The Fiske Center Blog

Weblog for the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

September 7, 2016
by Fiske Center
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Alum Profile: Miles Shugar

Miles Shugar, graduated from UMB in 2014
Program Coordinator, Anthropology Department, UMass Boston

Miles in his new UMB space, next to the main Anthro Department office.  Stop by and say hi!

Miles in his new UMB space, next to the main Anthro Department office. Stop by and say hi!

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I am the Program Coordinator for UMass Boston’s Anthropology Department. My duties are split between grants administration and internship coordination, though I have a host of related responsibilities. On any given day, I spend a good portion of my time attending meetings with faculty and staff regarding upcoming projects, deadlines, budgetary issues, and various other administrative situations. Another large chunk of my time involves helping to develop our nascent Public Anthropology Masters program (PAMA), specifically the mandatory internship portion during which our students will lend their anthropological skills to a community organization or institution. My role is to start conversations and grow relationships with community partners who would benefit from (and, in turn, be of benefit to) UMass Boston anthropology interns, and to act as a liaison between our students, the faculty, and the community. These tasks could take me all over the UMass campus as well as greater Boston on any given day, which altogether contributes to a sense of action and passion that I have fostered for this new position with my alma mater.

2. What is the most interesting project (field, lab, academic, or community) that you have worked on recently?

My time working for the Anthropology Department has been short thus far, as I only began my position at the beginning of July. Despite that, I feel as if I’ve experienced an exciting flurry of activity related to grants and the new PAMA program in my short two months. The Anthropology faculty have come together in a creative and collaborative way to usher in the PAMA, which will be the department’s second graduate program (the other being the Historical Archaeology MA). Related to that, a number of the faculty are actively engaged in or are planning to propose ambitious research projects with federal sponsors and results that will gather practical knowledge about how various social, political, health, and environmental factors tangibly affect health outcomes and quality of life for Bostonians and the greater Massachusetts population. I have had the privilege of sitting in on a few of the meetings related to PAMA and burgeoning research projects, and I have even had an opportunity or two to contribute input to the conversations in which they are being developed. For example, I recently participated in a meeting regarding an upcoming proposal to a federal health research institution where an interdisciplinary, inter-University team will gather ethnographic data from a spectrum of Boston’s Latino and Asian-American communities to determine what effects ethnic categorization has on public health outcomes. Since I became a resident of Boston five years ago, I have felt a need to become embedded within and familiar with a broader swath of the community than I would normally interact with as part of my daily routine. I began to achieve that goal in small part by volunteering with community organizations such as the Haley House, but more broadly, it is my hope that I can use my role as Program Coordinator to help connect the talents, skills, and research of UMass Anthropology to the publics that could benefit so much from them.

3. What is one thing that you remember specifically about your time at UMass?

I treasure my time as an MA student at UMass, both in terms of my professional and personal development. Being surrounded by a holistic department full of faculty, staff, and students collectively working towards the common goals of archaeological education and research was formative, and helped me realize what I wanted to do contribute to the field of archaeology, rather than what I wanted to gain from it. More specifically, I got the strong impression that the Fiske Center and the Historical Archaeology program were steering their projects towards a collaborative, community-based framework. With that sort of intention, the conversations that would occur throughout the labs and over meals throughout long days of cataloging and artifact processing were eye-opening. There was this sense of, “If we aren’t doing it for the public, or with our results and analyses accessible to and beneficial for the public, then what is the practical point of it?” In other words, it seemed that public archaeology was a given, and that the mindset of community as stakeholder and collaborator was entrenched.

4. What is the best advice you got (or wish you had gotten) in graduate school?

I remember how much anxiety I felt over picking a thesis topic—would it suit me? Could I finish it in time? I overheard someone saying, “It’s just your thesis—you don’t have to be in love with your topic, you just need to ask a question about a set of data and answer it to the best of your ability,” and that was sort of freeing. So in the end, I decided to pick one of the most arcane sites I had come across: a 19th century horse railroad depot in Roxbury, Boston, that I knew nothing about; generally, in terms of horse-drawn streetcar railroads of the 19th century, and specifically, in the ways that they helped structure the Boston that we have grown into today. I eventually fell in love with the topic anyway, as you might have guessed, but I’m glad I got out of the comfort zone of what I initially thought I was capable of being interested in! I think that as a new graduate student, I was worried that if I didn’t reinvent the discipline, I’d perish. But eventually I realized that we are stewards of the data, not the other way around, and that part of the fun of archaeology is playing with scale and the anthropological toolkit to see how different sites and data can be seen to have interesting and sometimes unintentional repercussions down through the years.

