Conservation Highlights: Artifact Analysis and Research

Author: Kelsey Schmitz, ECU Anthropology Graduate Student

A common question we are asked here at the lab is “How do the archaeologists and conservators identify an artifact?” How do we know what we are looking at, what it is made of, and what it was used for? As archaeologists and conservators, we have many tools and resources to help us answer these questions.

One of the most important resources we utilize in our research are primary sources, which are documents written or produced at the time of interest. These are extremely helpful in historical and artifact research, as they give us the most accurate depiction of the event, item, or time period. Examples of primary sources include photographs, newspaper articles, manuscripts, letters and diary entries, census records, estate records, and other eyewitness accounts. Primary documents are the closest researchers can get to understanding what life was like in the past and have helped answer many critical questions about the life of La Concorde and Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Another extremely useful resource can be fellow researchers and experts in the field. More than likely, another person has asked the same research question that you have. Reaching out to others through communication and collaboration works as an extremely valuable aid in artifact identification and analysis. Collaboration with others brings new perspectives to our work and allows us to look at our research in a different way. For example, when we discovered waterlogged paper from QAR, we reached out to a network of colleagues to determine the appropriate treatment for such a rare artifact.

In archaeological research, type collections are often created to aid in future research. A type collection is an assemblage of artifacts (such as ceramic types, faunal bone, etc.) that have been correctly analyzed and identified. Researchers use these collections as references, which aids in identification and analysis of other artifacts.

Technology always lends a helping hand in artifact identification and analysis. Techniques such as XRF and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) can provide critical details about the chemical composition and physical makeup of an artifact. Material samples can be collected from artifacts and tested. As technology advances, more possibilities for artifact identification and analysis will emerge.

As artifacts are uncovered from the sea, identification begins immediately. But with resources such as the ones described above, we can learn even more about the artifacts residing in our lab.

A specialist examining wood from QAR in order to determine the species. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Paper conservators from the North Carolina State Archives examining waterlogged paper from QAR. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
A scientist from East Carolina University using SEM to identify horn from QAR. Image by NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

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