Cling film, foil and cleaning wipes: life hacks for archaeologists.

Samples collection is over! unnamed (1)

This is a text sent on the last day of my data collection in Portugal to my fellow PhD candidates back in the office.

After three research visits, all the material is ready to be sent to the Department of Archaeology at York. The relief of having secured the material is one that is impossible to explain for non-archaeology people. The first months of an archaeology PhD are usually dedicated to the sole purpose of securing the material, getting access to it and finally collecting your samples. The reason why this part of the research process is so important is as obvious as it is terrifying: no material, no PhD (at least not the PhD that you first envisioned). For those of you that have never experienced the joy of data collection, it is like looking for something for a long time and finally finding it; let’s say that missing set of stamps that would complete your collection, or a specific record that would complement your outstanding musical anthology. The sense of relief when you finally complete an important task is obviously wonderful at first, but then you start realizing that there won’t be any more dusty quaint shops in your future and you kind of miss it already.  For archaeological researchers, the equivalent of a quaint shop would look more like deposits, warehouses and underground garages, as well as some people’s cellars, but you get my point. It is the entire process of discovery and the excitement that you get when opening a box that may contain something very precious to you, that makes everything so appealing.

My first research visit took place back in February, which I have already blogged about here, but the last two took place in July and September 2015 and I ended up travelling to numerous locations all over Portugal. Although it is very hard to make your colleagues believe that you are going to southern Portugal in July and September to work, I have proof, which is currently being shipped in two properly packed boxes across the Celtic Sea.

The process of sampling can run smoothly but it is important to be flexible and prepared to face unexpected situations. This also means that you can’t expect to find the equipment there that you may need, so it is usually good practice to carry your own sampling kit.

An archaeologist’s life hacks

In my case the tools of the trade were plastic bags, a few permanent markers, clippers, a small scale and gloves. If you know that you are going to take pictures, it is good to have a black cloth with you and a scale. Aluminium foil to cover the work space, and cling film to protect your laptop from dust and earth will do the trick of keeping you and your equipment fairly clean throughout the process. Cleaning wipes are a must in your bag too!

Ready, steady, go!

Hopefully you will have established your sampling protocol with the hosting institutions in advance, but new requests might come along the way and you need to include a level of uncertainty in your timetable. This mean that you might end up taking a lot more pictures than you expected because the new policies of the museum you are visiting require you to do so. Taking pictures for archival purposes requires a lot more time than you think, especially if you are in a place with bad lighting. The pictures will have to display your sample, and its identifying code. I recently found some good blackboard-like labels that you can use and re-use to write the sample name for each picture. You can also use the labelled plastic bag to identify the sample, like in the example shown below.

So having to take pictures is definitely one of those time consuming tasks that might slightly alter your timetable. Also, the storage conditions of a collection and the help that you will be given on site is not something to underestimate.  I have experienced all sorts of situations, from very easily accessible boxes to crowded warehouses where it was very hard (literally!) to lift boxes up, down and out of the main storage. Although this is quite an unpredictable variable, it is better to decrease the number of skeletons you think you are going to handle per day if you are not sure of the storage conditions. You might have very lucky days in which a full staff of people can help you out and you sample 80 individuals in a day (which is definitely my personal record), or you might be forgotten in an underground parking lot with just boxes that read “Islamic context” on them.  Either way, keep focused and carry on until the weekend. The least comfortable situations are coming to an end too, and hopefully you can get a taste of what there is outside the warehouse once you are done!

Get to know the place.

This may sounds an epic excuse for travelling, but if and when you are dealing with material from an archaeological site, it is very important to have a look around. How does the landscape look? How easy is the access? Are there any important streets or routes nearby? Is there easy access to rivers or the sea? This might sound pretty straight forward but once you have been there, the historical sources and the landscape archaeology studies that will form your context will make a lot more sense and it will help you out in your interpretations too!

During the research visit in September, I had to collect some animal samples from Palmela castle, near Setubal. This Islamic fortress had a very strategic location and dominated the access from Setubal port and the roads from Lisbon further north and from the southern Alentejo region. No matter how much you read about this, there is nothing like going on site and experiencing the view.


The view of Palmela castle from the main road.


The view from the castle over Setubal bay and the southern coast.

Exploring the towns from where your materials come can lead you to a whole new world of discovery about both the ancient and modern customs and might give you some inspiration.


Laundry facilities in Silves

All packed

They say that the best part of the journey is the surprise and wonder along the way, and although these elements will never be short in a research trip, the feeling of satisfaction for completing months-long research visits is definitely going to pervade you once you are done!

The last step is going to the nearest post office and persuading the lady behind the counter that you are a legitimate researcher in possession of the correct permissions to ship archaeological material abroad.  Once you are done, you will probably be exhausted and have the strongest arms since that time you subscribed to the gym and actually attended… But take some time and maybe a coffee (or a beer) by the sea to appreciate the journey that brought you there, exactly there.


Portimão – Algarve coast

Author’s note: This moment of bliss comes to an end once your boxes arrive and the hundreds of samples will need to be processed in the lab. So, seriously, take some time while you are there!




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