August 22, 2016
by Fiske Center
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Alum Profile: Katherine Howlett Hayes

Katherine Howlett Hayes, graduated from UMB in 2002
Associate Professor of Anthropology; Chair, American Indian Studies
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

This is my best "If you don't do what I say I will assign you to a committee" look.

This is my best “If you don’t do what I say I will assign you to a committee” look.

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I am an associate professor of anthropology and currently chair of the American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota. Seemingly most of what I do on a day-to-day basis is email and meetings! Though I still try to spend at least a day per week focusing on my research and I teach two courses per year, my administrative work right now takes up most of my time. In AIS, that means supporting our faculty and teaching specialists, creating or expanding curricular programs that benefit our American Indian students, and coordinating community relations. Much of the latter is centered on our two language programs, Ojibwe and Dakota, because the number of first-language speakers in both is dangerously low. The language teachers are amazing, but that is the hardest job of all, saving languages.

2. What is the most interesting project (field, lab, academic, or community) that you have worked on recently?
I have been working on the archaeology and public memory of Bdote/Fort Snelling, a local heritage site with a very troubled history. As a public site run by the Minnesota Historical Society, it was created to focus interpretation on the “original” 1820s military fort. But a multitude of stakeholders and the historical society wish to bring more attention to the more complicated history, including episodes of war, mass incarceration, and genocide of Native people; the presence of enslaved African-Americans at the fort; and the later military history that brought Japanese-Americans to the WWII language school. I’ve been working with the historical society and some of the descendant communities to create new perspectives on those histories, by focusing on landscapes and material culture beyond the 1820 view visitors get now. It’s a huge project, but really fascinating.

3. What is one thing that you remember specifically about your time at UMass?
I learned an awful lot from everyone, but I especially enjoyed working with Dennis Piechota because he thinks so expansively and creatively about how to answer our research questions. I remember one year we were planning the field season at Sylvester Manor, and he was asked what he would like to do there as part of his own research, and he got a totally mischievous look on his face before saying, “I want to bring a chunk of the site back to my lab so I can excavate it there.” And ultimately, he did exactly that. He taught me to always voice your crazy ideas, because sometimes you say it to people who know how to get it done.

4. What is the best advice you got (or wish you had gotten) in graduate school?
Barbara Luedtke gave me a little printed sheet that said “Done is better than perfect” – useful advice even now. If you don’t get your work out there, people can’t engage with it.

5. Anything else you would like to add?
Come to the AAAs in Minneapolis this year!

For more on the alumni profile series, click here.

July 20, 2016
by Fiske Center
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Alum Profile: Craig Cipolla

Craig Cipolla, graduated from UMB in 2005
Associate Curator of North American Archaeology, Royal Ontario Museum
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Toronto

The Mohegan Archaeological Field School excavates an eighteenth-century domestic site, July 2015. This photo is from a forthcoming article by Craig Cipolla and James Quinn that will appear in the Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage.

The Mohegan Archaeological Field School excavates an eighteenth-century domestic site, July 2015. This photo is from a forthcoming article by Craig Cipolla and James Quinn that will appear in the Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage.

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I just started a new job as Associate Curator of North American Archaeology at the Royal Ontario Museum and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. My day-to-day consists of my own research, collections management, exhibits, and teaching at the University.

My research focuses on North American archaeology, particularly New England and the Great Lakes. My main interests include archaeological theory, material culture, the archaeology of colonialism, indigenous collaborative archaeology, heritage, and fieldwork. I direct an annual archaeological field school in partnership with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut and I look forward to the possibility of developing a field project here in the Toronto area at some point in the future. For now, my Toronto-based research will focus on the Royal Ontario Museum’s extensive collections.

Collections management consists of organizing and maintaining our North American archaeological collections, a large portion of which come from southern Ontario. I am responsible for working with outside researchers and First Nation groups who have interests in our collections. Essentially, I am responsible for archaeological assemblages amassed over more than a century. It is a huge responsibility.

