How artifacts tell human stories of the past
An artifact is any object that is made by humans or that shows signs of human modification such as fire-cracked rocks from a hearth. Archaeologists piece artifacts together, bit by bit, to reconstruct past human activities. Over 15,000 artifacts across eight general types were collected in 2021. These types represent those materials most likely to be found at archaeological sites in the Permian Basin. Interpretation of these artifacts will reveal how people adapted to a dynamic landscape over thousands of years.
Artifacts are transported from the field to the laboratory, where, depending on the material, they may be washed and dried. Some artifact types, such as lithics (stone) or ceramics, generally must be cleaned before decoration and use are evident. Other materials are not cleaned, such as groundstone tools like manos or metates, either because washing might damage the artifact or because there are residues on the surface of artifacts that need to be protected for specialized analyses.
Archaeologists count, weigh, and measure artifacts. Artifacts are also examined for diagnostic features that tell us whether they belong to certain styles. If an artifact is considered “diagnostic,” we might be able to tentatively date an archaeological site. Determining the order in which stone flakes were removed while making a tool then comparing distributions of these flakes across an archaeological site help us determine where activities areas were located and how people made or modified tools.
After cleaning and analysis, artifacts are packaged in polyurethane bags with acid-free paper tags. These tags provide information on where the artifact was found. A catalog of information is also compiled and included in the technical report. Artifacts are finally curated at an approved facility such as a museum. Carefully cataloging and preserving artifacts allows archaeologists to use them for future study.
Piecing Together the Past in the Laboratory
TRC Laboratory Manager Suzan O’Larick discusses processing, analyzing, and curating artifacts in the laboratory.
Archaeologists sort artifacts based on type of material such as stone, ceramic, metal, glass, or bone. They also sometimes divide them into groups based on similarities in shape, manner of decoration, or method of manufacture. By comparing these groupings with the locations of where artifacts were found, archaeologists can assign relative ages for artifacts and archaeological sites. These specific types represent some of the most prevalent and ubiquitous objects found at archaeological sites in the Permian Basin. They also directly help to answer research questions focused on chronology, subsistence, technology, and environment.
Durable animal remains such as bones, horns, teeth, scales, and shells provide information about subsistence, including the species eaten as well as which portions were prepared and how.
Ceramics are made by combining wet clay with an inflexible material called a temper—such as sand or crushed stone—and shaping it into a form that hardens when baked. While many ceramics exhibit plain surfaces, some show a variety of carved, pressed, and painted decorations. Ceramic vessels were commonly used when storing, preparing, and consuming food and drink.
Fire-cracked rock is a rock of any type that has been altered and split as the result of deliberate heating.
Stones that have been ground, pecked, or polished into a shape are known as groundstones. Some, like hammerstones, were used to shape or break other objects, while others were used to prepare foods for consumption. The mano and metate are common examples of the latter and represent the handheld (mano) and platform (metate) components of a manual grinding mill. Though groundstones were used for tools, they could also be shaped into decorative forms for personal adornment. Groundstones were also used to grind up pigments for art and adornment.
Historic artifacts are objects made during the late sixteenth century or later after Spanish explorers first entered the region. Historic artifacts can be manufactured from any natural or synthetic material into a vast array of objects, some of the most commonly found being bricks, glassware, and ammunition, among others.
Projectile points are tapered blades placed at the tip of a spear, arrow, or other weapon designed to be thrown or launched. Typically made of stone, projectile points were crafted by striking or applying pressure to opposing sides of a stone until achieving the desired shape. Different shapes, styles, and sizes often correspond to particular time periods and places, helping archaeologists determine a site’s age and cultural affiliation.
Objects made of freshwater or marine shells and used as tools such as scrapers, knives, net weights, fish hooks, and more.
Tools are artifacts that were crafted to aid someone in performing a given work task such as processing food, mending clothing, hunting, or any one of an enormous variety of applications. Tools could be fabricated from any material such as stone, bone, metal, and wood, into a range of finished forms, such as projectile points, drills, needles, and hoes to name a few.