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!