Before joining the ROM, I was Lecturer in Archaeology and a Marie Curie Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester. There, I directed a Master’s Program in Historical Archaeology and the Centre for Historical Archaeology, an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the archaeology of the last 500 years. I taught courses in historical archaeology, North American archaeology, the archaeology of colonialism, and archaeological theory. I am excited to bring similar courses to the University of Toronto through my new position in the Department of Anthropology.

2. What is the most interesting project (field, lab, academic, or community) that you have worked on recently?

I love my work with the Mohegan Tribe. The project that I now direct in partnership with the Tribe is actually 20-years old (I began in 2010, just after finishing my Ph.D.). I truly believe that we have established an equal partnership that allows us to explore important new directions in collaborative indigenous archaeology and pedagogy. We are just beginning to publish some of the results so it is a very exciting time.

I’m currently finishing a book on contemporary archaeological theory (co-authored with Oliver Harris). It explores archaeological theory from about the year 2000 in language that is accessible to multiple audiences, including undergraduate students. We developed the project while teaching theory together at the University of Leicester. Generally speaking, it is a book that I’ve always wanted to write, so I will be thrilled to see it in print soon and use it in my teaching. The book is important because it will help to bring some of the more intimidating recent directions in theory (symmetrical archaeology, new materialism, material semiotics, and the ontological turn) into classrooms.

3. What is one thing that you remember specifically about your time at UMass?

This is too difficult a question. There is certainly much more than one thing! I suppose the most important skill set they offer at UMB is a holistic understanding of the research process. Their MA students really benefit from designing their own projects, implementing them in the field and laboratory, and writing them up. (This is the opposite of some “fast food” MA programs that exist in the world out there.) For my MA, I worked with a faunal collection from the Eastern Pequot Reservation. Within that one project, I delved into practice theory, faunal analysis, experimental archaeology, and even a bit of soil science. I eventually developed the project into conference papers and a few publications. I feel that my time at UMB—thinking through and experiencing the research process—allowed me to really hit the ground running when I began my Ph.D.

4. What is the best advice you got (or wish you had gotten) in graduate school?

Make sure you stay on schedule, but also take the time to enjoy your status as a graduate student. I did a terrible job at this, but I recommend building strong relations with your cohort and learning from them. Also, appreciate all that time you have to read!

For more alumni profiles, look here!

July 13, 2016
by Fiske Center
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We Came, We Saw, We Cored

This post looks back to one of the specialized activities that we did at the outset of the Plymouth field school this year.

We Came, We Saw, We Cored
By Anya Gruber

At the beginning of field school, a small group of professors and students (led by Dr. Heather Trigg) set out to core the sediments at Brewster Gardens, a public park on the waterfront, just down the street from Cole’s Hill. Since we’ve never excavated in this area, we were interested in coring so we could get an idea of what the stratigraphy of the soil looks like under the sod. It seemed like the best way to peek into the stratigraphy since coring works well in wet, marshy soil, just like the banks of the stream in Brewster Gardens. Wet deposits can also trap and preserve pollen, so we also wanted to find a place to take a core to look at changes in the local environment over time.

The coring rig in Brewster Gardens.

The coring rig in Brewster Gardens.


There are several ways to go about taking a core sample; you can use a hand corer, which is a short metal tube that you push into the ground by hand and then pull out, trapping in soil that can then be pushed out and analyzed for sediment, artifacts, and other clues into the chronology of soil layers in a particular area. This method can be difficult in Plymouth, though, because there are so many rocks that block the core from smoothly entering the soil. The alternate coring method uses the same basic ideas, but with bigger, heavier equipment. At Brewster Gardens, we used a full-size vibracorer, which has many more moving parts to it: a 10 ft. metal tripod, a motorized head powered by two heavy marine batteries, several-meters-long plastic and aluminum tubes, and all sorts of screws and different kinds of tape to keep everything in place. The heavy head generates vibrations that help push the coring tubes into the sediments.
The vibracore in use.

The vibracore in use.


