The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Buying a Digital Scale

I volunteered to do the faunal analysis for a research project in the southern San Joaquin Valley.  The principle investigator* is a friend of mine who teaches at a university in England**, and while he has grant money for many things, he doesn't have enough to cover all tasks necessary to complete the project.  As such, he relies in part on the work of fools...err, I mean volunteers such as myself who are willing to use our skills to assist his project without charging him anything.

Now, the faunal analysis is pretty much what it sounds like: I get the bone and shell that has come out of the site, and try to figure out what animals it came from, whether or not there are signs of it having been modified (whether by people cutting meat off of the bones, burning it during cooking, or trying to make tools out of it).  It essentially consists of slowly sorting through all of the fragments of bone, assigning everything to as specific a category as you can (often just placing it in broad "large, animal, medium animal" categories, but occasionally being able to figure out the genus or even species), and noting relevant features (cut marks on the bone, burning, etc.). 

The bone that I am looking at is badly fragmented, which means that, often, a simple count of bone fragments will tell you more about the factors damaging the bone than about the animals - interesting in its own right and valuable, but I still have to make sense of the faunal remains.  So, in addition to counting up the bone fragments, we also weigh them, which in circumstances such as this can often tell you more about what the site residents were prioritizing in their hunting and eating habits. 

So, with that in mind, I set out to buy a digital scale that could measure with 0.01 gram precision.

Now, in every city in which I have lived, this would have been an easy task.  I know of places in Modesto, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara in which I could find such things.  So, Fresno being the largest city in which I have lived, I figured that finding an appropriate scale here would be a piece of cake.  I was very wrong.

The first problem I ran into is that, despite it's size, Fresno has a relative dearth of stores catering to scientific labs.  That's not to say that they aren't here, but there are fewer than one would think.  The second problem is that, rather contrary to what one might expect, these places do not sell scales with the level of precision that I required.  In fact, there was a surprising number of scales that measured in pounds and ounces and not in the metric scale, as one would expect for lab equipment. 

So, on the advice of the the folks at one such store, I went to several office supply stores, which I was told would have digital metric scales.  They did, but their level of precision was 0.1 grams, and not the required 0.01 grams.  Moreover, most of them were in the $100 range - which, considering that I am doing this work as a volunteer and that for most of the last year I have been the only income in my household (making money tight) I wasn't really willing to pay.

It dawned on me that I should try a hardware store - certainly a place that sells every form of tool you could want would also sell a scale.  I mean, I might not find a metric one, but it was worth a try, right?  Well, wrong.  I discovered that the hardware stores in Fresno (including the national chains) do not, in fact, carry scales of any kind (aside from the odd bathroom scale, not the precision or accuracy that I need).  What's more, asking for help led to the sales staff eyeing me, assuming that I am a drug manufacturer and/or dealer - one salesman even went so far as to inform me that that's what he figured I or anyone would be buying the scale for.  Trying to explain that I am a scientist looking for a piece of lab equipment didn't seem to assuage his worries, as he seemed to think that this was a cover story.

I wonder what kind of watch list Home Depot has had me placed on.

Well, the hardware stores were a bust.  So, I decided to head out to the local cooking supplies store - it was a longshot, but they would have scales and they might have them in the units and level of precision that I needed.  Again, I found scales, but they would do, at best, 0.1 grams, and most didn't deal in metric at all***.  And, again, it was made clear that, despite my protestations about scientific work, it was suspected that I was a drug manufacturer/dealer. 

I wonder what kind of watch list Williams Sonoma has had me placed on.

Finally, one of the cooking store salesmen decided that he wasn't part of the war on drugs, and told me that I could find a high-precision scale at one of the local sporting good stores.  It would measure amounts in the range that I needed, and apparently is used by hunters who pack their own shotgun shells.  The problem, however, is that it doesn't measure in metric, or even pounds and ounces, but instead in the far more esoteric measurement unit known as grains.  A grain correlates to approximately 64.8 milligrams (or 0.648 grams) making the conversion problem even more obnoxious than simply measuring in ounces.

In the end, I bought one on line.  I found a jeweler's scale that measures to 0.01 grams, comes with a calibrating weight, and is in my price range.  It's unlikely to be a great scale, but it will have to do. 

Really, though, who would have thought that finding a scale in a city of half a million people would be such a pain in the ass?

*Translates to English as "Head Honcho" or "Big Cheese."  The archaeologist who is ultimately responsible for all work performed.

**The irony of him leaving for England to perform excavation near Bakersfield is not lost on me

***If at this point you wonder why I didn't buy one that measures in ounces and just convert the sum, the reasons are twofold: 1) they still wouldn't measure at the level of precision that I needed, and 2) I have something in the neighborhood of 2,000 bags of bone to weigh and process by January.  The slow-down required to convert all of them would simply not be worth it.

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