Artefact analysis in the Fayum

As Rebecca mentioned in her last blog entry, we have entered the second major phase of our survey. Artefact assemblage composition analysis is a crucial component to the data which we collect. As I’ve worked with our current research design in both the WNSWAP project, that Simon directed in western New South Wales, and the initial season in Fayum 2008, I thought a description of the well-oiled machine, meaning our team, and the lengths that we go through to collect data during intensive assemblage analysis was in order! At this stage, my fifth season applying the strategy in the field, there are a number of roles which I’m now experienced enough to assume in the course of assemblage composition analysis: running the total station, logging data for assemblage analysis, and analysing the artefacts themselves.

survey area over Caton-Thompson and Gardner's 1934 map

The research protocol is crucial for maintaining the integrity of our data. Each of our sampling units are selected, surveyed, and sampled in the same way so that we have spatially and analytically comparable units. This season we are targeting a number of scatters along X Basin (most recently around the northernmost ‘arm’ of the spatial distribution of survey transects), one of four large basins identified by Caton- Thompson in the mid-1920s, which border our survey region from east to west. This is a significant basin to target, as it is situated just southeast of Kom W. Also, according to our large scale (and might I add painstaking!) survey of the four survey corridors, which targeted areas of the four different basins, the spatial patterning of hearths and grindstones (identified and recorded by both Rebecca Phillipps and myself) demonstrates and sometimes concentrated distributions along the shores of Z and X basins.

This year we did further work to ensure this spatial distribution was not an artefact of our 2009 survey extent. Surface exposure and visibility heavily influence the preservation of artefacts. We also wanted to assess whether these surfaces were related to behaviour of Neolithic people, or if what we see on the surface is an artefact of particular natural processes. And so, also important for our assessment of the surface archaeological record is the work which our geoarchaeological specialists Annelies Koopman (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Professor Glen MacDonald (UCLA) conduct, to understand the natural depositional processes which took place in different areas of X basin. These investigations provide control for the taphonomic processes that affect different parts of the basin, and by extension, the variable assemblage composition which we may observe “on the ground”. For example, slope wash may size sort artefacts in high energy areas, so that only large artefacts remain on the surface when we survey.

We analyze everything in the field, we don’t collect a single artefact which requires specialized logistics.  On the ground, what the assemblage composition analysis looks like (apart from a bunch of crazy Kiwis shoving thousands of nails into the ground and picking them up again!) involves a lot of fancy equipment, a well trained team, a lot of problem solving and patience! Some of our fancy equipment includes a Differential GPS, Handheld GPS units, netbooks with E4 (an artefact analysing program designed by McPherron and Dibble), the ever-present Leica Robotic Total Station, in addition to “lower order” equipment, which nonetheless is crucial to our intensive analysis: digital callipers, cameras, weighing scales, and goniometers (an instrument that measures angles).

Once the transect has been laid out, Annelies has mapped out the geomorphological surfaces, and we’ve put silver nails with unique ID numbers on metal tags beside each stone artefact, we then run three analysing teams while another team records each artefact’s provenience with the Total Station. One person analyses a number of attributes for each artefact while the other logs the data into the netbooks. We collect a large amount of attributes (20-30) which are linked spatially to each artefact through all the thousands of points we shoot in. Our 2008 survey at E29H1 also followed this research design. We recorded a similar suite of attributes during that intensive survey (see screen shot below).

artefact database

Shezani and Rebecca analyzing artefacts at E29H1

Attributes such as the type of artefact, flake, core, or tool, breakage (how complete the artefact is), maximum dimensions, direction of flake scars, and how these are oriented on the artefact can tell us a great deal – and the program means we can collect this data quickly and in a systematic way (note the thousands of artefacts we actually analyse!!).  Over the last few seasons we have amassed a very large database of artefact analysis (approximately 40,000), although this is restricted to a small number of locations.  Data from the larger landscape we have begun to acquire this season is crucial to answering the questions we have about the nature of human-environment interaction and socio-economy in the Fayum during the mid-Holocene.

– Shezani

panoramic view of transect during analysis

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