Before we could turn on the machine and take the sample, we had to choose exact locations to core. We wanted a marshy but not super soggy, relatively flat surface far away from large tree roots and utility lines. We decided on three different locations: behind the Pilgrim Maiden fountain, between the stream and the benches, and next to the rock wall. The head hangs from the tripod, which was hoisted up by a pulley. The tube (the plastic one broke the first time we used it, so we switched to using only aluminum) was screwed onto a platform at the bottom of the base and carefully lowered into place, exactly where we want it to enter the ground. We then switched the machine on, and with some help from Blaine Borden, Professor Landon, and Professor Trigg pulling the head down, the tube goes straight into the ground. Luckily, we did not have much trouble with the tube getting blocked by the ubiquitous Plymouth rocks. However, the core was driven into the ground so tightly that we had to turn the vibracorer on again to shake it up so we could pull the tube out again.
We took four samples in total, one of which we kept in the tube to bring back to the lab, and the other three we looked at in the field. The one we kept will be taken out and analyzed in the fall; I’m hoping there’s some seventeenth-century pollen in there! The three we looked at in the field appeared to be mostly fill, from when the whole area was filled in to create land, as Brewster Park had been a tidal pool when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 – but we did find a few artifacts, including a red rhyolite flake and some redware. There were also different layers of sediments in the core, including dark, organic silts and yellow coarse sand. The process of filling this area, which transformed it from a tidal inlet to a park is one of the landscape changes that we are interested in documenting. Additionally, since the process of filling can cap, bury, and preserve older layers, areas where there are buried ground surfaces could be archaeologically interesting.

June 23, 2016
by Fiske Center
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Cole’s Hill Week Three Review

By Victoria Cacchione

Our excavation units near Cole’s Hill in Plymouth were placed because this lot may be near the original northern edge of the 17th-century settlement. The lot had a building on it from 1800 to the mid-20th century, but the large back and side yards around the building meant that there were areas where early deposits might be preserved. Prior to 1800, the lot held a house and a blacksmith shop, and earlier there was a lime kiln in the area.

Slightly displaced foundation wall in EU1.

Slightly displaced foundation wall in EU1.


Each of the three excavation units on Cole’s Hill presented its own challenges and questions that required decisions about excavation strategies and provided numerous teachable moments for the student archaeologists. From the beginning, Excavation Unit 1 (EU1) proved to be a complex unit with its multiple contexts each full of distinct artifact types. The student excavators, Kerri, Kerri, and Meredith, have continued to diligently document and carefully remove each layer of soil. In doing so, they uncovered the northern-most limits of the previously known 19th-century dwelling on the property. This foundation wall consists of a jumble of coarse stones that appear to have been dislodged into unstable positions when the structure was demolished after 1920. Knowing this, the archaeologists were faced with deciding how to proceed with their excavations. Do they continue excavating the southern half of their unit that includes the interior of the foundation filled with 20th-century debris? Or do they confine themselves to the northern section of the unit? Ultimately, they decided to continue with excavating solely the northern portion of EU1, the outside of the building. This decision had already yielded a find in the form of a French drain and possible remnants of the cellar bulkhead entry. This find adds to the overall understanding of the occupation and use of Cole’s Hill while also exposing new questions.
Belt buckle with rolled belt still attached.

Belt buckle with rolled belt still attached.


Over in Excavation Unit 3 (EU3), the student archaeologists (Victoria, Nadia, and Laura) continually unearthed mysterious and complex artifacts from the beginning of the week until the end of the day Friday. Monday brought the first of many preservation challenges when the students discovered possible preserved organic material (mainly leather and wood), a surprise given the rare instance of such a find archaeologically let alone in New England with its acidic soil. The rarity of such a discovery provided challenges of knowing how to preserve the organics in the summer heat once the excavators removed them from the soil. We quickly became experts in making tin-foil packages of various sizes, wrapped around dust pans, clip boards, and lunch trays in order to create sealed, stable, protective surfaces for these fragile artifacts. Once excavated, the organic materials were whisked away to the nearest refrigerator to keep them from drying out and then taken to UMass Boston and turned over to Dennis Piechota for conservation and examination in the lab. Even when some of the organic objects are not preserved intact, he will be able to provide information about the materials that they were made of. Associated with the organic materials are small finds of female personal adornment pieces and sewing equipment dating to the late 19th century. However, these findings again prove to present more questions than answers. How and why were these artifacts deposited? Archaeologists hope to answer these questions with continued excavations and research.
Jared excavating EU5 in a possible older cellar cut.

Jared excavating EU5 in a possible older cellar cut.


