Friday, April 22, 2011

Lab Update: On Cross-mending...

It has been a couple of months since the final artifact was entered into the catalog. It certainly felt good to insert that final entry (artifact # 20,395!), but our work continues. In my last post, I talked about the process of cross-mending, a task that currently occupies most of our time in the lab. Just to review, cross-mending involves the reassembly of vessels across contexts, that is, between units rather than simply within them, providing us with a more accurate count of just how many objects were discarded at the site. The process has been slow, to say the least.

I decided that we would start with blue transfer-printed ceramic vessels because they are typically the easiest to mend; given that the sherds are printed with discernible images, it's sort of like putting together multiple puzzles without actually knowing how many puzzles are represented or how many pieces make up each puzzle. We spent about 4 hours removing all of the blue transfer-printed pieces from their respective bags and laying them out on the table according to their associated unit number and layer letter. Then we began to cross-mend, beginning with the vessels that seemed like they were mostly present in some number of pieces. Once we decided a vessel was "finished" (that is, there were no more pieces that could be mended to it), we documented how many sherds comprised the vessel and from which units the sherds came, and then we photographed the assembled vessel for reference purposes (see below).

Above: A cross-mended plate produced by the Stevenson and Williams company in 1825 in Cobridge, Staffordshire, England.

These pictures show the vessels reassembled in place, but not actually glued back together. The reason for this is quite simple: a fully mended and glued vessel is much harder to store than a bag of ceramic sherds. We determined that until we know what objects will be displayed in the Fairbanks House museum, we would not firmly mend any of the ceramic vessels. Of course, that doesn't stop us from getting a great look at what the objects looked like when the would have been used, an image that is easy to forget when we spend most of our time digging up tiny pieces (see below for a personal favorite vessel).

Given that we've spent nearly a month working only on the blue transfer-printed ceramics and we've not yet finished with them, we will likely be working on cross-mending for many more months. Keep checking back for more updates from the lab!

Above: My favorite vessel - a platter featuring the Boston State House and Boston Common (note the cows grazing in the foreground!). Due to the poor preservation of the vessel, the pattern is difficult to see entirely (head here to see an intact version of the platter). This platter was manufactured by the John Rogers and Son company sometime between 1815 and 1842.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Springtime (sort of) in the Lab (v2.0)

In the months since we closed up our excavations at the Fairbanks House, there's been surprisingly little down time. With the help of some amazing members of the BU undergrad community who have put in over 600 hours of volunteer time, we have managed to wash, label, and catalog over 18,000 artifacts. Fortunately, there is an end (to this step of the process) in sight. Today marked the conclusion of the washing phase. Once our labelers have a chance to catch up, and I've had a chance to catalog the remaining material, we will begin the process of cross-mending.

Above: Artifacts waiting to be cataloged (incl. mortar, stoneware, coarse earthenware, various glass types, etc.)

Right: Volunteer lab worker Mike cleans the last of the artifacts from last summer. Huzzah! (right)

Cross-mending sounds simple enough, and I suppose it is, in theory. To begin, we will choose an artifact type, say, coarse earthenware, green glass, or American stoneware. Then we'll query the artifact catalog to determine in which units our artifact type was found. Then we dig into our archival boxes, pull out the desired artifacts, and lay them out on the table. Finally, we begin attempting to piece together vessels from the chosen pieces (you can see why labeling the artifacts before removing them from their bags is so important!). I'll be communicating with the staff at the Fairbanks House to determine what they would like to display so that we can mend together those vessels that will have a place in the house museum. Cross-mending also gives us an idea of a minimum vessel count, that is, the lowest possible number of vessels that could be represented by our artifacts. Once we have generated this more refined picture of household purchase and use of artifacts, we can begin to speculate about purchasing patterns, dining practices, household economy, etc.

Left: Boxes of artifacts from the '09 and '10 seasons

Below: A page from the 1843 probate inventory
conducted following the death of Mary Fairbanks in the same year.

