Sunday, September 13, 2009

Final Update for the Season (a bit late...)

After six productive weeks in the field, we have come to the end. Granted, that end was about three weeks ago, but no matter.

Our final week in the field yielded some interesting finds. We spent the time excavating in the bottom of the cellar feature while also choosing to extend the northernmost unit by another 50cm. It was a fortunate decision because in the northern wall of the extended unit, we discovered what is almost certainly a portion of the northern wall of the stone-lined cellar. In addition, we've exposed a greater portion of the western wall (visible in the picture below on the left). Towards to bottom of the cellar, against both the western and northern walls, we found two caches of large fragments of earthenware vessels (butter pots, milk pans, etc). One of these deposits can be seen in the video clip below.

Above: left - Volunteer archaeologists Andrew Griffin and Cory Hodson excavating in the bottom of the cellar feature; right - video clip of an earthenware cache next to the northern wall

At this point, the future of the cellar feature is uncertain. As it is constricted to the east by a live gas line and the existing driveway and to the south by a water drain, we may have done all we can do with this feature. That said, we've recovered such a wealth of information, in terms of landscape use, building construction, and artifact use, that this isn't necessarily a problem. Without the necessity of re-excavating approximately 6 cubic meters of backfilled dirt, we will have more time in future seasons to devote to the other areas on the property, namely the outbuilding to the north of the house and the shed-like feature to the south of the house that we had initially planned to investigate this season.

With the field season completed, the processing begins. Artifacts will be cleaned, sorted, and cataloged. All of our paperwork will be typed up and all of our drawings will be digitized in Adobe Illustrator and other digital editing software. Research will begin into the artifacts and their relation to the property, all in preparation for the writing of an interim site report. This report will be placed on file with the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) and the Fairbanks House library. Basically, although we're no longer digging, the real work has truly begun.

As a closing note, I would like to personally thank a number of people without whom this project would never have gotten off of the ground. Thanks very much to Dr. Mary Beaudry of Boston University for her close guidance throughout this project and into the present. Thanks to Richard Lowry for connecting me with the Fairbanks House. Thanks to Dr. Alex Service and the Fairbanks Board for their continued enthusiasm and support. Thanks to Ellen Berkland, city archaeologist of Boston, for her assistance both in the excavation and processing of artifacts. And lastly, a hearty thank you to my wonderful volunteers, especially Maggie Burr, Josh Howard, Alex Keim, and Adrien Smith, for their consistent service, interest, positive attitudes, and willingness to put up with me.

It was a fantastic summer and we look forward to future work at the Fairbanks House and beyond. Keep an eye on the blog for more updates about the archaeology of the country's oldest timber-framed house!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Week 5 Update

As I write this blog entry in the oddly freezing cold archaeology lab, I can look out the windows at the rain pounding the building's A/C unit. Another day, another rain shower.

Since finishing up the outbuilding feature near the house for the season, we've moved back to our subterranean feature by the driveway. This week has been spent working on two units placed adjacent to the three existing units in this area (see the updated dig map below). We've also added a unit west of the original driveway line as another check on the local stratigraphy. The new unit was placed just west of our second test pit in which we found an historic posthole.

Above: Updated dig map (green units are in progress, blue units are finished, and orange units are finished for this season)

The two units placed in the area of the underground feature have proved very exciting. Beginning approximately 40cm below surface, we revealed a line of large stones running SE to NW through both units (see below). As we continued to dig down, it appears that there is a second course of stones under the first, a find that supports the hypothesis that these stones represent a wall in the subterranean feature. Our goal now is to continue digging on the east side of this line of stones down to the current depth of the first three units in this area. We'll only dig on the east side in an effort to preserve the structural integrity of the stones just in case they do actually form a wall. Once we've excavated down through the final level of ashy furnace deposit throughout the feature, we'll keep digging in all five units and hopefully discover the floor surface of this exciting structure.

