A day in the lab.

As you may have already heard, Archaeology is a science that studies the human past by analyzing bones, rocks, charcoal, ceramics, or shells (among others) that are in archaeological sites. These archaeological sites are very important, because they were the home of past human communities, where we find the remains of their daily lives. So, the archaeological site and the materials we find there help us tell the Story of the Human Past.

Through archaeological excavations we recover these artifacts so they can later be studied. However, before a specialist gets to analyze a bone or a rock, there are a couple of steps we need to follow, to ensure the assemblage is clean and organized. It starts by bringing all the materials to the laboratory.

So, how do we actually treat archaeological materials in the lab? Ready to find out?

In the lab you can usually find two types of materials coming from an excavation: bucket bags and individual materials. Today we are going to talk about the bucket bags.

Let us explain what a bucket bag is before we continue. When we are digging, we remove sediment to find large archaeological materials. This sediment is placed in a bucket (usually 5L) and then sieved, to find the small things we can’t see while excavating. Usually, we sieve in the field and put the small things in bags, to clean later. However, in some sites it can be… difficult to do this. Let’s talk about a specific example, the case of Lapa do Picareiro.

Lapa do Picareiro is a cave site located high up in a mountain in Serra de Aire, about 100 km northeast of Lisbon. It was occupied during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic by Neanderthals, Modern Humans, and lots of animals. LOTS of animals. Because of this, there are so many tiny bones in the sediment which take months to properly sieve. So, we bag the sediment (yes you heard me, ALL the sediment), and we take it to the laboratory to sieve there.

A few bucket bags from Lapa do Picareiro, already washed and ready to be sorted. Good luck Daniela!!

In the laboratory we follow these steps:

1) we put the sediment in the sieves, and then we wash them (yes, we wash dirt, but only to discover archaeological artefacts).

2) we put the materials we find in the sieves to dry on trays.

3) after drying, the materials are stored in plastic bags, to be sorted.

4) we sort the material, like bones, little stones, or charcoal, and put them in different bags to be later analyzed by specialists.

Of course, this is a work that takes some time to do, because the amount of material we find (especially bones) is huge! But it is essential – without it, an archaeologist interested in studying the small rats and rabbits from Lapa do Picareiro would be, well… lost.

Obviously, every site is different and the methods we apply also vary. But the need to process all the materials we recover from excavations is always the same independent of how big or small they are. I suppose we can say that in archaeology size DOESN’T matter!

Lapa do Picareiro materials after washing the bucket bags. Those are mostly all bones – can you believe it?

Author: Daniela Maio (and Joana Belmiro)

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