Archaeologist Nights: A Tale of One Thousand and One* Artefacts

By Uschi Artym

*Actually, it’s a tale of 3600 artefacts, or thereabouts, and counting!

I’m happy to report that, after 18 long months, the cataloguing of artefacts from the Boulia Native Mounted Police (NMP) site is almost complete. While the process has been lengthy — and at times tedious — cataloguing is arguably one of the most important part of an archaeologists’ work. A solid understanding of the object you are looking at, including its origin, how it might have been used, and by whom, forms the basis of all archaeological interpretation. Much like the chain of evidence followed by police, cataloguing allows artefacts to be processed and labelled in a way that allows researchers access to a detailed electronic record of everything about the excavation, measurement, identification, function and dating of an artefact, even when direct physical access to the object is not possible.

Decisions, Decisions!

The cataloguing process starts even before a single artefact has been removed from its bag. The first decision to be made is how will the artefacts be grouped? The initial division is typically based on the raw material types (e.g. glass, metal, earthenware, bone) present in the artefact collection (‘assemblage’), because this is usually, but not always, the easiest artefact attribute to identify. For example, ferrous metal objects are easily identified by a coating of orange-red iron-oxide (rust) or with the magic of a magnet, while any suspected bone or shell material will fizz lightly with a drop of hydrochloric acid. Even different types of earthenware can be simply identified by how well they stick to the brave archaeologist’s tongue (or a wetted finger). Porcelain, such as shown in Figure 1, which is highly fired with a vitreous texture, will not stick whereas earthenware will.

Figure 1 Ceramic material types (Source: Museum of Ontario Archaeology 2014).

Once the artefact material has been identified, further sub-division into different artefact classes by function is possible. For example metal can then be separated into building materials, which in turn can then be further sub-divided into nails and other types of objects.

For cataloguing purposes the NMP project is using seven primary divisions which are a mixture of material and function: Metal, Ceramic, Lithics (i.e. Flaked or Ground Stone Artefacts), Glass, Ammunition Related Objects (such as bullets, musket balls and cartridges), Buttons, Bone and Miscellaneous for artefacts which don’t obviously fit into any of the other classifications (e.g. Figure 2).

Figure 2 A stone marble half, Artefact ID BOU-035700, recovered from Trench 3, Square 2, Context 2 of the Boulia NMP camp (photograph by Uschi Artym).

Cleaning and Measuring

The cataloguing process in the laboratory can include cleaning, where loose soil or any other foreign adherents are carefully removed from the artefacts with either a soft bristle brush, a dental pick or water. Different properties of the artefact can then be measured and determined. What these properties are depends on what information needs to be extracted from the data. For example,  an archaeologist interested in trade networks between different sites or regions will be interested in the amount and type of exported items versus locally manufactured items in the assemblage.  In such a case, an artefact’s origin would be of most interest to the archaeologist. At a minimum, the physical dimensions (length, width, depth, thickness, weight, diameter) of every artefact are recorded.


Probably the questions most people want answered with respect to archaeological objects are ‘what is this?’ and ‘how old is it?’

Identifying the function of an artefact can be difficult. If you’re lucky your assemblage will have some well-preserved, near intact or complete items like a glass bottle with a maker’s name embossed on the body, which makes answers easy to come by.

Mostly archaeologists deal with only fragments of the whole item and so must be familiar with the appearance of whole and broken objects, as well as the form of component parts (e.g. Figure 3). Reference collections of whole objects serve as a useful comparison for identifying artefact fragments, and every archaeologist has access to a range of seemingly mundane but vital collection of different types of glass bottles, ceramic plates, stoneware storage vessels and even soft drink cans.

Figure 3 What component is that? Many of these artefacts (in this case BOU-025915) were collected from the surface at the Boulia NMP camp site; they are the stabiliser from metal matchboxes (photograph by Uschi Artym).

One method used to combat the broken nature of many artefacts is ‘re-fitting’ or ‘conjoin analysis’, where fragments of the same material/form are fitted against other similar fragments. For the Boulia NMP assemblage ceramic sherds with the same type of surface glaze, decorative pattern or form were compared with similar sherds collected from elsewhere across the site. Conjoining transfer-print ceramics sherds were obvious from the pattern continuation across one or more sherds. For plain ceramic fragments, if the sherds fitted together without sunlight being able to penetrate the join, they were deemed to conjoin.