Above: LEFT - overhead view of the top of the potential stone wall; RIGHT - view showing the five in-progress units dug into the subterranean feature

With only five digging days left (excluding our last day which will be spent backfilling our feature units), there's still a lot of work to be done to finish up the feature units and the extra test pit. Keep an eye on the blog next week as we come down to what may be the floor of our feature!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

End of Week 4: Of Newspapers and Outbuildings

The good news from the middle of this week: a reporter from the Daily News Transcript came out to the site on Wednesday to check out our progress and write up a piece for the paper (you can see the article here). The bad news from the middle of this week: the reporter came one day too late.

Thursday signaled a move away from the western yard of the property towards the area just north of the Fairbanks House. After carefully observing the current conditions in this location, we began by opening two units (we later added a third). There are a number of stones of various sizes poking up out of the ground and by drawing lines between them, we come up with the outline of a potential feature (see below).

Above: This photo shows the stones on the surface (outlined in red) and the potential lines drawn between them (dotted yellow lines). It also shows the units put in straddling these lines.

In an effort to test our feature hypothesis, we put in two units over these theorized lines. It wasn't long before we came down on two scatters of stones that support our hypothesis (see below). In the layers above these stones, we found hundreds of artifacts, most of which date from the late 18th to the late 19th centuries.

Above: Two overhead shots of the outbuilding feature.

One of the units turned up one very large rock and several other small ones in a line which we believe represents a building foundation. The other unit revealed a scatter of smaller stones which may illustrate a collapsed wall. These two test pits show that we clearly have evidence of some sort of outbuilding located to the north of the original house.

Above: LEFT - six buttons (five brass, one porcelain) from the two outbuilding test units. The top row of buttons has been cleaned using a water/lemon juice mixture while the bottom two brass buttons have not been cleaned. The larger brass buttons bear the backmark "BENEDICT/TREBLE GILT," a signature of the Benedict and Burnham Manufacturing Company. The smaller button's backmark reads "B.B. Extra Rich" and was probably made by the same company. RIGHT - two pipes from the outbuilding test units. The bottom pipe bears a decorative box with the name "McDougall's" stamped in it. The McDougall Company operated out of Glasgow, Scotland and began producing pipes in 1846.

As exciting as these finds are, due to a lack of time (only two weeks left!), we've decided to close these units and move back to the subterranean feature near the driveway. This outbuilding will be the central part of next summer's work at the site.

Stay tuned as we try to get everything wrapped up over the next two weeks!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Week 4 Midweek Update: Sand, Sand Everywhere and Way Too Much to Dig

The weather has been warm and humid and those of us digging at the Fairbanks House have been fortunate enough to spend most of our time on a beach... sort of. After moving west of the driveway in an attempt to "look beneath the sand" found in our first line of test units, we were more than slightly chagrined to find that the sand is everywhere!

Above: Updated dig map (red units are planned, green units are in progress, blue units are finished)

After digging through a test unit at the base of the driveway mound and another to the west in the yard (see above), we found that the clean, sterile sand showed up in the bottom of these units. Confused and not a little exasperated, we placed another test unit roughly 50m west of the driveway near a cluster of trees. This choice of location was founded upon the hypothesis that large trees (these are at least 30-40m tall) cannot grow in pure sand. Apparently, though, they can, and do.

Although we're still a bit unsure about the sand situation, our days of clearing out meters and meters of the stuff have come to an end (we hope!). In an effort to explore another portion of the property, we laid out two units to the north of the house today in the area where our geophysical survey may have found a buried living surface. Hopefully these units will give us a hint about another historic building on the property (and provide something other than sand).

Stay tuned this week and next for what could be some exciting developments!

Left: Josh backfilling a unit with, you guessed it, sand.

Below: Josh and volunteer archaeologist Max excavated a unit in the west yard.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Chronology of Confusion to Clarity, or, How to Dig an Archaeological Feature

Since there hasn't been much in the way of artifacts lately, I thought I'd post a brief series of photos that gives some insight into what archaeologists actually see when they dig a feature.

