like archaeology. Usually something like a transportation road project, for example, will have the archaeology completed long before construction begins. But there’s always the chance for what are called “unanticipated discoveries.” An archaeological site might have been buried more deeply than normal and wasn’t found in a standard survey. Or a Native American burial ground or a long-forgotten historic cemetery might be encountered.

      In that kind of setting, the archaeologists have to get that project done as soon as possible. That can mean working under tarping and makeshift tents while it’s pouring rain. Or working with portable heating systems in wintry conditions. Those situations are rare, though. Most often, “contract archaeologists” like Meghan and Madeleine O’Brien have to meet the deadlines they set in their contracts. There are usually clauses dealing with unforeseen complications such as bad weather, but clients, understandably, want the work done on schedule if at all possible.

      And sometimes the nature of the archaeology will keep us out there even in less than ideal conditions. We may need to put in extra long days to finish before bad weather sets in. Or we may need to get back to a delicate feature as soon as we can so it doesn’t disintegrate now that it’s in contact with air again. Burials, for example, should be completely excavated as soon as possible so we can get the bones stabilized.

      The “itchy factor” depends on the individual. Some people love the field and are bored in the lab. Others put up with the fieldwork to do the analyses and writing. The fieldwork does get harder as you get older…. 😉


  7. We love this stuff! ( and the poem – giggle!)
    Thanks for the explanation of the tagging system. It makes sense. Systematic logging in is critical.
    Metric or “English” measurement – Please pick one and let’s go with it -the bouncing back and forth is nuts. (once again the math of metric makes sense…although it would drive me crazy for a bit)
    …slightly bi-measur-lingual here


    • Thanks! I think the learning curve leads to the most foot-dragging for people. If you’ve grown up with inches, feet, quarts, and tablespoons, a new system is foreign. I’m going to date myself here, but I learned the metric system in school. Everyone thought we’d be making the conversion. But it never happened somehow…. It did help when I began studying archaeology, though. 🙂

      I’ll have to let my husband know readers are enjoying the haiku. I thought it was a fun touch for the post and a little summer lightness. 😉


  8. Wow, all that labeling reminds me of audit workpapers, where every piece of paper had to have a unique number corresponding to the test question it supports. 🙂


    • There are a lot of things to keep track of. 🙂 From labeling and curating the artifacts so others can study them in the future to analyzing them to make site interpretations and to getting all the numbers and details right in the final reports… Well, it helps to have an eye for detail. 🙂 Lab work makes a lot of students realize archaeology may not be for them. 😉


  9. Wow, loved getting to learn about all the secret archeological codes 🙂 I’m wondering what the impossible artifacts are that Madeleine finds though.


    • Hmm, I don’t think I can say what they are just yet. 🙂 But I can tell you they don’t belong in an eighteenth-century cemetery! And Madeleine and Jack find their lives getting a lot more interesting as a result. . . .


  10. At risk of sounding a bit boring, I like the categorisation information and information such as using the metric system. I like the mechanics of things, the logic or rational thinking. I wish the metric system had already been adopted over here. It is not only more accurate, but easier to follow.

    Nice Haiku too 🙂


    • Archaeology has such a “sexy” image in films and books. I like to show some of the “plain Jane” aspects of it as a counterpoint. But don’t get me wrong—I wouldn’t still be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it!

      Carrie’s idea already has me started on Meghan’s next adventure. The first haiku is written…. 🙂


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