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Unpacking the Past

The WVU Archaeological Training and Research Laboratory gives students the opportunity to get their hands dirty without having to leave campus.

Archaeological discoveries happened at WVU this year, well above ground on the second floor of Knapp Hall. There, a group of undergraduate students has been sorting and washing artifacts from all over West Virginia, helping shed light on the state’s early populations while gaining valuable real-world experience in their field.

The WVU Archaeological Training and Research Laboratory, fondly known as the Arch Lab, was born in late 2019 as the collective brainchild of professors in Eberly College’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. They knew anthropology students needed more opportunities to practice archaeology without a large time or travel commitment so they could enter the workforce after graduation with a competitive edge. So Dr. Susanna Donaldson, teaching associate professor of anthropology, reached out to Adjunct Lecturer Dr. Olivia Jones in search of things students could literally get their hands on.  

Photo of Olivia Jones

Jones is a 2005 graduate of WVU’s anthropology program, and she serves as lead curator at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville, WV. There, she supervises the West Virginia Archaeological Research and Collections Management Facility. Every archaeological collection ever excavated in West Virginia ends up in a state repository at that facility, where it must be processed – meaning the contents must be unpacked, cleaned, sorted and labeled.  

Once the Arch lab was established in a small office space in Knapp Hall, Jones had an archeological collection from the repository sent there. It was the perfect solution; students could not only learn applicable skills through processing the artifacts, but they could also boost the repository’s efforts to learn about and preserve West Virginia’s history.  

“Part of our efforts at the repository involves going back to some of the older collections that were excavated and then transferred here and fully processing them. There are a lot to get through, and it’s honestly a perfect learning opportunity for our anthropology students,” Jones said. “It is unique in that they can see all these different kinds of material, which is fundamental to their learning of archaeology. When they handle artifacts, they really start to recognize what they are, how the materials were manipulated by humans, and how they move.” 

Students have been working with an archaeological collection excavated from Morgan County since the Arch Lab opened in 2020. The artifacts in the collection were unearthed back in 1976-77 and have been sealed ever since. Now, with the students’ help, the collection is well on its way to being fully processed. 

Arch Lab processing is simple: first, students unpack the artifacts. Then, they gently wash them in water with a soft toothbrush. Then a rinse, and the artifacts are put up to dry. Once dried, they are sorted and bagged in preparation for labeling.

Photo of archaeological samples

Junior anthropology major Beth Prascik started working in the Arch lab after completing a summer internship with Jones at the Grave Creek Mound last year.

Photo of Beth Pracsik

Prascik wants to work in a museum one day, and she knew an internship would give her the practical experience to help her get there. She learned the basics of artifact washing at the Grave Creek Mound while working with Dr. Jones, and it boosted her ability to identify artifacts. When the Arch Lab opened up, she jumped at the chance to learn to manage a lab while helping her peers grow as archaeologists.  

“I thought the Arch Lab was a really great opportunity for students who can't go somewhere for an internship like I did,” she said. “I lived with my grandparents in Wheeling, so I didn't have to commute very far for my internship. But you know, not everyone will have that kind of opportunity, so it's really nice for students to have something similar on campus.” 

Anthropology major Wesley Nelson met Jones in class, and they got to talking about his career goals. He wanted to pursue graduate school, but he was unsure how to go about doing that.  

“I am the first in my family to attend grad school, so that was a whole new thing for me,” he said. “Dr. Jones has really played a role in my life by helping me navigate that process.” 

Nelson will soon begin Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s master's program in applied archaeology. During his senior year at WVU, he got involved in the Arch Lab to help prepare him for the next steps in his career. 

“I was ignorant to the work involved in archaeology before working in the lab. Everyone knows that we dig artifacts out of the ground, but what happens next is usually overlooked. I had never officially processed any archaeological material, and the lab gave me the chance to do it in a more professional setting” Nelson said. “Piecing the artifact fragments together to even get a small shape of what that original vessel looked like, that was probably one of the best parts of working in the lab. Once you see those little pieces come together to make something whole, it really brings an extra special outcome to our work.”

Nelson and Prascik served as lab managers during the 2021-22 school year along with the lab coordinator, junior anthropology major Bryan Hill. With oversight from Jones and Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Amy Hirshman, they gained career-boosting lab management skills as they chipped away at the processing work.  

They also facilitated a training program for student volunteers, which sparked participation in their efforts. Last year, around 20 volunteers from a variety of majors went through the training program to learn how to wash and sort artifacts.  

“Working with the volunteers is really great,” Nelson said. “I have this feeling that we are doing something good and benefitting history itself with our work in the lab. It’s a great feeling to have volunteers come in and feel the same way.” 

During volunteer training, Jones walks students through the basics of material identification and demonstrates with the lab managers how to wash the artifacts. Then students do a one-on-one training session with the lab managers to fully learn the entire process. After that, volunteers can come work with the lab managers whenever they have time in their schedules.  

“The lab managers really take a lead on teaching their peers,” Jones said.

Photo of Kelsey Gill

Sophomore anthropology major Kelsey Gill completed the training program and volunteered last year as a freshman. She is now a lab manager in training and will soon help lead the Arch Lab’s processing and training efforts.  

“Being in the lab has definitely made me more comfortable with identifying artifacts and knowing that, hey, I can do this work. Training as a lab manager has already taught me how to be a better leader and public speaker,” she said. “It’s pretty rewarding as a native West Virginian actually, because I'm getting to learn more about my home state. My favorite types of artifacts to wash are the ones that are rare, like turtle shells or seashells. I think those are cool because you don't really see them pop up as much.” 

Gill is a first-generation college student, and she started volunteering in the Arch Lab to put herself out there among her peers and professors.  

“That has been amazing for me because it has opened up new opportunities like workshops, volunteer work and internships,” she said.  

According to Jones, that’s what the Arch Lab is all about: discovery. Discovery of knowledge, interests, new friends and of course, artifacts. Her goal with the lab was to help the Department of Sociology and Anthropology give students opportunities to discover and be excited about their discoveries – after all, that’s what she would have wanted back when she was a WVU anthropology student.

“When I see the students get really excited when they think about discovering something, I remember, ‘Oh yeah, that's right. This is cool stuff we’re doing,’” Jones said. “We ourselves don't know what's in these collections, so students could open a bag and there could be an entire arrowhead in there, or like, an entire animal bone. In that sense, we are still making archaeological discoveries without actually being out in the ground.” 

Photo of archaeological samples