While working on unit 107, the second-to-last driveway test pit on the southern end of the line, we began to encounter dark brown stains in orange-yellow soil of our layer (see above left). Note the circular-looking stain towards the top of the right-hand photo and the boxy stain towards the bottom-right (both outlined in turquoise). There was also some sort of strange boxy looking stain poking out of the top wall (outlined in red). We were confused, so we cleaned the unit up a bit, took these pictures, and then began to explore a bit further. After scraping off some more dirt...

... we found that the stains were not part of separate features, but rather part of one large feature that almost encompassed the entire unit (see it outlined in blue in the above right image). Another reason that we could be sure it was a feature distinct from the orange-yellow layer is because of what it contained, namely, charcoal. The charcoal inclusions show up black in the above left photo and are highlighted in red in the above right photo.

Ok, so we've got a feature. Now what?

First, we bisect the feature and dig one half of it so that we can see a profile (above left). Think of it as studying an unknown species: after looking at it from the outside, you have to dissect it to see what's inside! Once half of the feature has been removed, we draw and photograph the feature's profile (above right -- feature profile outlined in turquoise). Once the profile has been documented, we dig out the rest of the feature and end up with...

... a clean and finished unit!

Unfortunately, even when all due attention is paid to a unit and the features therein, things get missed. In this case, while we worked hard to uncover this large brown feature, we completely missed another feature positioned in the unit. You can see it in the picture below, outlined in red.

So despite our best efforts, we still missed some information. This just goes to show that archaeology is not an exact science, or really a science at all. Archaeology is about problem solving, critical thinking, careful evaluation and observation, and occasionally, just darned good luck.

End of Week 3: The Times They Are A-Changin'

Although we faced rain-shortened days yesterday and today, progress continues. Because this is the official half-way point of the excavation, there have been a few changes made to our overall goals for the season.

Above: Updated dig map (red units are planned, green units are in progress, and blue units are finished)

For starters, we've decided to open up a unit in the western yard of the property to provide a 'control' unit of sorts. We're interested in what lies beneath the raised mound of sand next to driveway, but since we can't actually dig under it, we'll move west into the yard area. We've also opened up a unit between a finished driveway test pit and the planned yard unit. This pit straddles the base of the raised mound and the yard; we hope to document the transition between these two components of the property (see the photo below).

Above: In the foreground, volunteer archaeologists Maggie, Cory, and Andrew work on the test pit at straddling the base of the driveway mound. In the background, volunteer archaeologist Josh works on the last driveway test pit. (In case you can't tell, the Fairbanks House [c. 1641] is the one on the left and the curator's house [c. 1912] is on the right).

We also plan on expanding the subterranean feature two-fold by placing 3 1x1m units to the west of the existing units. Hopefully this will give us a clearer picture of the feature's characteristics.

Lastly, we will move to the area north of the Fairbanks House where our ground-penetrating radar survey revealed a possible buried living surface. We will place two units in this area with the purpose of exposing this potential feature and providing crucial information for planning the future stages of excavation at the Fairbanks House property.

As forecasts turn a bit drier and we introduce a new set of volunteer archaeologists, check back next week for more updates from the dig...

Left: volunteer archaeologist Alex excavates the third unit of our subterranean feature.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Week 3 Midweek Update: Progress!

This week has been marked by hazy skies, scorching temperatures, and most importantly, progress! After gaining a skilled extra set of hands from Alex, another BU graduate student, we were graced with the assistance of Ellen Berkland, the City Archaeologist of Boston, and her team of four volunteers (Amee, Dave, Richard, and Damaris). With their help, we were able to knock out a number of test pits next to the driveway.

