The Fiske Center Blog

Weblog for the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

After the digging is done: Munroe Tavern in the Lab


Thursday marked an emotional day for the Archaeologists at Munroe Tavern’s excavation.  We all remarked upon the sadness of packing up the site and leaving Lexington for the summer.  But one element of our time in town resounded – Yes, the excavations were a success and yes, we all felt lucky to have worked on such an important site – but mostly, we reflected upon the incredible outpouring of support and interest by the Lexington public and all those who came to visit us throughout the month.  So before I go on, I’d like to say thank you to all those who visited us, read our blog, read about us in the newspaper, or supported us in any way – You made this a remarkable experience!

But what’s next?

One may think that once the artifacts are collected, the soil profiles drawn, the drainage system parsed out, and the backdirt pile has risen to a truly colossal height that our work is done.  Not even close.  Some estimates suggest that as much as 10 hours of lab work is required to analyze materials from every one hour of work in the field.  You may ask, "Bill, what does that tremendous amount of lab work entail?"   I’d answer like this:

Everything we collect in the field is first transported back to our labs at the University of Massachusetts Boston (which is actually in Dorchester, but who’s counting?) where it is sorted and preliminarily catalogued and sent to the appropriate lab space.  I’ll very briefly introduce you to the journeys of two different types of materials.  The first is material culture.  Material culture is a term we use to lump together almost all of the artifacts that we collect in the field.  This includes sherds of pottery, pieces of brick, metal artifacts such as nails, buttons, coins, and the more delicate pieces like shoe leather and bones.  Those artifacts that are strong enough to withstand it are first washed and scrubbed with toothbrushes and then left out to dry, as seen in the photo above.  Later each of these individual artifacts is cataloged into a digital inventory where they can be quantified and analyzed in both space and time which helps archaeologists to draw conclusions about human behavior in the past.  The more delicate artifacts (such as bone, leather, and some metal artifacts) are carefully conserved and stabilized so that they can better be studied.  After each artifact is analyzed, identified, and cataloged they will be given back to the Lexington Historical Society, who may choose to use them for museum displays or as educational tools.

Another set of materials we analyze are botanical samples.  This is my particular specialty.  As a paleoethnobotanist (if you break down that Latin it really just means a person who studies old plants used by people), my job is to process and analyze soil samples collected in the field.  This process is a long one, with several steps.  First the soil samples are floated.  We use a machine called a flote-tech to literally "float" the botanical materials out of the soil collected from the Munroe Tavern ell, which is what I’m doing in this photo.  

The machine separates out and washes away the soil leaving behind two samples, one of heavy materials (like rocks and ceramics) and another of light materials (such as seeds, charcoal, insect carapaces, and other things that float in water).  These two samples are then dried out and individually analyzed under a low-power microscope.  Seeds and other botanical materials are removed, identified, and counted and are cataloged just like the other artifacts we find and can be statistically analyzed in much the same way.  Along with bones, seeds help archaeologists to recreate the diets and foodways of people in the past.  Do you have a favorite recipe learned from your mother or father?  Or maybe you like eating at a certain kind of restaurant that represents the cuisine of a country or foreign part of the world?  Well, people in the past thought of food in much the same ways that we do now, and because of this we archaeologists consider food to be an important window into understanding cultures of the past.  

That’s just a sample of the different ways in which what we find in the field translates into work in the lab and eventual publication, museum exhibits, or other analyses of past peoples.  Well, guess I better get back to work!

Bill Farley    

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