We always tell students and visitors that archaeology has way more paperwork involved in it than you see in popular culture portrayals. In addition to myriad paper forms and their increasingly digital counterparts, we also rely heavily on labels and labelling conventions that are used in every department on site.
Our trusty Sharpie is always on hand for label emergencies. (Sharpies are also like currency on a dig, you protect them and hand them over only occasionally and with great suspicion of those you loan it to.) What may seem like normal paper beside it, however, is a little bit of high-tech stationary: it’s known colloquially as Tyvek, which is technically a trademark in the United States, but has become a generic name for the type of material our labels are made from. This phenomenon is known as “generification,” where a brand becomes a generic term, thus putting the brand’s legal right to their name in jeopardy. For example, plasters in the UK are called “band-aids” in the US, named for the brand “Band-Aid.” It happens sometimes with the word Sharpie in place of other permanent markers too! Even words like elevator and zipper were once trademarked, but they became the word everybody used for those inventions.
Tyvek is a synthetic material made of high-density polyethylene fibres spun together and trademarked by Dupont. HDPE used in things like plastic bottles, and they can be recycled: they are labelled as number 2 with the little recycling logo to ensure they are processed in the proper recycling stream. Tyvek is commonly seen as house wrap on construction or renovation projects, but it can be used for things like PPE (personal protective equipment) and packaging as well. The way the fibres are smushed together and not woven makes the material water-repellent, and thus weatherproof. It also means you can’t rip the material with your bare hands; you need sharp scissors or a utility knife. They can be written or printed on, but, as you can imagine, with the amount of labels we are writing every day, it makes more sense to just use a Sharpie.
We use these labels in finds trays at the trenchside and as-yet-unwashed at the washing station, in the blue plastic drying trays for washed bulk material and wet environmental samples, on the sorting trays of bulk material, and in the environmental samples themselves.
The finds trays at the trenchside have two bits of information on them: the site code and the context number. The site code includes the letters BC for Bamburgh Castle and the last two digits of the year the material was excavated; everything we find this year is labelled BC22. Our context number is written in a circle or in parentheses to represent an area of activity or occupation within the trench. This same information is copied onto new labels when the material is being washed to denote where the drying material has come from and when it was found. When the material is dry and ready to be sorted, the label is kept on the sorting table or tray and copied onto bulk finds bags (more on that in a mo).
Environmental samples also have that same information, but with an added number written in a diamond denoting what sample it is. When we take a sample of a context, we assigned the sample a number. We put multiple labels in each bucket or bag of sample, as well as labelling the bucket or bag directly. When we separate the heavy material from the flot (which is collected in a little mesh bag), each of those are labelled too! The sheer quantity of labels is unending! In the picture below, you can see an old sample that was in storage was also marked with how many total buckets of sample were taken, here “2 of 3.”
When we are dealing with bulk finds that have dried and are being sorted, we write the site code, context number, brief identification, number of pieces, and weight in grams. It goes on a little label AND on the plastic bag.
For small finds, which are the more unique or unusual artefacts we find, we do the same process for labelling a bulk find with one more added number: a small finds number. These numbers are taken out consecutively from a register during the season and written in a triangle. Here’s the bone toggle with all the information required to track and analyse it.
Is that too many numbers and letters for you on a Sunday evening? I understand. To settle down, have a bowl of soup.