Updated dig map (red units are planned, green units are
in progress, and blue units are finished)

As you can see on the map, we now have three finished units, with two more individual 1x1m units in progress near the southern end of the driveway, and a line of 3 1x1m units on hold in the area of our subterranean feature. We'll spend the rest of the week trying to finish the final two driveway test pits before moving back to the feature area.

Above: left - Amee, Damaris, and Ellen screening excavated soil, looking for artifacts;
right - Alex and Josh work on unit 108, the southern-most driveway test pit

Most of the completed test pits have not turned up much in the way of interesting artifacts or features. This is almost certainly because the area next to the southern portion of the driveway has been built up at some point in the property's history such that instead of the natural slope of the landscape, there is a flat expanse of grassy lawn. We don't have any written records of this landscape alteration so we're left to hypothesize. It seems likely that this change was made to provide a larger space for vehicles to park. In any case, after digging through some thin levels of topsoil, we encountered over a meter of pure sand. The units soon became too deep to dig (sand walls at great depths become a stability hazard) so we were forced to cease excavation. While this is unfortunate, it gives us more time to devote to the feature area.

Stay tuned as we complete the remaining test pits and continue to explore our underground feature!

Above: left - Ellen's dog Oskar helping us dig through the back-dirt pile;
right - Dave and Amee working on a test pit

Friday, July 24, 2009

Week Two Update (Artifacts!)

Unfortunately the weather, as it does, has refused to cooperate so we were stuck indoors today. In lieu of a dig update, I offer an artifact update showing some of the finds recovered from the feature area of the excavation.

Pictured to the right is an ironstone plate (in two pieces) that came out of the bottom of the three furnace deposits. It's in wonderful condition and features a very legible maker's mark on the back (shown in the inset). The mark identifies the type of ware ("Stone China"), the manufacturer ("Anthony Shaw"), and the location of manufacture ("Burslem"). Stone China is another name for what is commonly called ironstone, a heavy, sturdy white table ware. Anthony Shaw was a potter operating in the 19th century. We know from historical records that Shaw used this particular maker's mark from 1850 to 1882. He later changed the mark to "Anthony Shaw & Sons" to include his sons in the family business. The family operated out of Burslem, a small town that later became part of Stoke-on-Trent in the ceramic-rich county of Staffordshire, England.

The picture on the left shows a late (probably 19th century) pipe bowl that has been burned. The red arrow shows where the stem of the pipe would project off of the bowl; the stem would be pretty long, usually at least 8-12 inches for a bowl of this size. The small projecting nub at the bottom of the bowl is called a "foot" and it allows the pipe to be set down without tipping over. Due to their durability as well as their ubiquity throughout the historical period, pipes are a common discovery on historical sites. As such, they have been studied vigorously and can now be dated to within a number of years based on the size and form of the bowl as well as the width of the pipe's bore.

The picture on the right shows two views of the base and partial side of an American stoneware vessel. Stoneware was produced in America throughout much of the historical period beginning in the 18th century, but the variety pictured here is almost certainly 19th century. It shows signs refined methods and quality craftsmanship.

Finally, the picture above shows a buckle from a set of suspenders. The buckle was produced by the C.A. Edgarton Manufacturing Company (opened in 1882, became known as the President Suspender Company around 1900) in Shirley, Massachusetts (hence the name). This particular model was called the "Shirley-President," the name which can be seen on the front of the buckle (left half of the image). The right side of the side shows the name "Shirley" in script. Advertisements for Shirley suspenders are very popular in today's antique market, especially in the form of 'baseball cards' produced by C.A. Edgarton (seen on the right: top - "President Suspenders, 50 cents"; bottom - "Easy on the shoulders, the back slides").

So once again we're left with our fingers crossed for a sun-enriched week next week. Keep those rain dances coming and we'll keep digging up interesting pieces of Massachusetts' history to share with you!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mid-Week (sort of...) Update

After losing a day due to rain (Tuesday), this week has felt a bit disjointed. Fortunately, we're very excited about what we've found at the bottom of the first test pit. It's too early to say exactly what we have, but this unit shows signs of a subterranean feature that was filled in during the 19th century.

