Minnesota Historical Society M-Flame Logo

Home / Collections / About the Collections / Archaeology /Archaeology Collection Methods

Archaeology Collection Methods

Access Cataloging Database Features

The Cataloging form that contains just the required fields (plus two extra descriptors, and one set of measurement fields) is called “frmCatalogingUltrShort”.

A report that produces label information for 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inch bag tags is called “rptBagTag”.

The “Materials", "Object Name" and "Descriptors" fields have look-up lists consisting of commonly used terms. Use of terms not on the lists is also allowed, but the stipulation stands that new "Local" terms must have documentation demonstrating accepted use.

A set of cataloging examples can be found in a separate database called “Archaeology Cataloging Examples Database.”

A column in the look-up list tables for "Object Names" & "Descriptors" lists the descriptor type. Since the "Descriptors" look-up list is the most comprehensive, you can open the table for that list (tblRefDescriptors) and use it as a quick reference while cataloging.

When to Use ‘Parent’ records vs. ‘Refits with Other Objects’

If you haven’t worked with the concept of parent records, they can serve as a very useful tool for documenting larger objects you have identified after finding and assembling all the constituent fragments, such as the individual vessels identified at a site.

When you create a parent record, you can then enter the catalog number for the parent record in the “Parent Associated Unit” field in the records for each of the parts. Remember to enter "0" in the “Count” field in the parent record, because it is not actually another object. You might want to use the parent record to record all of the larger object level descriptive information, such as, in the case of a ceramic vessel, the decorative motif or its estimated volume.

I wouldn't create a parent record for every set of artifacts that fits together. Use parent records only when the larger unit has some analytical meaning.

If you just want to record that two (or more) things fit together, then use the “RefitWithOtherObject” field. In this case, you must enter all of the catalog numbers for conjoining objects in all of the records for each object that is part of the larger fragment. You can see that you will have a lot of cross-referencing to record if you have a large number of refits. So that would be another reason to create a parent record, and it would probably make analytical sense at that point too.

Q & A on the Use of Provenience Fields in the Access Cataloging Database

Q - “We conducted a Phase I survey, and found surface artifacts in an area we designated as Area A. The artifacts were collected, but not with reference to a grid, unit, or datum. Would we list the HPUmethod as “general surface collection” and the HPUNumber as “Area A,” leaving the remaining three columns blank?"

A - Yes, that is exactly how to record the provenience information you described. No other provenience data would be required. (The HPUMethod table column is called the CollMethod on the forms and the HPUNumber table column is called the HorizontalUnit). Although I gave an example of a provenience called Area A from a controlled surface collection, I think general surface sounds just as valid for the circumstances described.

Q -"Also, more often than not, when we have surface finds like these, we use a GPS unit to record the [UTM] location of each…”

A - The Datum field is meant to be the place to record the NAD date for object provenience recorded as UTM coordinates and the Horizontal MeasUnit for UTM data would be "meters." I am sorry that the Datum field is so far away from all the other provenience fields in the table and long form view. I will make a note to try to address that in the next version (I didn't think many people would use it, but you just proved me wrong). This is a case where you would probably want to enter a set of date values for all of your GPS plotted artifacts by pasting them down the column in the table view. Then, go ahead and enter the Easting and Northing in the HorizCoord1 and HorizCoord2 fields for each object in a form view (these fields at least, are conveniently located).

Use of Associated Parties Fields

Cataloging collections from historic sites or historic components of sites can be difficult because you usually have a lot of information to record and a lot of terms and fields to choose from in order to record it – like all of those associated party fields.

The party associations fields are for names of manufactures of historic artifacts, if they have been identified, or people definitely known to have made, used or have been depicted by the artifact (like the image of Abraham Lincoln on a bottle). The party type and nature of association are there to make it clear what kind of association the name represents. One important thing to keep in mind when recording a manufacturer: enter the name of the person or organization that made the object, not the former contents. For example, if you have a whiskey bottle, you don’t want the name of the distiller, you want the name of the glass company.

Choosing Cataloging Terms and Using the Local Lexicon

Research for your project has produced collections that you will curate at MHS. You have begun the process of analysis and have identified the first artifact as a “secondary flake.” How would you go about recording this information in the MHS Access Cataloging database? You see that the AAT lexicon includes “flake” as a term, while the Local lexicon includes “secondary flake”. Should you defer to one or the other, or use both?"

You should use terms that capture the most specific information you have gathered, in this case, "secondary flake" and list it as a Local term – you do not need to use the term "flake" also. As a general rule of thumb, catalogs shouldn't have (or need) redundant terms.

