How did archaeologists find half a million artifacts at George Washington's boyhood home?

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July 3 2008 6:08 PM

The 500,000 Artifacts of George Washington

How did archaeologists find half a million objects at one site?

The architectural footprint of the Washington house. Click image to expand.
The architectural footprint of the Washington house

Archaeologists announced on Wednesday that they had unearthed George Washington's boyhood home at a site not far from Fredericksburg, Va. Over the course of a seven-year excavation, the researchers found more than 500,000 artifacts. How can there be half a million artifacts at one site?

Almost everything you find counts as an artifact, as long as it was made or impacted by people. The objects comprise more than just materials from George Washington's home; archaeologists excavated a full acre of land, and the items they collected spanned 10,000 years of history—from rocks used to sharpen prehistoric stone tools to Civil War-era buttons. The collection does include an expensive tea set thought to be owned by the Washingtons and a pipe bearing a Masonic crest, but most of the objects are far more mundane, like nails, broken glass, or cracked egg shells. The only artifacts that weren't removed from the site are remnants of old buildings—either architectural fragments that are still intact or foundation stones that were weighed and left at the site.

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Once the artifacts are excavated, the archaeologists clean, examine, and identify them in the lab. Each item is cataloged in a computer database with a number and an "address" that denotes where exactly it was found. Most are then put in a plastic bag, placed in a protective box, and shelved in a storage room—with the finds organized by their original location at the site.

It's standard professional practice to store all these artifacts. (It isn't unusual for an archaeologist to collect millions over the course of a career.) If an archaeologist leaves an object at the site after it has already been dug up, the artifact can't be easily reanalyzed by future researchers. So even if an archaeologist were only interested in George Washington's old toys, he or she would still be expected to carefully collect, catalog, and store anything found closer to the surface. A researcher who violates these rules can be investigated for misconduct and removed from the Register of Professional Archaeologists.

An archaeologist must also ensure that there are "adequate curatorial facilities for specimens and records" before he starts digging. That is no easy task, and the need for so much storage space has led to what some in the field have called a "curation crisis." Keeping millions of objects has become increasingly expensive: A 2003 study by the National Park Service found that some museums charge as much as $1,000 per box for storage. That has led to a discussion of whether and how collections should "deaccession" (i.e., get rid of) objects like tin cans or old soil samples.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks R. Berle Clay of Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., David Muraca of the George Washington Foundation, and Dean Snow of Penn State University.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.