How to Do Archaeology During a Pandemic

Like so many of you, in the middle of March this year, nearly all employees of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore began working from home and did not return to our offices for two and a half months.  We expected a lengthy time away and, as such, prepared as best we could for the change.  For some departments, the change mainly involved figuring out access to digital files but, since our jobs revolve around physical artifacts, we archaeologists had to do a little improvising.

The ‘wet lab’ where artifacts are washed before cataloging and analysis sits quietly unused at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

First, while it’s normally not a “best practice” to take artifacts home, we really had no choice if we were going to remain productive.  This meant I as archaeology lab supervisor and that Elyse and Judy, archaeology lab technicians , all had to create what essentially amounted to an a archaeology lab in each of our homes.  Elyse and Judy need space to wash, label, and catalogue artifacts while I needed space to analyze artifacts while simultaneously keeping them away from my extremely inquisitive preschooler! I mostly succeeded in that last task. Elyse actually enlisted the help of her older and amazing daughter June with washing artifacts.  As so many of us found out in 2020, working and parenting from home is not easy but Elyse and I adapted well, I think.

Elyse Adams, archaeology lab technician, and her daughter June wash artifacts at home.

It should also be noted, however, that keeping artifacts away from all of our many, many dogs and cats proved challenging as well.   While my cats were thrilled (well, as thrilled as cats can get, at least) that I was home all day, they were occasionally of the opinion that the Washington-era porcelain sherds I was researching looked much better on the floor.

Despite these challenges, we got the job done and eventually returned to the lab at Ferry Farm having accomplished quite a bit.

Life inside Ferry Farm’s archaeology lab looks quite different now, too, compared to this time in 2019. Since the lab is relatively close quarters, we instituted a rigorous cleaning schedule, spaced our work areas out as much as possible, and started taking temperatures every day.  Our beloved volunteers have not come back (Shout out to our volunteers! You guys are awesome!) because we needed to limit the number of people working in the lab to only myself, Elyse, and Judy.

One of the coolest features of our lab is the huge viewing window through which visitors could see real live archaeologists at work.  While Ferry Farm is now open to the public for tours, the visitor center remains closed and there’s no longer any inquisitive folks peering at us through the glass. It’s a surprisingly lonely feeling not to glance up from our work occasionally to see visitors watching what we’re doing.  We also put a temporary halt on lab tours that we do occasionally during special events or children’s camps at Ferry Farm.  Both of these changes are a bummer because we really liked the interaction we had with visitors. That being said, we’re optimistic that someday life will return to normal eventually and we’ll be able to share our lab with the public once again.  When that time does finally comes, please visit and check out the archaeology lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. We miss you!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

After Digging: What Happens in the Archaeology Lab?

Intro to Lab (3)

Artifacts excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Here at Ferry Farm for the last 13 years, professional archaeologists have been exploring the local landscape, digging hundreds of excavation units in their quest to reveal the history of all those who lived here, including, of course, the Washington family.  Their investigative efforts have resulted in a multitude of artifacts dating from the earliest prehistoric Native American occupation of this riverine site, through the Colonial and Civil War periods, all the way to a 1990s occupation of the farm.

So, what happens to all the artifacts that are uncovered and dug up with trowels and shovels? All of those items are important pieces to the puzzle of reconstructing the history of this site, but only if they are cleaned up and recognizable.  That is the purpose of the archaeology lab here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.   With the help of both professional staff and dedicated volunteers, every single artifact that has come out of the ground is washed, dried, identified, labelled, and, finally, catalogued into a searchable computer database.

The archaeology lab is located within the Ferry Farm Visitor Center which houses museum exhibits, storage rooms for the artifacts, and other administrative offices.  Visitors making their way through the exhibits can check out our lab spaces through large windows, allowing them a peek into our work spaces and giving them the ability to see the different processes the artifacts go through.

Intro to Lab (1)

The visitor’s view of the Archaeology Lab.

While archaeological excavations at Ferry Farm take place every year, actual digging occurs only three months out of the year.  Artifact processing and analysis in the lab goes on for 12 months out of the year.  Archaeologists often say that “1 day in the field equals 3 days in the lab” and, in general, that adage is true.  Once the artifact bags come into the lab, it can be six months to one year or more before an entire artifact collection is completely processed.

So where does it all start? Well, in the wet lab…

Wet Lab

Intro to Lab (4)

Where artifacts are washed inside the Wet Lab.

The wet lab is a small room where the artifacts are washed and dried.  It is fitted out with two sinks – the artifacts are washed only with water – and a countertop to provide space for the washing process.  Toothbrushes, dental picks, pipe cleaners, washtubs, and other cleaning tools are handily arranged for easy access by the staff.

The washing process is pretty straightforward.  The artifacts, covered with dirt from the field excavation, are poured out of the bag onto a tray.  The washer separates the different items on the tray and proceeds to carefully wash them with a tooth brush and water.  After a quick rinse, the washed items are placed on a tray covered with mesh and the tray is placed in a drying rackThe washing process can be seen in this video. The artifacts stay on the drying racks for at least a week to make sure they are completely dried before being bagged.  Large windows allow visitors to watch this process and to see the “treasures from the earth” as they are uncovered and completely revealed, often for the first time in 200 years or more!

Dry Lab

Intro to Lab (2)

Volunteers work in the Dry Lab.

The dry lab is a larger space containing desk space for the staff, the small finds cabinets, and long tables used for labeling and other projects.  It is here that the dried artifacts are placed into acid-free plastic bags, catalogued, and then labelled by the staff and volunteers.  Our staff spends quite a bit of time cataloguing the artifacts, which involves identifying, counting, measuring, and weighing all the artifacts.  The cataloging process can be seen in this video. Each artifact is labeled with identifying information and the address of the exact location where it was found on the site.  Research is always an ongoing activity as identifying and dating specific artifacts helps in understanding Ferry Farm’s past and the people who once occupied this ground.

Time is also spent on the mending, conservation, and analysis of artifact collections. The small finds cabinets contain hundreds of unique artifacts that are studied because of their personal relationships to the individuals that lived here.  Long term projects, such as our current white-salt glazed ceramic mending, take place in the dry lab space, where a table covered with hundreds of ceramic sherds awaits matching. And as with the wet lab, museum visitors can look through the windows and observe all the projects being currently worked on.

Having an archaeology lab on site is very convenient for the archaeologists that work at Ferry Farm as it allows them easy access to the artifacts at all stages of their processing.  Future plans for Ferry Farm rely on knowing what has been found here and weaving together that data with the historical record.  It also gives the public an exciting chance to see all the work that goes into getting the artifacts ready for further research.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor