Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lab Work

Just by looking at the attire, you could tell that this day was different. Instead of the muddy jeans and loose T-shirts that the usual workday uniform requires, URAPers arrived at 55 Kroeber in opened-toed shoes, nice shirts, hair out of ponytails, and even skirts – nice attire in contrast to the usual grubbiness we arrive in. So what was the occasion for this change?

It was a laboratory day. We moved from outdoors to indoors, traded our shovels and pickaxes for toothbrushes and fine tipped markers, and swapped our use of upper body strength to the use of our patience and meticulous attention. Laboratory work consists of three steps: washing, bagging, and labeling. At first glance, laboratory work can appear painstaking and repetitious: items go through the series of steps, each of which require an amount of patience and attention to detail. However, I found the laboratory work to be exciting, rewarding, even relaxing- renewing my perspective on the Cheney House site and Archaeology in general.

Excavation is the usual image conjured up when one thinks of Archaeology- images of archaeologists with pith helmets out in the field digging away in the dirt. In fact, it seems that the common imagination neglects laboratory work entirely- believing that all categorization and analysis of artifacts occurs immediately on the site. That once found and dusted off, those artifacts are just a hop, skip and a jump away from landing in a museum display case. And while I do agree that a movie of the geeky archaeologist scrubbing away at an artifact would not cut as a blockbuster, laboratory work remains an invisible yet incredibly crucial stage of Archaeological study.

For me, the lab provided a chance to grasp the larger picture. While on the field I an entirely focused on my assigned STP, the laboratory work allowed me to see the cumulative findings from the Cheney House and even, in some respect, re-discover all the items for myself. Washing particularly heightened this feeling of discovery. Brushing away at an artifact I would find to my dismay that it crumbled- revealing itself to be a mud clump rather than the supposed piece of brick I originally thought it was. Likewise, brushing away at another artifact, a glistening green shine would peek through its muddy coat. And while it’s simply a shard of glass, in my eyes it became a piece of treasure, being discovered for a second time through the washing stage.

While I could focus on the beauty of individual artifacts in the washing stage, in the bagging stage I could see a much greater picture. Through grouping objects by material type, I could see connections within the provenience as well as throughout the vertical layers excavated. I also began building relationships between STPs- noticing trends in the materials found at different sites and different levels.

Another interesting observation of lab work was the noise- or, more specifically, the lack thereof. Although there were six or more people in the lab at once, the lab was silent save the scratching sound of toothbrush bristles and the occasional squeak of sharpie marker on Ziploc bag. Though unlike the awkward silence of high school detention rooms and art museums, this silence was not awkward but comforting, even peaceful. It was the silence of diligence and total focus on the task in front of you. It’s the sound of being entirely absorbed and intent on the task at hand. And this silence was very relaxing. Like all college students, my brain is under stress all day- focusing on class, on reading, on papers. The laboratory work proved a release from that- a time when you could just direct all your attention to a single task. I think it was this soothing aspect of laboratory work (as well as the fact that almost all the apprentices arrived to help with the lab) that enabled us to get so much accomplished- in fact all the artifacts we had found up to that point had been washed and half of the artifacts found were bagged and labeled. Which leads me to my final praise of laboratory work- it gives us the impetus to keep digging! Thus, as the Campanile chimed two, although we left the lab emptier than when we arrived, we left 55 Kroeber with full hearts, content with a job well done and eager to continue excavating the Cheney House.

- Margeaux


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