Inadvertently Creating Your Own Ceramic Types in the Archaeology Laboratory

Part of the professional science community here in Oak Ridge is shut down for Good Friday, so I decided to go out to lunch at New China Palace today.  New China Palace is the oldest full-service Chinese restaurant in Oak Ridge. The food and service have always been excellent. New China Palace is approaching 50 years old, and it has already graduated to the enviable cultural status of historic culinary institution in the minds of many Oak Ridgers. After an excellent lunch today, I was pulling out of the New China Palace parking lot and thinking about some artifacts I had to wash a couple of weeks ago in my archaeology laboratory (a.k.a the bathroom with the long counter top just across the hall from my office).  Then I got tickled and began laughing at a fleeting thought about washing artifacts long, long, long ago.

The best way to wash artifacts is to place them under a partially open sink faucet or in a pan of water and let the water alone bleed the adhering soil from the surfaces of the artifacts, sometimes assisted by a gentle swishing motion with the fingers.  If needed, it is often okay to use a toothbrush with chert artifacts, but always a toothbrush with soft bristles.  It is not wise to use a toothbrush or any other kind of scrubbing device on softer lithic materials (e.g., limestone), ceramic sherds, and bone because the bristles can damage them.

New undergraduate students and citizen volunteers who begin archaeological laboratory work usually start out by washing artifacts.  The Archaeologist or Laboratory Supervisor has to teach them how to do it carefully so they will not damage the artifacts, but they cannot be in the laboratory every second if they have other things to do, like go to a class across campus.  Once in a great while, a student or volunteer will arrive late after everyone else has left the laboratory.  The new arrival knows he is there to wash artifacts, so he just picks some artifacts out of a labeled bag and starts washing them.  Sometimes this uninitiated student or volunteer may bring in their own toothbrush or scrub brush because general cultural conditioning has taught him that washing is all about scrubbing things down really good―like Mr. Clean does on TV.  Why is it always the hard bristles (sigh)?  Just in case you are wondering, this is the archaeology laboratory version of the new field archaeology student or volunteer who is told to bring their own trowel to the site and shows up with a 2-foot-long cement trowel.  Been there! Seen that!  I swear!!!

Everything will work out all right if this new laboratory person is just washing chert debitage and an occasional side scraper or pp/k.  Prehistoric ceramics are another matter entirely.  In equatorial areas with high rainfall and the humid subtropics, porous baked clay that has been sitting underground for 1,500 years is usually soft.  If an artifact washer goes after a decorated ceramic surface with a hard-bristled brush (or even a soft-bristled brush), the sherd is going to get damaged.  If the decorative surface is already hard to see, the brushing action may even erase all traces of the original decoration from the sherd, leaving behind only the brush marks from the washing.

Why was I laughing as I left the New China Palace parking lot?  Well, this is certainly nothing to laugh about in a serious archaeological laboratory environment.  However, it just occurred to me that artifact washers with hard-bristled brushes have the ability to create their own ceramic artifact types in the laboratory―and what if we were to formally name them:

Crest Bristle Marked

Colgate Brush Marked

Libman Swirl Incised

Clorox Surface Raked

Stanley Brush Plain (formerly Deptford Cord Marked)

Are you laughing too?   C’mon guys!!!  Get a sense of humor!!!  This oddball stuff that sometimes happens in real life archaeology is part of what makes American archaeology so much fun.  And yes, you always plan for, hope for, and pray that no such artifact-washing disasters occur―or you at least hope you or the Laboratory Supervisor make it back from class or the restroom before newbie Fred or Cyndi gets to the third or fourth sherd.

 You guys have a happy holiday weekend!!!

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