There are two ways to establish how old an artefact is: absolute (‘chronometric’) dating and relative dating.

Absolute dating is based on the occurrence of an event which can be referenced to a known time scale. For nineteenth century consumer items, for example manufacturing start and end dates or technological changes in the way an item was produced, provide a calendar date range for that artefact. Sometimes the year of manufacture is even stamped on the artefact, which makes determining when the object was made incredibly easy (though not necessarily determining when it was discarded, which might have been a long time later).

In contrast, relative dating techniques order artefacts by changes in different attributes such as form or decoration.

Even so the date ranges for some artefacts remain elusive or too wide because some items remained in use for many years after they ceased to be manufactured. This is particularly so with ceramics where white granite transfer-print patterned tableware can be found on sites up to ten years after those patterns ceased production (Adams 2003).

Of course, for the Boulia NMP camp site we knew from the historical documents when the site was occupied by the NMP, so this gave us a starting point for determining the age of artefacts. However, since the site had been visited by many people since the NMP had ceased using it, there was always the possibility that artefacts on the site related to later visits rather than to the period of use by the NMP.


A unique number is given to every artefact in the assemblage, against which all information about that artefact is kept (e.g. site name, date of collection, location [GPS co-ordinates or trench and context identifier] and dimensions etc.) The painstaking process of artefact labelling involves the unique catalogue number being written on a layer of resin applied to ceramic and glass artefacts and another label placed in the storage bag/container. The hard label guards against the loss of information should the artefact become separated from its bag.

Boulia NMP Artefacts

The Boulia NMP camp assemblage contains many different artefact classes, the most abundant being bottle glass associated with alcohol or aerated waters and food items such as Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce, followed by metal objects (e.g. nails, wax vesta matchboxes) and earthenware (tableware, clay smoking pipes, ointment pots and jars etc.).

The information used to date the Boulia artefacts have been mainly chronometric and based on maker’s marks, technological changes in object construction or both. For example, 80% of the unmarked tin cans found at the site were able to be dated to the NMP occupation, 1878–1886, based on the type of can seam and soldering method (hand or machine applied) used to seal the can seams. Other items, such as the wax vesta matchbox lids (Figure 4) retained the product manufacturer’s name and, when compared to the ceramics, gave us a relatively narrow date range.

Figure 4 Bell and Black brand wax vesta matchbox (BOU-026468), manufactured in the period 1880–1888 (photograph by Uschi Artym).

In the Boulia NMP assemblage only one transfer-print white granite (ceramic) pattern was identifiable (Rhine), found on what were probably soup bowls (Figure 5). This pattern was widely produced by a variety of English potters during the period 1837–1917 (Bates 2014:22), so without a maker’s backstamp it was impossible to assign a narrower date range. However, the close spatial association of Rhine ceramic sherds with other items also datable to the camp occupation indicate the Rhine patterned tableware was most likely discarded by the NMP rather than by later visitors to the site.

Figure 5 Three conjoining blue Rhine pattern ceramic fragments (BOU-027822) (photograph by Uschi Artym).

While the bulk of the >3600 artefacts recovered date to the camp occupation, a fraction of those related to later use of the site. A handful of these later artefacts have product names or remaining maker’s marks that provide us with a calendar date range like the Foggitt Jones Rex-Pye (1925–1930s) jellied meat tin lid, Carlton United Beer (CUB) bottle fragments (1960s+) and an unspent Super X (Winchester) black coated bullet (1990s+), all found near the river’s edge.

Each artefact has its own tale to tell. Collectively these tales inform us about the lived experiences of the people who created, used and discarded them. It is the archaeologist’s job to investigate the artefacts and relay their human tales to the public. Cataloguing creates the data from which archaeological interpretations are made and like the Arabian nights contain many different tales, just waiting to be told.


Adams, W.H. 2003 Dating historical sites: the importance of understanding time lag in the acquisition, curation, use and disposal of artifacts. Historical Archaeology37(2):38–64.

Bates, L. 2014 DAACS Cataloguing Manual: Ceramic Pattern Appendix. Unpublished manual for the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, Department of Archaeology, Monticello and the University of Virginia.

Museum of Ontario Archaeology Ceramic Identification. Retrieved 8 December 2018 from <>.

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