Posted by: Brian | May 8, 2009

The Story of Bag 849

I’ve been feeling a little guilty about my lack of recent posts to this blog. Work in the lab has kept me swamped. I’ve got a great group of students working with me this semester and they’re cranking through the cataloging. We’ve essentially finished the assemblage from 2005 and are nearly finished with the 2004 assemblage. It’s extremely gratifying to complete the cataloging, just not particularly exciting to blog about.

Linda and Ross collecting Bag 849

Linda and Ross collecting Bag 849

My job is to check all the identifications before the catalogers do their thing. It’s tedious work, but at least I get to see everything we collected. Illustrative of the process is Bag 849. This sample was collected near the end of our 2004 field season. The excavators identified the sample as from a house floor buried just over 100 cm below the ground surface. They water-screened 7.5 liters from their excavation unit’s NW quadrant and labeled this sample “Bag 849”. One of the excavators most likely carried this sample back to our field camp at the end of the day. A few days later this bag was one of 896 samples we hauled across the tundra and loaded onto a floatplane to begin its journey to the Hamline archaeology lab.

Haden sorting shell midden

Haden sorting shell midden

In November 2004, the contents of Bag 849 were washed and size sorted into ‘macro’, ‘meso’, and ‘micro’ size fractions. Four months later one of my lab students spent five hours carefully separating all the contents of Bag 849 into the basic analytical categories (fish bone, bird bone, mammal bone, shell, charcoal, chipped stone flakes, etc.).

Chipped stone flakes (meso fraction) from Bag 849

Chipped stone flakes (meso fraction) from Bag 849

After being sorted Bag 849 was left on a shelf until this week when I finally got it ready for the catalogers. I was happy when I grabbed the bag from the shelf and noted it was from a house floor. I always find floor samples the most interesting. They are quite distinct from other contexts with lots of small artifacts, smashed bone, and charcoal. The meso debitage (flakes small enough to fall through a 1/4-inch screen, but big enough for the 1/8-inch screen) are particularly diagnostic of house floors. The 85 meso flakes from Bag 849 is a total noticeably higher than the half dozen or so meso flakes typical of the midden deposits outside of the house.

The ‘meso’ fish in Bag 849 held a few surprises (click the meso link to see a Flickr photo with notes). The original sort by my

Bone shavings from Bag 849.

Bone shavings from Bag 849.

lab student was done well, but not quite perfect. Mixed in with the small fish bone were many small fragments of bird bone, mammal bone, bone shavings, and even a needle ‘preform’. The bone shavings look like wood shavings, but presumably were produced by someone carving a bone tool. The needle preform is a rectangular piece of bird bone that would have been polished into a delicate eyed needle had it not broken. This concentration of small sized production debris tells us that Bag 849 likely came from an area of the house that was used as a workshop – a hypothesis confirmed by later excavations.

Bag 849 has now been cataloged and the information entered into our database. What’s next for Bag 849? Ross will identify the fish bone and Linda will do the same for the bird. I and my students will analyze the rest. Eventually we’ll begin to really understand what life was like inside an Aniakchak house 1300 years ago. After all this work on Bag 849 – excavating, hauling, washing, sorting, and cataloging – we are finally ready to begin our analyses.

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