In this picture, I'm working on an extension of our first unit. We decided
to expand the area of excavation to reveal a larger portion of the potential
feature (see the updated dig map below). The ladder and hardhat are
necessary to comply with OSHA regulations. And to look totally cool.

The "fill" constitutes a series of layers indicative of furnace cleaning. During the historical period, furnaces needed to be cleaned out regularly and these episodes leave relatively thin layers of ashy gray soil, often full of charcoal and/or broken artifacts. We've uncovered three separate episodes of furnace cleaning so far, the third and deepest of which has revealed a number of large fragments of 19th century ceramics (hence our ability to date the filling of the subterranean feature -- if the lowest level of fill dates to 19th century, then the layers above it almost certainly date to a similar or later time period). Unfortunately, these artifacts have already been taken to the lab and have not yet been photographed (sorry!).

Updated dig map showing extension of our first unit in an
attempt to reveal a larger amount of the potential
feature (red units are planned, green units are in progress,
blue units are finished)

Assuming the weather holds off tomorrow (and that's a big assumption these days), we hope to get to the lowest layers of the "feature" area. At that point, we hope to be able to then determine the nature of the feature. Keep an eye on the blog as there will be an update over the weekend (weather permitting!) including artifact photos and more news from the site...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

End of Week One

Five not-entirely-rain-free days in and things are progressing well with excavations at the Fairbanks House. One of the two test pits that were started this week has been completed and a new unit has been opened (see the updated dig map -- red units are planned, green units are in progress, and blue units are completed).

The completed unit did not turn up many artifacts, but when we finally reached subsoil (the base layer of glacial soil representing pre-historical time periods, roughly 1m below surface in this unit), we discovered our first feature: a small circular posthole (shown below outlined in blue, next to a photo of me cleaning the unit in preparation for taking photos). Because of its size, shape, and location on the property, it is hypothesized that the posthole represents a post in a fenceline. The unfortunate part of the discovery is that the unit only contained a single posthole so there is no way to know in which direction the fence runs. Due to this lack of clarity and for reasons of time, we decided against opening up other units in the area in an attempt to chase the fenceline.

The first unit that we opened up has turned up a number of 19th century artifacts including fragments of glass pharmaceutical bottles and whiteware plates. Another find of interest is what appears to be a double-sided kitchen pot hook. This hook (shown fresh from the ground) could be hung by the circular eye and would allow multiple pots to be hung. In the picture below, from top left: pot hook, fragment of blue shell-edged creamware plate, small aqua glass bottle (neck broken off), fragment of plain creamware plate, bottom of rectangular glass pharmaceutical bottle.

Despite a fearsome forecast full of thunderstorms, we're hoping to finish up the two units that are in progress next week. Stay tuned for more updates and as always, feel free to come out and visit the site Monday through Friday, 10am to 4pm!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Day Two Report

After a brief hiatus, we were able to begin excavations at the Fairbanks House this Monday! To kick things off, we began by opening two test pits directly west of the driveway (see the map below).

After initially laying out 50x50cm units, it was determined that repeated episodes of landscape grading (i.e., adding or removing soil in layers to build up or lower various parts of the property, usually for drainage purposes) meant we'd have a much larger amount of soil to dig through than we originally expected. As a result, it was decided that we'd expand our test units to 1x1m to make digging at significant depths a bit easier.

In the picture to the left: volunteer archaeologists Adrien and Robert break ground on our first two units.

Additionally, upon further examination of construction plans for the proposed driveway expansion, it was determined that six 1x1m test pits spaced in a row along the western edge of the driveway would be sufficient to evaluate the area (see the map on the right identifying our current excavation plan -- green units are those that we are currently working on, red boxes are proposed units).

