The Fiske Center Blog

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

August 29, 2017
by Christa Beranek
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Upcoming Fieldwork at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Orchard House, Concord, MA. Image courtesy of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

A team of staff and students from the Fiske Center at UMass Boston will be working at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, this fall, conducting archaeological excavations in advance of the construction of a geothermal heating system for the historic buildings. The purpose of the excavation is to study any important archaeological deposits that are in the path of the construction. We will be looking for evidence of previous outbuildings, trash deposits, information about landscape changes, and data that shed light on people who lived in this area in any time period.

Orchard House is best known as the historic home of the Alcott family including Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women (1868), and her father Bronson Alcott, a member of the Transcendentalist movement. Since 1912, the house has been maintained as a historic site by the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, now as Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Inc. The Alcotts lived on the property from 1857 to 1877 and were responsible for the current configuration of the house (older structures that were altered during the Alcotts’ tenure) as well as many landscape changes. We know about some of these activities from the family members’ journals – they were prolific writers – and from two previous phases of archaeological excavation on the property.

Map of the 1999 STP transects north and northeast of the house.

The previous excavations in 1999 and 2001/2002 had two different goals. The 1999 work was a shovel test pit (STP) survey, a grid of small excavation areas regularly spaced, north and northeast of the house. These small test pits are used to gather the first round of archaeological information about an area to learn what kinds of landscape changes have taken place, what kinds of trash deposits or features (foundations or pits, for example) are present in an area, and to begin to put dates on the different deposits and activities. At Orchard House, the 1999 survey uncovered a lot of evidence of activity during the Alcotts’ occupation and shortly thereafter, including evidence of moving top soil from one part of the property to another and of re-landscaping the area around the house. The STPs also found areas with high concentrations of trash and building materials. The STP survey provided a general picture of uses of areas north of the house that had archaeological potential – the possibility for deposits that would provide significant information about residents of the property. Since the property is preserved and protected, none of these deposits were further excavated at the time.

The 2001/2002 excavations were focused on the areas directly around the house and were carried out in anticipation of work one the house’s foundation. In this case, since we knew that the area was going to be disturbed by necessary construction, rather than just identifying the locations of archaeological deposits, we excavated large portions of them to gather information before it was lost. This phase of work resulted in the excavation of a large Alcott period trash deposit just behind the house which was studied in detail by UMB student Allison Conner for her MA thesis.

Some of the ceramic vessels excavated in 2001.

This year, we are returning to the area covered by the 1999 STP survey. Since the geothermal heating system will cross this area, we need to excavate larger portions of the areas identified as having high archaeological potential. We will use the results of the earlier work, and the construction plans, to put targeted, larger excavation units in places where the work area crosses locations identified as significant. We will also test some new areas not covered in 1999.

The first activity on site will be to establish a site grid. We do our work in the Massachusetts State Plane grid using GPS units and a total station, which ensures that excavation unit locations are accurately mapped and that any researcher could find them again in the future. In preparation for this, we put the old excavation maps into Geographic Information System (GIS) software which will allow us to display all of the excavation units from multiple years on a single, layered map.

After Labor Day, we will begin excavation. We excavate stratigraphically, meaning that we remove each different soil layer separately. The soil from each layer is screened, and all artifacts from a soil layer are kept together. The archaeologists will also spend a lot of time drawing, mapping, and documenting their findings. Once the excavation is complete, artifacts will go to the lab at UMass to be cleaned, identified, and studied before eventually returning to Orchard House. We will share updates from the field and lab work here or on our Facebook page or Instagram account at UMBArchaeology. If you are visiting Orchard House, you can also ask the Orchard House staff or the archaeologists questions about the work. You can also ask a question in the comments here!

Education Foundations: Grafton 2017

June 19, 2017 by keltonsheridan001 | 0 comments

From potsherds to stone features, Grafton has been nothing but exciting this field season. After a two-year hiatus, an excavation team of professors, graduates, and undergraduates is back. The goal of this year is to continue opening units in Hassanamesit Woods. In 2015 a stone foundation was discovered. This season we are following that same foundation to understand the scale of the structure. Additionally, we intend to find other landscape features linked to the 18th and 19th centuries. Most artifacts that have been recovered so far are from the mid 19th century with a small percentage of 18th century materials. The goal of this season is to see if we can find additional evidence of an early 18th century school for Nipmuc and English children. A slate fragment with the abbreviations for the days of the week inscribed on it was found last year in addition to lead pencils that were unearthed this summer. Stay tuned to see what else the UMass archaeologists discover!