Another major phase of this project that I'll be working on this spring will be researching the documentary history of the Fairbanks House property. This involves reading through historic deeds, wills, probate inventories (lists of household contents created after the death of a head of household), tax records, census data, etc. My central goal is to trace the changes made to the property through time. For instance, when Jonathan Fairbanks first moved to Dedham in 1636, he was given 12 acres on which to build his home. Throughout the years, his descendants bought and sold land connected to the homestead and in the greater Dedham area. Eventually, their holdings amounted to the acre or so on which the house currently rests. I'm hopeful that by studying the documents, I'll be able to learn something about the flux of land holdings through time. I am also hopeful that by studying documents such as wills and probate inventories, I'll get a better picture of what objects filled the Fairbanks House, especially those objects that don't survive in the archaeological record (such as organic objects, including clothing, wooden tools, foodstuffs, etc.).

It is this combination of focus on the material and documentary records that defines historical archaeology. Hopefully these methods will shed some light on the lesser-known aspects of life in the past at the Fairbanks House.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mystery Glass Vessel (Mystery Solved!)

Incidentally, this mystery has been solved. The glass globes are..... target balls! Used for target practice prior to the introduction of clay pigeons, these artifacts were produced throughout the 19th century. Read more about glass target balls at this website.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

End of Week 5: End of the Road

Five weeks have come and gone and so has our time at the Fairbanks House. Although our final week of excavation meant that we spent much of our time cleaning, photographing, and drawing the various excavation units, we also managed to squeeze in some very interesting discoveries.

One of the main tasks we wanted to accomplish this week was to explore under the cobble floor of the barn. We hoped that by removing some of the cobbles, we might locate evidence of previous architecture below the floor or, at the very least, find some artifacts that would assist our efforts to date the building's construction. In this respect, we half-succeeded. No evidence of any other structures existed under the floor, but we did find a small collection of ceramic sherds (creamwares and early transfer-printed pearlwares) that date to late 18th or early 19th centuries.

Below: How do you clean a cobble floor? With a vacuum, of course! (left); Alex and President of the Fairbanks Family in America Board of Directors Al Blood excavating beneath a section of the cobble floor (right)

In the interest of sampling under multiple sections of cobble flooring, we removed some of the boulder scatter present in the northeastern corner of the building (the corner in which we found the large amount of intact bottles and other artifacts). The stream of material culture did not dry up, resulting in the recovery of 25 bags of artifacts in a single day. Included in this haul were large fragments of stoneware jugs, yellow ware chamber pots, small glass vials, and a bone-handled knife. However, my personal favorite find was something different. Check out some pictures of it below...

Below: Front side of the flask showing the American eagle (left); obverse side of the flash showing the gateway with Masonic imagery (right)

This bottle is a Masonic flask made by the Keene-Marlboro Street Glassworks in Keene, New Hampshire. It features an American eagle on the front (note the flag chest piece and the arrows and olive branch in its talons) and a gateway covered in Masonic symbols on the back (my personal favorite is the combination of the skull and crossed bones and a trowel to the left of the doorway -- pretty much sums up archaeology!). These flasks were manufactured primarily between 1810 and 1830, although they continued to be produced up until 1840. Our next step will be to research the production, sale, and use of these bottles. Would/could they be purchased only by Masons? If so, were any of the Fairbanks House occupants Masons during the early 19th century? If these flasks could be purchased and used by anyone, was the Masonic imagery legible (in the social sense) to non-Masons or was their secrecy entirely impenetrable? Whatever the answers to these questions, an artifact with such vibrant details is always a wonderful find.

We were also quite fortunate this week to be visited by a reporter and photographer from the Boston Globe. You can read the article and view a short video documenting the field season here.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. As much as it pained us to do it (literally...), we had to fill in our excavation units, resealing the barn's foundations and floor. Now it's time to head into the lab to wash and catalog all of the finds from the summer season. However, before I sign off for now, there are a number of people that must be thanked. First, I'd like to thank Frank Carvino, Al Blood, Lee Anne Hodson, and the entire Fairbanks Family in America Board of Directors for their continued support. You really know how to make a guy feel welcome. I'd also like to thank Ellen Berkland and her crew of volunteers for their frequent assistance. Thanks to John LaRosa of JCL Excavation for his interest and his generous donation offer and thanks to Brian MacQuarrie at the Boston Globe for taking an interest in our work. Last but not least, thanks to all of the wonderful volunteers who came out to help our project, especially Brittany Boesenhofer, Alex Kara, Nason Sinkula, and Meg Thibodeau. Most of all, thanks to Alex Keim -- without his constant enthusiasm and good cheer, we all would've had much less fun.