Not to be left out, Excavation Unit 5 (EU5) also exposed the challenges of urban archaeology and provided a lesson in excavation safety. Professor David Landon described this unit as the epitome of urban archaeology as the unit measures three feet deep and is still full of destruction rubble. For instance, one moment the archaeologists shared their excitement over uncovering 17th-century ceramics; the next, the presence of a mid nineteenth century sherd of ceramic dashes all traces of celebration as it indicates the context is a fill layer. It seems that the units crosses the line of a filled cellar from an earlier, previously unknown building on the site that was filled after the new house was built in 1800.
One of the potential 17th-century artifacts recovered in EU5.

One of the potential 17th-century artifacts recovered in EU5.

Nevertheless, the finding of 17th-century artifacts is an exciting indication of possible earlier occupation of the site. In addition to its lessons on urban archaeology, EU3 also provided the student archaeologists with an example of how to navigate voids in the soil. Voids in the soil could be the result of burrowing animals, or small air pockets between loose rubble, or large air pockets in an incompletely filled structure. In instances where soil disappears into these abysses, it is always wise to be aware and carefully determine the depth of such voids. Luckily, the voids in EU5 were small gaps in the rubble fill and did not pose a threat to the archaeologists. The archaeologists working on Cole’s Hill hope to answer some if not all of the questions this week’s excavations presented as they wrap up this session of the Plymouth Field School.

Victoria Cacchione is a student in the MA program in Historical Archaeology at UMass Boston.

June 19, 2016
by Fiske Center
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Why Do We Dig? Weeks One and Two at Plymouth

By Anna Crona

Opening a unit on the slope of Burial Hill.

Opening a unit on the slope of Burial Hill.

As our first full week of field work comes to a close and our second week is about to begin, there is a lot to reflect upon and even more for which to prepare. At the beginning of the week we had three units opened at both of our sites in downtown Plymouth. We started with three 2 meter x 1 meter units located at Cole’s Hill and two 2 meter x 1 meter units and a 2 meter x 2 meter unit located at Burial Hill. On Burial Hill, we soon added two additional 1 x 2 meter units. Our crew has collectively been hard at work moving and sifting through tons of soil, with the goal of uncovering undiscovered, crucial information about the original Plymouth settlement and the people involved in its genesis. Both sites have found intriguing artifacts and features and the students involved are being thoroughly trained in archaeological methods and protocol. The professors and teachers’ assistants are demonstrating the compassion, care, and attention to detail necessary to make archaeology a thriving and useful tool for historical research.

Caroline, Anna, and Samantha work on one of the units on Burial Hill.

Caroline, Anna, and Samantha work on one of the units on Burial Hill.


At the end of the week, the Burial Hill archaeologists left off having entirely closed out one unit. This unit was closed because its team was encountering several centimeters of sterile sand, about 55 centimeters from ground level. Additionally, two more units were opened: one directly behind the town tomb structure and the other attached to the 2m x 2m unit. The latter was expanded because, about 60 centimeters down from the ground level, the team working in this unit discovered several areas of differently colored soil. These areas suggest that the team was unearthing what are likely seventeenth-century features. As a result, excavation on this unit was temporarily halted and the new, adjoining unit has been opened up with the hope that it will expose enough of the features to help us understand their shape and orientation.

Glass syringe in situ at the Cole's Hill site.

Glass syringe in situ at the Cole’s Hill site.

The end of the week found the Cole’s Hill crew continuing excavation on their three original units, all of which have deep and complex deposits relating to the 19th-century occupation of this lot. They have found many interesting and significant artifacts, including a historic glass syringe, a 19th-century token, and several native flakes and points.

A large part of this project incorporates an element of public involvement and interaction. Among the many questions visitors ask us is the inquiry, “Why do you dig?” We tell them, in a nutshell, that we are digging to find parts of the original Pilgrim settlement and possibly the palisade wall that surrounded the original town. On a deeper level, we dig to give a voice to the people who no longer have one. While working in Plymouth we are in the business of giving a voice to the colonists and the Native tribes that came before us. The colonists came here looking for freedom to live according to their beliefs and to find new opportunities that they did not have in the Old World. Unfortunately, while seeking a life of opportunity, they also took this same freedom from many others, in Plymouth from the Native Wampanoag who had lived in this area for generations. We continue to dig because it is more important than ever to tell the stories of the people, from all nations and walks of life, whose voices are not being heard. At a glance, archaeology gives us a different way to view history. Under the surface, archaeology gives us a different and more personal way to view and understand humanity. We dig to bring this view to light.