This gallery contains 2 photos

April 23, 2017
by Dennis Piechota
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Studying the lost temper of Native American ceramics

Some Native American ceramics of the Woodland Period were made by adding to the local clays a temper of crushed shell. During burial this temper can be dissolved out of the clay by acidic soil water leaving the potsherds riddled with small holes or voids. Besides shell other materials can leave voids in fired ceramics including chopped plant stems which could be deliberately added or small plant seeds which may inadvertently find their way into the mix. During firing these organics are usually burned out and also leave distinctive void surfaces.

In the lab we study the size and morphology of these voids to identify the lost original components of the clay body. One method we are developing is to make latex rubber molds of the sherd surface with special attention paid to capturing the void surfaces.

April 16, 2017
by Fiske Center
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Alum Profile: Heather Law Pezzarossi

Heather showing a Nipmuc community member around the lab in 2012.


1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis? For those of you who are further out from UMB, you can say something about your route to your current situation (additional degrees, career changes, etc.)

I earned my Master’s Degree from UMass Boston in 2008. My Master’s project was based on the Hassanamesit Woods Project, where I served as a TA in 2006, our first year of the field school, and continued until 2008. Since then, I’ve gone on to receive my doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. My doctoral project was also based on work at Hassanamesit Woods, where I continued to work as Project Archaeologist each summer until 2013. After I graduated from Berkeley in 2014, I moved back east to Syracuse University, where my partner and I have positions in the Anthropology department, he as an assistant professor, and I as a visiting scholar and adjunct professor. That position allows me to maintain an academic community so that I can continue to publish my work and pursue further research interests with an academic affiliation, which is important.

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

My two most important recent projects are Remi and Lilou, ages 2.5 and 11 months. I have devoted much of the last three years to their full-time care. Being a stay-at-home mom has taught me a number of things, not the least of which are: the true meaning of exhaustion, the limits of my patience, my tolerance for Daniel Tiger. But I also see that I’m lucky to have the opportunity to step back a little, slow down and focus on them for a while. Not everyone can do that and I know I’ll always be glad that I was able to.

Career-wise, I’m working my way through several writing projects. I have learned how much you have to truly want something to do it after a full day of momming. And in that sense, I’ve reaffirmed my goals and interests as an archaeologist. I finished my dissertation when my oldest was 6 months old. For the last year I have been writing and editing a volume on the Archaeology of Indigenous Persistence in the Americas for the University of New Mexico Press, which is nearly completed. I’m working on a book about Nipmuc archaeology with Rae Gould, Stephen Mrozowski and Holly Herbster, and I’m writing up my first book manuscript based on my dissertation. I’m also developing a second research project based on my interest in Indigeneity and Modernity that I’m really excited about. I’ve also designed and taught a class in the Indigenous Archaeology of the Northeast from the Paleolithic to the Present, and I continue to search for a more permanent teaching position as a specialist in Northeast Historical Archaeology and Collaborative Indigenous Archaeology. Many more progressive institutions are reassessing the unsustainable wages and unfair expectations associated with adjuncting positions and realizing the importance of supporting dual career families in more equitable ways, so I’m hopeful that something will work out in the near future.

Heather in her element at Hass Woods in 2007.

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

My time at UMass was so special to me. I met my partner, Guido Pezzarossi there, and we made many lifelong friends. Dr. Mrozowski was (and continues to be) a great mentor. My summers in Grafton working with him, figuring out the Sarah Boston Site, that is what I remember most fondly about my time at UMass.

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

I got a lot of advice in graduate school. Much of it had to do with the difficulties of advancing in academia as a career couple. I was warned repeatedly, that academia is not an easy path, especially for partners in the same field. They told us that we would never get into the same doctoral program, and we didn’t. But we each applied to 9 different programs, and got into two different schools that were close to one another. They told us we would have a hard time getting tenure track appointments at the same school, and so far we haven’t. But we are both active in the field and support one another’s progress. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad I was warned, but also glad that we were both too stubborn to let that stop us. The best advice I’ve gotten is that life is messy and complicated and the richer it is, the more unpredictable its path will be. I hope that helps people who are thinking about applying to the Master’s program at UMass, or thinking of continuing on afterward.

April 11, 2017
by Fiske Center
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School Days

Marbles, a toy cannon, and a possible toy part.


Our excavations on Burial Hill in Plymouth are designed to locate 17th-century features, but of course in such an urban area we discover interesting deposits from the later history of the town as well. Some of the 2016 excavations were located near the site of the first school on School Street and uncovered artifacts from the students’ work and play –slate pencils, a piece of graphite, marbles, and a toy cannon.

