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

Friday, May 28, 2010

Check Out the Fairbanks House on Facebook!

For news and updates on all things Fairbanks House, be sure to check out the Fairbanks House page on Facebook. Just enter "Fairbanks House" on your Facebook search bar and it will be the first result. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Case of the Curious Barn

As the title suggests, we've come to the conclusion that the outbuilding we are busily excavating was a barn. Quite a large barn, in fact. And an awfully curious barn. When I say curious, of course I mean that it does not seem to comply with our assumptions of a basic four-walled rectangular structure.

As a means of explanation, I offer a picture: below, Alex is excavating dirt from the cobble floor in the southeastern corner of the barn. The feature's southern wall is visible to Alex's left and its eastern wall is visible behind him and to his right. What strikes us as unexpected is the length of what looks like foundation wall running directly to Alex's right, perpendicular to the foundation wall. This line of stones is short, extending out approximately 3ft from the eastern foundation wall. At this point, we're not sure if it is the foundation of a buttress, a line of stalls, or some other architectural feature. When faced with these sorts of questions, the only thing left to do is dig! We'll place a unit over the eastern wall of the feature with the hope that if this short extension is repeated along the wall, then we'll find its further iterations.
Above: the aforementioned picture of Alex digging in the southeastern corner of the barn

The artifacts keep on coming, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. However, things got interesting today when we stumbled upon what seems to be a copper-alloy necklace constructed of small, delicate metal rings strung on a cord. Check out the picture below as the necklace emerges from the ground.

Above: copper-alloy ring necklace as it appeared in the unit

Last, but not least, enjoy a panoramic image taken of the units excavated this season from on top of our mountainous back-dirt pile. The picture is taken facing north and the 1641 house is to the back of the photographer. Click on the image for a larger version.

We've been very fortunate with the weather this week -- despite the boiling heat, there has been no sign of rain. We'll spend the rest of the week investigating the eastern wall of the structure and, time permitting, begin to explore the central portion of the barn.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

End of Week 2: Building an Outbuilding

As week two of our summer's excavations draws to a close, our progress is very encouraging. Eight days of digging, eight units excavated, and one outbuilding almost defined. Much like our first week, our work was accomplished only with the help of a number of volunteers from Boston and Dedham. Our eight units have clarified definitively the positions and alignment of two of the outbuilding's walls. Furthermore, we are reasonably certain that we've also located the final two walls, but we'd like to expand two of our units a bit further before we can feel comfortable saying we've sorted out the feature's dimensions. Check out the image below to see where we've dug and the tentative outline of the outbuilding.

Above: map showing the units excavated this season (in green), the hypothesized outline of the outbuilding (shown as a red line), and the feature's proximity to the Fairbanks House (outlined in gray)

One we work a bit more to identify the foundations of the outbuilding, we will place a unit where we believe the center of the structure to be. This will help us to determine if the building was subdivided in any way. The final step in the investigation of the outbuilding will be to remove a portion of the cobble floor to see if evidence of a previous structure exists underneath.

Below: Alex and Shemi dig with Tom Clinton, director of the Dedham Youth Commission (left); Oskar looks on as Nason examines some ceramic fragments (right)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Artifacts from the Outbuilding

As we continue to excavate around the outbuilding feature, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share some of the artifacts that have come out of the excavations. The vast majority of the artifacts depicted here comes from the trash layer deposited directly above the building foundations and floor.

The spherical brown glass bottles discovered en masse have been returned to the lab and cleaned up a bit (see below). A total of 54 bottle necks were discovered. A close examination of the bottle fragments reveals slightly raised lines running around the outsides of each bottle -- these lines are the result of the molding process. The bottle-making process involved the transference of molten glass into a mold, which was squeezed together into a bottle shape. When the mold was removed, thin lines of glass remained where the pieces of the mold fit together. In the picture below on the right, these lines, or "mold scars," are visible on either side of the bottle necks (bottom row) and the rounded bottle bottoms (top row). The circular scars present on the bottle bottoms are indicative of the Owens machinated bottling technology, patented in 1903.

Below: An army of brown glass bottlenecks (left); three pairs of bottle necks and bottle bottoms (right)

Of course, the bottles were not the only objects to be deposited within the feature. A wealth of ceramic and glass vessel fragments have been discovered, some of which are shown below.

