Dirty Laundry: Cloth Artifact Bags in Arkansas

I have just finished doing the laundry for the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society’s Summer Training Program…by that, I do not mean that  I have finished washing my field clothes…I mean that I’ve finished washing the artifact bags…

What?!?, you say…I know, I know…this was a foreign practice to me until I moved to Arkansas in the mid-1990s…all the other organizations across the southeast that I had worked with (and that included academic insitutions, government agencies and contract firms over 12 southeastern states) used either brown paper bags in the field (old school…just like the WPA archaeologists had done generations before us), or used 2-4 mil plastic ziplock bags in the field…

When I first moved to Arkansas and discovered that they used cloth bags for their artifacts in the field, I was shocked..and at first I did not like it one bit—the AAS uses a 2 tag/1 bag system…one tied to the exterior of the cloth bag and one stuffed inside a 4 mil ziplock inside the cloth bag with the artifacts…both with the same provenience information on them…The exterior tag makes sorting easy, the interior tag is a stop-gap in case the exterior tag is torn off…At first I thought this felt redundant and cumbersome, but over the last 2 decades I have come to LOVE the cloth bags.

Brown paper bags have a tendency to rip when overstuffed, and will fall apart if they get damp (and can mold in long-term curation)…the black sharpie label does not get wiped off of a paper bag, however, which is more than I can say for using plastic bags in the field…and if you use plastic in the field, odds are you are going to switch the artifacts to a fresh plastic bag after processing…meaning you’ve just wasted a bag (I’ve seen some folks wash 4 mil bags in the dishwasher…but these folks are rare…and on a tight budget).

Artifacts bags filled and waiting processing in the field lab at 2007 Jones Mill excavations

Cloth artifact bags filled and waiting processing in the field lab at 2007 Jones Mill excavations

In Arkansas, after coming in from the field, the artifacts are processed and transferred to 4 mil plastic bags with both interior and exterior tags…but the cloth bag gets thrown in the washing machine and used again…some of these bags on my kitchen table have been in use since the 1970s (I know because one on them still has a inked label from the 1972 excavations at Ferguson Mound)…that’s a pretty environmental approach to artifact collection (although I mitigate the “green” approach by using plastic zip-ties to close my bags rather than the traditional cotton string).  The first time I have EVER saw new cloth bags ordered at the AAS was last year—after I had been working with the organization 15 years.  By the way, you can buy them from Forestry Suppliers.

These cloth artifact bags should be enough to get me through the summer dig (note they come in three sizes)…you know what…even if I moved to another state, I think I’d take this idea with me.

Do other folks out there use cloth bags?  or some other type of artifact bag in the field?

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7 Comments on “Dirty Laundry: Cloth Artifact Bags in Arkansas”

  1. May 22, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    I’ve seen them used in Hawaii–I like them a lot!

  2. May 22, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    I was skeptical at first when we ordered them for the MSU Campus Archaeology Program, but grew to love them. Doesn’t get much more sustainable than reusable bags.

  3. Matthew Palus
    May 23, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Man I love this idea. It has the same appeal as composting (and I started composting this year). I’m gonna send this blog around the Middle Atlantic Jamie.

  4. May 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    I have used cloth bags for many years, with much the same system as you describe. Works great, and sometimes had sewing parties where we made bags out of remnant curtains. Also, plastic bags are not only wasteful, you can get mildew and other things growing inside. Have yet to see anything better than the cloth bags. That’s why I made sure that Campus Archaeology uses them.

  5. Bev Watkins
    May 31, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    I was at Ferguson (’72-’74) and many of the bags were not new then!

  6. Linda Derry
    May 20, 2017 at 2:23 pm #

    Would love to hear about the tags that you use on the exterior of the bag and how they are attached. I too like the idea of cloth bags, but like the cotton drill fabric better than the newer poly/cotton blend.

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