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Archeology for Interpreters > 4. What Do Archeologists Do?

How do archeologists identify artifacts?

Cataloging artifacts

Once an excavation endsand the artifacts are cleaned, the archeologist's first task is to classify, or catalog them. To do this the archeologist describes each artifact's many physical properties, known as attributes, such as the material(s) from which the artifact is made, its size, shape, function, and decoration. The cataloging process is meant to be an exhaustive description of the artifact so that researchers can ask multiple questions of artifacts in an assemblage without constantly having to return to the actual objects and repeatedly examine them for attributes. Cataloging is crucial process that allows archeologists and managers to track and represent artifact assemblages.

An extremely important part of this cataloging process is the use of typologies, or idealized categories that describe a certain attribute of an artifact. Archeologists create artifact typologies to organize and make sense of past material culture. There are no rigid typologies that all archeologists use in every situation. Rather, each classification system must be formulated with a specific purpose in mind (Thomas 1998:235). If, for example, you had an assemblage of six artifacts: one red glazed ceramic sherd, one blue glazed ceramic sherd, one blue glass bottle, one green glass fragment, one rubber tire and one red plastic button. You could choose to classify them by color (red, blue, green and black), by material (ceramic, glass, rubber and plastic), or any number of ways depending on the questions you ask of the assemblage. The National Park Services uses the Automated National Catalog System (ANCS) to classify artifacts and maintain collection records.

For your information

Interior Collections Management System
ICMS is a commercial off-the-shelf software system configured for the Department of Interior (DOI). This database management system was developed to accession and catalog DOI museum collections. In addition, the system includes multiple functions covering documentation, preservation and use of collections. A User Manual for ICMS is available for users from all DOI bureaus and offices.

Although no single classification system exists, many archeologists do categorize artifacts into somewhat standard typologies based on both materials used and manufacturing techniques. Within each standard typology are many subclassifications. Some of the standard typologies are:

Stone tools, debitage (debris produced during stone tool manufacture), firecracked rocks, crystals and other stone artifacts are categorized as lithics.

Try it yourself

Principles of Lithic Technology (Exercise 4-3)
See online movies that illustrate stone tools manufacture. On the title page, click Courseware/Human origins/ Exercise 4-3. Highly recommended, but movies download slowly. Quick Time Playerİ required.

Ceramics: The term ceramics covers all artifacts that are modeled or molded from clay and then made durable by firing (Ashmore and Sharer 1996:119). Vessels are undoubtedly the most widespread and abundant kind of ceramics, although bricks and decorative artifacts, such as porcelain figurines, are also ceramics. Ceramics can be either prehistoric or historic. Most ceramics recovered from archeological sites are in broken pieces called sherds. Archeologists examine sherds and try to determine the original vessel's characteristics, including:

For your information

Glossary of Ceramic Attributes
Find terms and definitions that describe ceramic sherds and assemblages.

Glass: Glass artifacts are fragile and must be examined carefully. Glass may be classified by color, form, decoration or by other attributes. Window glass is often the most common glass artifact found at historical archeological sites, although archeologists may recover bottles, hollowware, and personal artifacts such as beads.

Metals: Metal artifacts result from a manufacturing technique that extracts metal from ores. Copper, iron, tin, brass, silver, gold and alloys, such as bronze and pewter, comprise different types of metals. Metal artifacts may be molded, cast, hand wrought, hammered, or produced in a number of ways. Metal artifacts may be problematic since some require immediate conservation when they are removed from soil during data recovery.

Organic artifacts: This typology includes a variety of objects made from organic materials such as wood, plant fibers, bone, antler, leather, ivory, and shell.

Ecofacts: These nonartifactual natural remains can provide information about human behavior, such as remnants of wild and domesticated animals and plants, soil and charcoal. Floral ecofacts are microscopic and macroscopic plant remains. Faunal ecofacts are animal remains that may indicate what animals were exploited by humans and how.

Fun fact

The National Archives and Records Administration thinks of documents as artifacts. Access the Artifact Analysis Worksheet and see some of the questions that archeologists ask about the artifacts they analyze.