And thanks to you for spending the time to read these occasional posts. I hope you've enjoyed reading about our excavations as we did completing them.

Friday, June 4, 2010

End of Week 4: Bottles!

The fourth, and second-to-last, week of excavation was our of busiest and most exhausting to date. We were visited by a number of large school groups, which gave us the opportunity to share the pleasures (and workload) of field archaeology. We also started to feel the crunch of time as the season's end began peering at us from around a corner. As a result, we ratcheted up the intensity of our days and were rewarded for our efforts.

We began the week faced with the task of exposing the northeastern corner of the barn in an attempt to explain the large boulder scatter covering a few of our units. While this area was chock full o' rocks, we were able to find the point where the northern and eastern walls met. In this corner space, we located a small patch of cobble floor on top of which were deposited a HUGE number of exciting artifacts, including large fragments of ceramic pitchers and chamber pots and a number of intact glass bottles of all sizes (see below).

Without outlining all of the finds from this area, I'd be remiss without showing one of our favorites: it's a glass bottle embossed with the words "BURNETT'S/ COCOAINE" (see below). Naturally, we were all quite tickled -- here was evidence of drug use at the Fairbanks House! Of course, as I've mentioned previously, self-medication was common in the 19th century and included all manner of drugs that are now illegal. However, we continued to be puzzled by the curious spelling until a quick Google search revealed that Mr. Burnett was not actually peddling a cocaine product, but a coconut product. Burnett's product was a coconut oil used for the treatment of balding or damaged hair. He may have been attempting to capitalize on the popularity of cocaine and cocaine products when he concocted such an evocative name.

Below: Brittany working on the northeastern corner of the barn, revealing a bunch of interesting finds (left); a bottle of "BURNETT'S COCOAINE" hair oil (right)

Our other major task for the week involved opening up a large unit in the center of the barn (see below). Although we determined that time would not allow us to expose the entire barn in plan, we measured out this large unit, the excavation of which will signify that we have revealed just over half of the barn's remains. The fill layer on the top of the unit yielded a massive quantity of artifacts including ceramic fragments, a pair of scissors, a number of buttons, a kitchen hook, and more.

This will be the last unit that we'll open for the remainder of the season. Next week will be spent cleaning, photographing, and drawing the existing units, after which time we will remove a section of the cobble flooring to see if evidence of any previous activities exists. And then of course, it's everyone's favorite time -- backfill day! Stay tuned for more as the season speeds to a close~

Below: the large center unit showing a section of cobble flooring and the building's southwest corner in the background (left); Alex taking elevations with Kyla, a frequent visitor to the site (right)

Monday, May 31, 2010

End of Week 3/Beginning of Week 4: Barn Barn Barn, Barn Barn

Another week has gone by and we're still learning new things about our barn. After extending a unit towards the building's center, we've encountered a scattered layer of foundation-sized boulders (see the picture below). The boulders appear to be mixed with the ashy, artifact-rich layer that we've found in all of our units above the cobble floor and foundation walls, so we think the scatter occurred after the barn fell out of use. Once again, we'll be forced to expand our area of excavation in an attempt to explain away the confusion.

Towards the end of last week, we enjoyed the company of some classes from local elementary schools. Alex was kind enough to give explanations and demonstrations of basic archaeological techniques (see below). We love to chat with people and we encourage people of all ages to stop by and check out our progress!

Below: Alex standing on the scattered boulders (left); students helping Alex work the screen (right)

During our excavations this afternoon, we pulled a small glass bottle out of the trash layer above the cobble floor (see below). Embossed on one side of the bottle was the label "GALEN WOODRUFF/ PHARMACIST/ BOSTON" next to the picture of a mortar and pestle. A quick Google search revealed that Woodruff opened his pharmacy on the corner of Tremont St. and Dover St. in 1870. If the source book "Leading business men of Back Bay, South End, Boston Highlands, Jamaica Plain, and Dorchester" (published in 1888) is to be trusted, then Galen Woodruff was "one of the leading practical pharmacists in the city" who always kept a "full and varied assortment of Drugs, etc." on hand.

Self-medication was quite common in the 19th century, so the discovery of a bottle of this sort is not at all surprising. It is, however, always fun to find something that can be firmly researched to an individual person operating in the past. It's the sort of thing that keeps us coming back! Stay tuned for more from the barn~

Below: Galen Woodruff pharmaceutical bottle