Artifact Labeling Essentials

“For every hour you spend in the field, expect to spend three more in the lab.” This is a phrase I remember being repeated regularly while in school and preparing for a career doing Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Archaeology. Of course, this rule of thumb is not accurate for all projects, but it serves as a useful guide. It also reminds us that archaeology requires both field and lab components. Both are needed if we are going to maximize the information potential of a site and make the information accessible to future researchers.

Central to making the information accessible is curating the artifact assemblage and creating an artifact catalog. The catalog provides information about artifacts and a catalog number used to identify the artifact being referenced. The catalog number creates a link between the physical object and the information used for analysis. Without this link, the artifact assemblage would be difficult to interpret in a meaningful way.

One way to maintain the link between the catalog and artifact assemblage over time is to physically mark artifacts with a catalog number. Physically marking the artifact using a nondestructive method and chemically inert materials (like the process outlined below) can be used to label an entire assemblage. It can also be used to add a layer of redundancy to bag labels and bag tags.

Tool and Materials

Marking artifacts requires a few basic tools and materials:

  • An archival artifact “varnish” and applicator (e.g. B-72 Acryloid dissolved in Acetone stored in a nail polish applicator bottle)
  • Drafting pen with a very fine nib (e.g. rOtring Isograph with .20 mm nib)
  • India ink
  • Titanium white acrylic paint
  • Paint brush
Artifact Marking Essentials
To mark a wide variety of artifacts, these few basic tools and materials are needed.

This will allow you to mark a variety of  non-porous artifacts. For porous artifacts or those that could be adversely affected by marking, hang tags or similar methods should be used.

The Process

The process of marking the artifacts is simple once you have the right materials. The steps are the nearly identical for light and dark-colored artifacts. The only difference is the material used for an undercoat.

Step 1: Apply the Undercoat

In a well-lit area, place only the artifact to be marked on a tray. Placing one artifact at a time is best practice because it minimizes the chance of mixing artifacts between proveniences.

An undercoat is required for all marked artifacts. The undercoat is a removable barrier between the India ink and the artifact. By making a removable barrier, any mistakes can be easily corrected, and the object can be returned to its pre-marked state at any time.

For dark artifacts, you can use titanium white acrylic paint which is water-soluble when wet, and acetone soluble when dry. For lighter artifacts, a clear “varnish” of B-72 Acryloid dissolved in Acetone can be used in place of the acrylic paint.

Artifact to be Marked
Items with dark backgrounds like grey chert lithic materials require an application of white acrylic paint to allow the India ink to be legible.


Porcelain Children's Toy Tea Saucer
Items with light backgrounds like undecorated porcelain to not require an application of white acrylic paint to allow the India ink to be legible.

To mark the dark artifacts, carefully apply the titanium white paint to a smooth and inconspicuous part of the artifact. Two or more coats may be required if the surface has ridges.

Undercoat of Titanium White Acrylic Paint Applied to Artifact
An undercoat of titanium white acrylic pain is applied to dark artifacts. The white undercoat provides contrast to the black India ink used to make the artifacts. If a white undercoat was not used, the black India ink would not be legible against the dark color of the chert artifact.

To mark lighter artifacts, a base coat of “varnish” can be applied using a brush or nail polish applicator.

B-72 Acryloid Applied to Porcelain
Undercoat of B-72 acryloid applied to porcelain toy tea saucer fragment

Allow a few hours or wait overnight for the undercoat to completely dry. Rushing this step and attempting to ink an artifact with a wet undercoat could clog your pen nib, cause the pen nib to push through the undercoat, or cause smudges.

Step 2: Ink the Catalog Number

After the undercoat has dried, use the drafting pen with a very fine nib to mark the catalog number on the undercoat with India ink.

Marking the Artifact
A drafting pen filled with India ink is used to apply the catalog information to the artifact.
Catalog information applied to the Undercoated area
The India ink is applied to the undercoated surface of the artifact.

Allow fifteen (15) to thirty (30) minutes for the ink to completely dry. Attempting to put the topcoat on before the ink has dried can lead to smudged and illegible writing.

Step 3: Apply the Topcoat

After the ink has dried, apply one or two topcoats of the “varnish” over the inked surface.  Allow this topcoat to dry for a few hours or overnight before placing the artifacts into any sealed storage container or any container where the marked surface might touch anything.

Topcoat of B-72 Acrylioid applied over the India Ink Catalog Number

Topcoat of B-72 Acrylioid applied over the India Ink Catalog Number
After the India ink has dried, a topcoat of B-72 Acryloid should be applied over the ink. This protects the water soluble ink from moisture and abrasion.

Final Thoughts

Marking artifacts is a simple procedure and a great way to ensure that provenience information is not divorced from an artifact. Using archival quality materials will provide a lasting mark that will remain legible long into the future. Care should be taken to mark only artifacts that will not be damaged by the steps outlined above. This means materials like wood, textiles, fragile faunal remains, etc. should not be marked using this method.

The methods for marking artifacts can vary from institution to institution. Some require all artifacts to be physically marked, some only artifacts of certain sized. Always be sure to check the guidelines for the institution the artifacts are being curated. It is also good practice to provide an explanation of the artifact marking methodology and label creation method in any report or documentation included with the curating assemblage. This way, future researchers will know how you labeled the artifacts and what those labels mean.

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