Technical Overview

One purpose of this project is to make available to the largest audience possible archaeological information recovered from colonial period sites in the Potomac River valley. The downloadable databases found on this web site contain evidence about artifacts recovered from a variety of contexts. Some of the excavation projects were long-term and well-funded investigations, others were done under severe time and money constraints. All of them had their own research goals, and integrating them into a comprehensive database required a variety of difficult simplifying steps intended to make the work of inter-site comparison more efficient.

The assemblages included here were processed and catalogued at a variety of highly respected institutions, each with its own established rules and procedures for organizing archaeological data. We tried to avoid making significant changes in the archaeological inventories, whether they were acquired in digital form or whether they were "transcribed" using the standarized lexicon described below. We accepted the identification of specific ware types, for example, without going back and looking at the artifacts themselves (an approach that was completely impractical giving the great size of some of the collections and the funding and staffing constraints of the Colonial Encounters project). For the most part, we accepted the original catalogs and performed no additional checking of the artifacts themselves, other than the small finds they were pulled and more extensively catalogued by the projecct team.

Such an approach is not without problems. For example, we found that the level of detail captured in the electronic catalogs varied among institutions. Terminology also varies. Some electronic databases contained obvious—and therefore correctable—errors. Errors less evident, such as typographical ones (keying “0” when “9” was intended, for example), may not have been caught in the process of assembling these databases.

However, the basic structure of the electronic databases also differed from institution to institution, and we had to deal with that in order to make a comprehensive and searchable catalog. We made some effort to standardize structure in order to enhance comparability, but users of the data are cautioned that the some of the data from individual site databases have been "translated" more than others. Users who are doing detailed inter-site comparisons, therefore, are warned and are strongly encouraged to download and investigate the actual original artifact inventories (linked on each individual site summary page) to check any conclusions made using the comprehensive database.

The Comprehensive Database

Because the databases from the individual sites were often very different, we realized that comparative analysis would benefit from a single, comprehensive database even if it necessarily altered some of the data and data structure significantly. Thus, we created a “comprehensive” artifact database in Microsoft Access, by carefully combining the individual site databases and matching, as much as possible, similar fields to one another. The original databases from which this combined database was assembled are still available for download in their original form.

Some final cross-checking was done in the comprehensive database, and a small number of coding errors were fixed. Nonetheless, users are encouraged to download the comprehensive database and alter it (including combining similar terms if desired) to serve their own purposes.

The Small Finds Data

As the project developed, many of the primary questions seemed to involve certain types of artifacts that have been only sporadically studied in the area: beads, buckles, "horse furniture," gun parts and gunflints, locks, knives, forks, and spoons, and other types that have often been informally classed "small finds." Because the artifact inventories sometimes had little detail, and because this formed a manageable sub-universe, we choose to pull, photograph, and more fully describe this material.

The project team visited each institution, and with the kind assitance of various collection managers, cataloged a variety of small finds into a separate but linked database (see the Small Finds table in the Database Glossary). Even more specific information was entered into some 37 specialized tables, one for each Small Finds category (analysts should note that these tables include not only things like beads and buckles, but also a few very specific "non-small find" objects that were more fully catalogued as part of this project, including specific glassware and ceramics).

The objects that were pulled and catalogued as part of this project were also photographed, and detailed artifact photos are available in the Artifact Photo Galleries. Anyone who wishes to perform specific studies based on this material is advised to download the full database on the Downloads page.


Finally, while every effort was made to insure the accuracy of the final databases —including the use of at least two proofreaders for every site inventory that was entered—we strongly urge users to contact collections managers at the individual repositories when questions arise, and to recognize that errors are probably present. We have provided contact information in the site summary section of the web page for this purpose.

Users are encouraged to report errors to us for correction. Please contact Julia A. King at (410.586.8551)

Further Technical Details

About the Project

A multi-year and multi-institution collaboration standardizing and synthesizing archaeological data for important sites in the Potomac River Valley during the period 1500-1720.

Technical Data

How we gathered and organized the data, details about the databases, information for those who want to download and work with the data.

Browse the Sites

Browse the 34 archaeological sites included in the project. These site summaries include links to images, maps, GIS data, and artifact collections.

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