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.