Above: Blue banded annular ware bowl (left); small porcelain saucer (right)
Below: Molded clear glass saucer (left); faceted transfer-printed whiteware cup (right)

These sorts of mass-produced artifacts are typical for archaeological sites dating to the recent past. However, people in the past did more than drink from cups and serve food on plates and saucers. Accordingly, we were thrilled to find more everyday sorts of objects within the ruins of the outbuilding. The artifact show below on the left is a slate pencil. The term "pencil" is something of a misnomer as the object does not actually contain lead. It is called pencil because it was a writing implement used to make marks on writing slates. This is the second slate pencil discovered this season. The object on the right, although heavily corroded, should be immediately familiar to most viewers: it is a small pair of scissors. Because of their diminutive size, the scissors were probably intended for use by a woman or a child.

Below: Slate pencil (left); scissors (right)

Last, but certainly not least, are the buttons. Black glass buttons and porcelain buttons, painted buttons and etched buttons, copper buttons and molded buttons. Before I get too Dr. Seuss-y, check just a small sample of the buttons we've found below.

Above: two faceted black glass buttons that were originally wrapped in iron wire to secure the glass to the metal shank [top], white porcelain button with pie-crust patterned edges [bottom left], and black glass button [bottom right] (left); etched black glass button with floral design [top left], corroded brass gilt button [top right], copper-alloy hook and eye set [bottom] (right)

Below: Painted porcelain button -- this artifact is particularly exciting because it is the first artifact that we've discovered which can be unequivocally linked to a resident of the Fairbanks House. The button was painted by Prudence Fairbanks (1781-1871); a set of identical buttons resides in the Fairbanks House museum.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

End of Week 1: A Building (Re)Discovered

The first week of the 2010 excavation season has come and gone and we're hoping the good weather portends well for the rest of our time at the house. During this week, we focused our efforts on uncovering more of the outbuilding discovered last summer. Thus far, we've been quite successful. Two 2x2m units revealed a section of foundation stones and a large portion of a cobble floor. Curiously, the foundation appears to either peter out or change direction (see the picture below) at a certain point. As you can see in the image below, the wall runs northward, but does not seem to be present in the next unit to the north. This may mean the building was not a simple four-walled, rectangular structure or that portions of the foundation were disassembled and reused or discarded. Only time will tell.

Above: Two 2x2m units; the unit to the south (bottom) shows foundation wall running south to north on the western side of the unit with cobble flooring on the eastern side, while the unit to the north (top) shows only cobble flooring.

After we finished the excavation of the two units shown above, we decided to move to the south in an attempt to find the corner of the structure. In the bottom right-hand corner of the above image, you can see a patch of tan soil -- this is the backfill from one of last year's test pits. In this test pit, we found a large stone we believed to be part of the southern foundation wall of the structure. So logically, we thought, excavation of the area between this year's units and last year's units would result in the identification of the southwestern corner of the building. Lo and behold, we were right.

Above: Staff archaeologist Alex excavating in the corner of the outbuilding.

Now that we've located one corner, we need to find two more corners to determine the overall dimensions of the structure. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we will be placing test units in line with our current foundations in an attempt to find where the walls end.

The trend of extraordinary artifact totals continues: I estimate that in our three full days and two half days of work last week, we recovered close to 1,000 artifacts. The vast majority of these finds comes from a single layer above both the floor and foundation walls that is full of 19th-century material. Because it covers both the walls and floor, we believe this layer may represent trash that was deposited on top of the building once it was no longer in use. If this is the case, it means we can very tentatively place the date of the building's demise around the late 19th-century. I can't mention artifacts without noting another trend that has continued, and even escalated, during our work: the button count continues to rise! On Friday, the screening of two buckets of soil from the trash deposition layer yielded 17 identical copper-alloy buttons, two of which still had cloth wrapped around them. These same two buckets also contained approximately 12 copper-alloy hooks and eyes (clasps used to secure clothing). What these finds mean in the grand scheme of things is yet to be determined.

During this week of work, we were incredibly fortunate to receive assistance from a number of sources (see below). In addition to our regular group of wonderful undergraduate volunteers, graduate students from Boston University who happened to still be in the area very kindly donated their time to a fellow student and their efforts were greatly appreciated. Additionally, Ellen Berkland, City Archaeologist for the city of Boston brought a hardy crew out take part in the dig. Their combined labor provided a strong boost to the season's progress. And we also were aided by the extremely energetic and adorable hands of some enthusiastic visitors to the site. To all who helped out this week, we offer our humble and profound thanks.

