Washing Artifacts

by Megan Hall

Tuesday, I worked in the lab washing artifacts for the first time.  The three of us, Caroline, Ashley, and I, washed the bags of artifacts we had collected previously.  We had four main types of artifacts to wash: bone, shell, pottery, and rock.  I have previous experience washing bone, but I have never washed shell, pottery, or rock artifacts before.

We use different methods of washing for each type of artifact to ensure the least damage.  For rock artifacts, which include flakes, arrowheads, and fire cracked rock, we submerged the artifacts in water and scrubbed them clean with a toothbrush.  For bone, we dry brushed most fragments, using a small amount of water on bone that was particularly dirty.  We brushed shell artifacts with a soft, dry toothbrush, as they crumble easily.  Pottery sherds, which are fragments of pottery, we washed by wetting a finger and wiping as much dirt as possible off.  This was a tricky method to use, but finger and brush marks can be left on pottery if one is not careful.

Our washing stations included a plastic tub with about two inches of water in the bottom, a few colanders, and toothbrushes.  I had a wet toothbrush I kept in the water for use on rock and bone, a dry toothbrush for bone, and a soft dry toothbrush for shell.  Keeping the wet toothbrush separate from the dry toothbrush helped me with speed, so I would not have to wait for the brush to dry.

Washing artifacts is extremely fun, as one can see what the artifacts look like without a skin of dirt.  We had collected a few flakes of Hixton silicified sandstone in my unit that I washed today.  This type of rock looks like sugar crystals and shines brilliantly in the sun once clean.  Washing flakes of Hixton was my favorite artifact today, because they look so different once clean.  Some flakes are clear, much like glass.  It was also fun to see what other units had found.  I even got to wash some of the arrowheads other units had found.

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However, washing can be extremely frustrating as well as rewarding.  Units may have a bag full of tiny flakes or bone chips, which one must wash.  This can be very tedious, especially when one is afraid of breaking artifacts, like me.  Also, when I opened up some bags, larger artifacts had already been broken while in the bag.  For example, in my unit we had found a rodent tooth of a pretty decent length.  When I opened up the bag to wash our artifacts, the tooth had been broken in two.

All in all, washing artifacts was a nice break from digging in my unit.  I enjoyed learning how to properly wash the different types of artifacts, as well as seeing what the artifacts looked like once clean.  It was sad to see the few artifacts that had been broken, but luckily that number was small.