About the author:
Hello! My name is Anna Crona and I am enrolled in the 2016 UMass Boston archaeological field school in Plymouth. I am a recent graduate of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where I received my bachelors degree in anthropology in December, 2015. During my time as an undergrad student, I focused my energies on historical archaeology and bioarchaeology, and more specifically, archaeology of colonial North America. Because of this, I am thrilled to be involved in the Plymouth excavations through UMass.

June 13, 2016
by Fiske Center
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Open Lab at Plimoth Plantation

By Jess Hughston

Field school students Jared, Ashby, and Jacob at work in the Plimoth Plantation lab.

Field school students Jared, Ashby, and Jacob at work in the Plimoth Plantation lab.

The organization of the Project 400 formal lab component is reflective of a broader movement within the discipline to include stakeholders and members of the broader community in the interpretation of their histories. Collections management and processing of archaeological materials has traditionally remained an exclusive activity that takes place out of view of the public. At Plimoth Plantation, Curator of Collections, Kate Ness has been working to move collections processing out of secluded spaces and into the public eye.
Field school students are working in the museum’s newly relocated archaeology lab in the Visitor Center with the primary aim of encouraging public interaction with the aspects of artifact analysis and interpretation that they are so often excluded from. The lab itself is set-up in the museum’s inviting gallery space. The artifact processing tables are arranged in a horseshoe configuration where field students at work are facing outward in all directions. Their activities can be viewed through a window-lined wall that faces the museum courtyard. In addition, museum patrons are invited to enter the space where they can ask questions and interact with the archaeologists at work.

Excavated fragments of a milkpan, a reconstructed vessel, and a modern recreation based on these examples.

Excavated fragments of a milkpan, a reconstructed vessel, and a modern recreation based on these examples.

One critical display in the lab communicates how archaeologists make interpretations of the fragmented material remains they recover from the ground. The display is laid out as a series, first exhibiting fragments of a 17th-century milk pan excavated from Marshfield, Massachusetts, and then a similar vessel comprised of mended fragments, and, finally, a reproduction milk pan that would be created for use by the interpreters in the English Village at Plimoth Plantation.

Fragments of reproduction vessels for visitors to sort.

Fragments of reproduction vessels for visitors to sort.

Visitors are also invited to work hands on at a separate table, mending vessel fragments of reproduction 17th-century ceramics to gain a better sense of how archaeologists piece together the past.
Materials processed within the lab space include previously held collections at Plimoth Plantation and artifacts recovered this season from Burial Hill and Cole’s Hill. Engaging with both sets of materials permits students to contribute to Plimoth Plantation’s efforts to universalize their system of collections tracking, which includes digitalization for increased accessibility, and to provide an additional layer of transparency for collaborators, stakeholders and community members that are closely following this year’s excavations.

Jess Hughston is a graduate student in the Historical Archaeology MA program at UMass Boston.

June 11, 2016
by Christa Beranek
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Welcome to the 2016 season in Plymouth!

Our 2016 field season in Plymouth is underway! We’ll have a few posts with details about the work soon; this post gives a quick overview of the project. You can also read updates from earlier years by looking at everything categorized under Plymouth (here).

View of Plimoth Plantation, a reconstruction based on the museum's best understanding of the appearance of the early 17th-century town.

View of Plimoth Plantation, a reconstruction based on the museum’s best understanding of the appearance of the early 17th-century town.

The approaching 400th anniversary (1620–2020) of the arrival of the Pilgrims and founding of the Plymouth Colony provides an opportunity to reexamine the region’s history and archaeology. Since 2013, Fiske Center archaeologists have been excavating in downtown Plymouth to try to locate any preserved remains of the 17th-century Plymouth Colony settlement. This project is a collaboration with Plimoth Plantation, and the summer research is run as an archaeological field school, with new and returning students comprising the field crew. Our goal is to add new information to our understanding of the Plymouth Colony, the colonists’ relations with Native Wampanoag people, and the growth and evolution of the Town of Plymouth.

Excavation in 2015.

Excavation in 2015.