So, what if the next flake is broken and could not be identified as primary, secondary, or tertiary. How would that information be entered into in the catalog?

The broken flake would require at least two descriptor terms: "flake (object genre)" and "fragment" (both are in the AAT). You may add the term "broken (destroyed)", if you think it adds important information - if you wanted to sort for all the broken artifacts at a site to study trampling patterns for example – otherwise, “broken” would probably not provide useful data.

The Local Lexicon represents a list of frequently used terms that aren't in the AAT, but which have the documentation needed for submission to the AAT. Local names for lithic raw material types may be used if they appear as preferred terms in Kent Bakken’s Minnesota Lithic Raw Materials (see Archaeology Cataloging Links below).

Researchers are invited to submitted new terms that they use for analysis and cataloging if they are not already included in the AAT or Local lexicons. This means filling out an AAT candidate term form, which requires a definition and three citations for use of the exact form of the term in (not gray) publications. The whole point of a standard vocabulary is to form some consistency in definitions and uses of terms. By sharing your terms, you improve the scope of the cataloging vocabulary and improve the quality of the data overall by providing good documentation for the terms’ use.

Sample vs. Remains

The most basic descriptive data for archaeological collections consists of: 1) a material type, and, 2) an object name. Although the material type is usually clear, for some items – such as faunal materials – it can be hard to pick an accurate object name.

Although I originally recommended the term “sample” for all floral and faunal collections, someone pointed out that the term “remains” more closely matches the nature of the faunal collections. I have to agree and change my recommendation. The AAT definition of “remains” reads: “Generally, refers to substances of organic origin that are entirely or partially preserved, often in the earth, in a conserved or fossilized condition. Specifically, refers to what is left of a person or animal when life is extinct, including the dead body or its parts.”

“Sample” or even more specifically “specimen” still seem to fit the bill for floral material, FCR and building materials. That definition reads: “sample” – “Individual units, segments, or small quantities taken as evidence of the quality or character of the entire group or lot.” and “specimen” – “Individual samples or units that are deliberately selected for examination, display, or study, and are usually chosen as typical of their kind.”

C14 Samples

Requests for C14 Dates:

Please don’t forget that you need to send a “Treatment Request” form to Pat Emerson if you plan to send samples for C14 dating that were collected from sites on public land (state, county or municipal). She and Paul Storch need to sign off on the testing. The form can be sent electronically and they have committed to turning around the requests as quickly as possible.


There are a couple of things to remember when cataloging processed carbon 14 samples. First, you should enter “destroyed” in the “Box#/Location” field. Second, you will need to use the “Cataloging All Fields” form to see the “C14 Lab Date” and C14 Lab Notes” fields. This is where you will enter all the information you wish you could easily access about C14 dates from other research!

The “C14 Lab Date” is the result after applying C13/C12 ratio correction to the measured age expressed as a year and a factor plus or minus that year before the present.

The “C14 Lab Notes” must contain the set of data listed in the laboratory results that specify qualitative and quantitative information about the sample in addition to the conventional date. The six pieces of information to include are:

  1. Provenience (if you have more specific information than recorded in the provenience fields)
  2. Laboratory number
  3. Material type (if you have more specific information than recorded in the materials fields)
  4. Measured Radiocarbon
  5. 13C/12C Ratio
  6. Calendar age with 2-sigma calibration

Check the "C14 Lab Notes" section of the Data Dictionary to see examples.

Colorless as a Color Term

“Colorless” was added as an official AAT term in 2006. The definition reads, ”Without color, or lacking obvious color attributes. Often used to describe glass or gems.” If used, it should be entered in one of the “Color” fields in the MHS Access cataloging database.

Archaeological Data Integration

An article by Keith Kintigh in volume three (2006) of American Antiquity on the preservation and integration of archaeological data reports the results of a forum held in late 2004 to discuss the merits of data sharing and the infrastructure that would be required to accomplish such a goal.

Keith Kintigh and Dean Snow organized a Digital Data Interest Group (DDIG) within Society for American Archaeology as a result. Eric Kansa is the coordinator of the group and he has launched a blog as a way to promote and share ideas about this project.

The trends are towards tools that allow for great flexibility in analytical approach, but require consistent, explicit data definitions. The sites listed below provide definitions for cataloging terms used by MHS, and more general information about data standards.

Archaeology Cataloging Links:

Cataloging Authorities:

Data sharing examples:

Data sharing and terminology: