Processing the Finds: The Next Steps After Recovery

Processing Blackbeard artifacts on the dock in Atlantic Beach

This post is by Shanna Daniels, QAR Conservator.

Many of you are probably wondering what happens to the artifacts once they are recovered from the shipwreck site.

At the end of each day, QAR field staff carefully transfers artifacts from the recovery vessel to storage tanks containing water, dockside. At the end of each week, field staff prepares objects for the journey to the QAR lab by packing them in Rubbermaid containers well padded with wet foam and rags. Once off loaded at the QAR Lab, the objects are placed in temporary wet storage (in tanks containing tap water) until the following week, when the post-recovery processing fun begins for the QAR Lab staff.

Cataloging and Wet Storage

The purpose of post-recovery processing is to document, record and catalog each artifact as it comes into the lab, to begin the paper trail and then to get artifacts into an appropriate storage environment as soon as possible. Recording and documenting includes weighing, measuring, correctly labeling artifact tags, and photography. Each artifact has a unique find number that relates back to its location on site, and which will be used to document everything that happens to the object in future.

Post-recovery processing gives the QAR Lab staff their first opportunity to see the artifacts and to note if anything in particular stands out with each artifact. For example, if we observe a ceramic embedded in the concretion, we'll note it. After every artifact has been processed, the next stage is to place the artifacts in long-term stable wet storage. Concretions are usually placed first in numbered crates and then the crates are placed in a numbered tank; the crate and tank location of each artifact is noted on the objects’ record so they can be easily found.

Each tank contains a basic solution with a pH of 10 (2.5% sodium carbonate in tap water) to slow down the corrosion that could continue to occur if placed in just regular tap water. Ceramics, glass, wood, and other organics are placed in tap water. Once stable in wet storage the artifacts await the next step in their conservation treatment.

Documentation is Key

The final stage in the post-recovery process is completion of documentation. Each artifact’s information is recorded on a lab sheet, as well as on the QAR artifact database. This information provides not only the weights, measurements, and storage location of each artifact but also where the artifact was recovered from on the site. Documentation is a crucial part of conservation because it starts the process of analysis and conservation for the artifacts. It allows both archaeologist and conservators to view, locate, and analyze each artifact while it goes through the conservation process here at the QAR Lab.

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