As we move forward this week, we will try to finish excavating our first two test pits, a task that will provide a clear picture of the area's stratigraphy. Once we know how the layers of soil were deposited, we can move a bit faster through the remaining test pits.

In the picture to the left: volunteer archaeologists Adrien and Maggie excavate our first unit.

In the picture on the right: Adrien holding up a 1905 Indian Head penny found in our first test pit.

Editor's note: Some might question the archaeological value in something so "modern." In truth, much of the interest surrounding the Fairbanks House is focused on its 17th century beginnings and this is a fact I hope to change. The aim of my research is to tell the various stories of the Fairbanks property from its creation in the mid-17th century all the way to its current use as a site of heritage and remembrance.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Brief Delay

Due to some unforeseen and therefore unavoidable circumstances, the dig will be delayed until NEXT Monday, July 13. Apologies for the confusion, but we will be ready to hit the ground running next week. Stay tuned for future updates!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

About the Fairbanks House

From the Fairbanks House website:

"The Oldest Timber Frame House

The Fairbanks House is believed to be the oldest surviving timber frame house in North America. It was built for a family of Puritan immigrants from Yorkshire in England, Jonathan and Grace Fairebanke and their six children. Dendrochonology (tree ring dating) has confirmed a construction date of the late 1630s-early 1640s. The house was passed down to succeeding generations of the family until the early twentieth century. In all, eight generations of the Fairbanks family lived in the house. Through the Fairbanks Family in America, Inc., the extended Fairbanks family still owns the property. Over the years, the original portion of the house was extended with additions as the family's needs changed and as the fashions of the times dictated. The current east and west wings were added in the early nineteenth century."

For more on the history of the Fairbanks House and how you can get involved in the curation of one of America's earliest treasures, check out the Fairbanks House website.

Before the fun begins...

As this is our inaugural post, I thought I'd offer some insight into what we've been working on this summer and what our plans are for the Fairbanks excavations.

The first component of the project was to acquire and assess the artifacts that were excavated from around the house foundation in the 1970s as part of two conservation projects. Many of these artifacts were still sitting in their original bags, which had grown old and dusty over the course of 30 years of neglect. Some of the bags contained finds that hadn't even been washed! For the past four weeks, I've been working in the lab with a number of intrepid undergraduate and graduate volunteers from BU and other Boston-area institutions to wash and catalog these archives. Although we made a sizable dent in the finds recovered in 1973-1974, there is still a lot of work to be done in the lab before the collections can be properly analyzed. Much of this additional work is planned to take place in the Fall.

In addition to the lab work required by the artifacts from previous excavations, we will soon have a fresh load of artifacts to be washed/cataloged/analyzed. Beginning next Monday, July 6, we will be heading out into the field for our first season at the Fairbanks House! Our excavations this summer will move away from the immediate area of the house to other spots on the Fairbanks House property. We have targeted three locations for excavation. First, we will excavate a number of small test-pits in the area just west of the existing driveway. Our purpose here is to investigate whether or not the space would be suitable for an expansion of the existing driveway. Our second target is roughly 15m north of the house. This location was determined by a 2003 geophysical survey that discovered a possible buried living surface (i.e., the floor of a small outbuilding) on that spot. Lastly, we will be placing some test-pits approximately 8m south of the eastern portion of the house. This area was chosen because, after examining some old photographs of the site, a small shed was seen that is no longer standing. Our hope is that we will find some evidence of its existence and original function.

Planned excavation map for 2009 season -- small red squares are test pits,
building circled in orange to the north is the Fairbanks House (c. 1641) and the
building circled in orange to the south is the curator's house (c. early 20th century)

This summer's excavations will be carried out by myself along with a collection of volunteers ranging from high school, college, and graduate students to retirees and everything in between. Without their help, this dig would not be the exciting project that it is!

With the record-setting rains of June, we hope that July and August will bring sunny skies and fertile archaeology! Check back for periodic updates from our first season of excavations at the Fairbanks House...