We have been combining traditional archaeological excavation with geophysical survey techniques, mostly ground penetrating radar. The ground penetrating radar is used to map soil properties to help guide the digging and characterize broader areas than can be excavated. The excavation work that follows is a careful process of sifting for artifacts and mapping the soil levels to interpret the age and history of each section of the site. Despite its appearance as a small town today, the archaeology in Plymouth is very “urban,” with deep excavations, complex soil deposits, and artifacts from all periods of the town’s history. To date we have recovered thousands of artifacts spanning this history, starting with the Native American settlement that existed before the arrival of the Pilgrims, through the period when Plymouth was a colonial town, and into the 19th century when the landscape was dramatically reshaped.

 

The Search Continues

A section of the 1874 Beers map of Plymouth showing the former buildings along School Street at the edge of the cemetery.

A section of the 1874 Beers map of Plymouth showing the former buildings along School Street at the edge of the cemetery.

The major focus of our exploration has been along School Street on the eastern edge of Burial Hill. Burial Hill is on the National Register of Historic Places, with more than 2,200 gravestones dating from 1681 to 1957, and a diverse collection of memorial monuments. Before it was used as a burial ground, the high point atop the hill was the location of the Plymouth Colony’s fort from 1620 to 1676. From the fort the main road of the original settlement ran down what is now Leyden Street, with the houses lining the street encircled by a wooden palisade fence estimated at a half mile around. Two markers on Burial Hill identify potential locations of historic fortifications and another shows the possible site of John Alden’s house inside the palisaded settlement. These markers are only approximate, as there are no historic maps of the fort or settlement.

DSC02701Our work on the east side of Burial Hill has been focused on a north-south corridor between School Street and the burials uphill to the west. This strip of land was built up with stables, storehouses, two schools, and a series of other buildings in the late 18th through 19th centuries. These buildings were later torn down to remake Burial Hill into a more commemorative landscape. We have been digging inside, between, and behind these historic structures to map the different artifact deposits and look for preserved remains of the early settlement. In areas with this type of complex land-use history, early artifact deposits are intermingled with often much more abundant evidence of more recent use of the land. While some artifacts tell unique stories, together they provide clues to people’s past activities and help us envision the way the landscape changed over time.

This year, we are continuing our work on Burial Hill as well as expanding to examine some other sites. This year, for the first time, we also have a formal lab component in a new, open lab at Plimoth Plantation.

June 6, 2016
by Jared Muehlbauer
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Muskeget Island Through Time

While archaeology studies people and cultures of the past, much of what we do can be valuable to a number of other disciplines.  The Fiske Center recently worked with Dr. Rob Stevenson of the UMass Boston Biology Department on his research into vole species on Muskeget Island, off the coast of Nantucket.  In reading up in the island Dr Stevenson found that Wetherbee et al (1972) had shown that the island was moving and changing shape.  Dr. Stevenson confirmed this looking at historic maps and photographs.  Since this something that archaeologists frequently deal with, Dr. Stevenson asked the Fiske Center to help him quantify the changing shape and position of Muskeget Island through Geographic Information System (GIS).

Even though we often think of it as static, both human and physical geography are constantly changing.  In this case, Muskeget Island has shifted 2.3 miles to the east and has lost almost 2/3 of its area over the past 240 years.  The below images created by the Fiske Center Digital Archaeology Lab show how the island has changed in shape and position since 1776:

Muskeget Island Stages

Muskeget Island Before After

The Fiske Center was able to understand the changing nature of Muskeget through historic maps.  Starting in 1776, maps of Muskeget and its location off the coast of Nantucket were quite accurate as it was located on a major shipping lane.  Maps from 5 different years were traced into GIS and georeferenced based on the larger island of Nantucket.  By digitizing the historic maps and locating them in space through GIS, it allows us to not only display how the island has shifted, but also understand the rate of movement and area loss over time.

Through the use of historic maps and GIS, this project allowed Dr. Stevenson to get a better understanding of the dynamic environment of Muskeget and how this may have affected the species that live there.  More broadly, this sort of project has a great deal of potential both for archaeology and other disciplines.  Utilizing newer technologies like GIS to analyze historic maps can help us to get a new understanding of how the space of environments, geographic features and human settlements change over time.

Wetherbee, David K., Raymond P. Coppinger, and Richard E. Walsh.1972. Time lapse ecology, Muskeget Island, Nantucket, Massachusetts. MSS Educational Publishing Co., Inc. New York 173 pp.

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