Just in from the field, artifacts are carefully cleaned to remove dirt. Depending on the kind of artifact, a delicate paintbrush or toothbrush might be used to clean it. Sometimes materials are too delicate, and are left as they were found, to prevent further damage.
Cataloguing and labeling
Once cleaned, the artifacts are sorted into basic groups such as pottery, lithics (stone), bone, and plants. Then they are catalogued. The total number of artifacts in each category is counted. Important artifacts are described individually, and sometimes drawn. Each artifact is assigned a unique number that tells the site, feature, and level that it was found. These numbers are used in a database to keep track of all the artifacts. The individual artifacts that are to be separately analyzed have their unique number and the site number written right on them to ensure that they can be tracked.
Artifacts may start to break down when they are removed from the earth. Careful cleaning and treatment is necessary to preserve the materials. For example, copper artifacts are wrapped in acid-free tissue paper to prevent further corrosion. Some materials are so delicate that exposure to air causes them to start decaying. Special treatments, usually conducted by museum conservators, may be required.
Whole pots are rarely found. If lucky, archaeologists find enough pieces to put together a large portion of the decorated rim area of the pot. This process is much like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, often with several puzzle parts mixed together, and many missing pieces.