Below: Our industrious crew of helpers hard at work (left); help comes in all sizes (right)

Stay tuned later this week: a look at artifacts from the outbuilding excavation to come!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Season Two Has Begun!

That's right, after ten months away, we've returned to the Fairbanks House for another season of excavation! This summer is sure to bring some interesting finds as we're targeting a number of features around the property, including the cobble-floored outbuilding and cellar discovered last year and a shed that once stood on the northern side of the house. Our first goal is to excavate the cobble-floored outbuilding completely to determine its size, function, and periods of use/disuse.

In order to fully explore the outbuilding, we will excavate a number of units next to one another, following the foundation and floor we uncovered last season. This method will allow us to locate the edges of the feature. Although we've only had a single full day and two half days of excavation thus far, the first unit has not disappointed. Much like the test pits from the '09 season, the unit contains a large deposit of soil that is chock full of 19th-century material, including ceramic sherds, nails, and glass. Also consistent with our previous excavations is the oddly high number of buttons recovered from the area. So far, approximately 15 buttons have been found in our single 2x2m unit -- brass gilt buttons, porcelain buttons, faceted glass buttons, and iron buttons.

Also of interest was a deposit of hundreds of thin brown glass fragments discovered today in one corner of our unit. The pieces come from a large number of glass bottles with thin circular necks and rounded, not flat, bottoms. Judging by the number of bottle necks found, the deposit contains at least 30 bottles, and maybe more. Over the course of the week, we will continue excavating this unit, hopefully reach the cobble-floor, and in the process, reveal more of the foundation line. Stay tuned for more!

Above: Alex removes topsoil from the first unit of the season

Below: A bottle neck peeks out from the dirt (left); China, Brittany, and Alex hard at work (right)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Springtime in the Lab

Now that spring is here, it's lab time for the Fairbanks Archaeology Project. Thanks to the kind assistance of Boston City Archaeologist Ellen Berkland and her team of volunteers, the artifacts from this summer's excavations have been washed. Now the next steps can commence: cataloging, labeling, and bagging.

Cataloging is a process that involves sorting artifacts by exact type (i.e., "Creamware," "Machine-cut Nails," "Mold Blown Green Glass," etc) and entering the data into a Microsoft Access database that had to be created specifically for this project. Important characteristics such as dimensions, decoration, and wear patterns are entered into this database, along with the total counts of each type of artifact. This information can then be tabulated and queried within the Access database, or it can be (and will eventually be) linked to a Geographical Information System (GIS) for the purposes of spatial mapping and analysis.

Once the artifacts have been cataloged, some of them move to another part of the lab for labeling. Only artifacts which lend themselves to the labeling process due to their hardness and propensity for mending are labeled. This generally means ceramics, glass, and some bone are the artifacts that are targeted for the three step labeling process. First, the artifact receives a small strip of clear nail polish. This establishes a base. Then the context number (in this case "FBH" for Fairbanks House, the unit number, and the layer letter ["101F" in the picture on the right]) is applied using India Ink and an ink pen. Lastly, another layer of clear nail polish is applied over the context number to seal it.

The reasoning behind this process is that if pieces of ceramic or glass from different layers or units can be mended into a single vessel, one can examine the reconstructed vessel and locate which fragments came from which contexts. It's also useful if artifacts are removed from bags for study or display -- once labeled, they never lose their context.

Once labels are applied to the necessary artifacts, all materials are bagged according to their type. Each bag receives important contextual information, including site number ("C27"), context number ("FBH1---"), unit type (e.g., "Driveway Test Pit"), and the date that excavation of the context began. All of the bags of artifacts are combined into master bags for each unit, which are then placed into acid-free boxes for archival storage (see below). Because they are so thoroughly organized, it becomes easy to examine the artifact catalog and remove any materials for mending, photographing, drawing, or general study.

Of course, this project does not end once the artifacts are processed. Hours of research and analysis will result in a site report and further research about the historical residents of the Fairbanks House property. Since September, a dissertation proposal has been approved, conference papers have been presented, and grant proposals have been written. This is just the beginning of the Fairbanks Archaeology Project. Stay tuned for more to come this summer.....