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.