William Davis, one of Plymouth’s 19th-century historians, attended this school and described it in his memoirs (Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, 1906: 339):

“The high school house was situated on the north side of the Unitarian church between School street and the town tombs, and was a one story building about forty-five feet long and twenty or twenty-five feet wide with a door on the southerly end… Standing on sloping ground the foundation of the house of the street side was high enough to admit of a cellar above the street level…The house was built in 1770, and until 1826 was called the central of grammar school, but in that year it received the name of high school. It had a belfry on its southerly end, and a bell with the rope coming down into a cross entry between the outer door and the schoolroom. When the house was taken for an engine house the bell was placed on the Russell street school house.”

This is the second school deposit that we have tested along School Street; in 2014 we placed a single excavation unit at the location of the second (19th-century) school that was located further north on the same block. There we also found writing implements, both slate pencils and ferrous pen nibs.

April 4, 2017
by Christa Beranek
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17th-Century Ceramics from Plymouth

One in a series on the artifacts from the Fiske Center’s summer 2016 excavations on Burial Hill. For information about the 17th-century features referenced in this post, see here.

With the exception of the pit dug to bury the calf skeleton, none of the 17th-century features that we uncovered on Burial Hill in 2016 were intended as trash pits. Instead, they were pits and depressions formed for other reasons, but some artifacts ended up in them anyway. We have a good collection of small finds such as straight pins, lead shot, and trade beads, little items that were lost in the yard area. The rest of the artifacts in the collection are similarly small – fragments of glass, lithics, and ceramic vessels that were broken, possibly swept out of a house and trampled, and eventually incorporated in the archaeological features.

Border ware, North Devon, and stoneware fragments from the 17th-century features.

The ceramics from the buried 17th-century ground surface and the features are therefore in small fragments. From these, we can identify a ware type but not usually a vessel form. The ceramic types include a salt glazed stoneware with brown oxide on the exterior, probably Frechen, three different types of North Devon wares (two gravel free and one gravel tempered), Border ware, tin glazed ceramics (both pink and buff paste), redware, and Native ceramics. The assemblage from each feature is different, though redware and Native ceramics predominate across all contexts.

Based on differences in ware types, we have identified 15 separate vessels among the European ceramics. In most cases, we can only guess at a range of possible vessel forms, based on what was commonly made in certain wares. However, some of the Border ware sherds, although tiny, have several distinct characteristics that suggest they may be mugs or other drinking vessels. These sherds are finely potted, and glazed on both sides in two different colors, characteristics that Pearce (Border Wares, 1992) writes occur almost exclusively on mugs.

We have a number of additional research questions based on these artifacts. First, were the Native ceramics in the 17th-century contexts from vessels used during the early colonial period, or artifacts that came from earlier Native sites in the area (which we know existed)? Secondly, in other regions of the Eastern United States with more known 17th-century sites, scholars have a very strong grasp on the decades in which certain ware types first appear and then become less common. This chronology is not as well established in the Northeast, and we look forward to using this collection to start answering those questions.

Initial ceramic identification and analysis by Leigh Koszarsky and Christa Beranek.

March 28, 2017
by Dennis Piechota
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Heavy Liquid Separation at Burial Hill

By Dennis Piechota

At the Burial Hill site in Plymouth, Massachusetts we screen all excavated soil though 1/8” or ¼” screens. The 1/8 inch screens are used for features, and they recover hundreds of very small unknowns, tiny soil covered objects that may be micro-artifacts or naturally occurring soil components. Their identification requires careful cleaning and close microscopic examination. During initial naked eye review distinctive visual properties, such as color, are used to begin the sorting process. From our truncated trench (see description here), we recovered many small black objects that were grouped in poly bags for further identification as coal, charcoal or other materials.

A sample of the type of small finds that can be separated using heavy liquids. (Burial Hill, Plymouth, EU17, CXT325)

To help with this routine process a heavy liquid is sometimes used to discriminate objects that look similar based on differences in density or specific gravity (specific gravity is the density of a material divided by the density of water). In such a special liquid light black materials such as charcoal and coal will float and heavy black materials will sink. In the lab fume hood, an aqueous solution of lithium metatungstate is adjusted by adding enough deionized water to make a liquid with a specific gravity between the two types of target objects. This heavy liquid is sold as Fastfloat (Central Chemical Consulting). As water is added the resulting specific gravity of the liquid is monitored using calibrated floats sold as Shale Density Beads (U.S. Geosupply). With this method small amounts of heavy liquid can be custom adjusted to any specific gravity up to 2.86.

In practice one finds that this method trains and gives confidence to the new analyst enabling faster and more accurate visual identifications. It also helps to find less common and unexpected artifact materials.

March 22, 2017
by Christa Beranek
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A First Look at the Early Features in Plymouth

Last fall, we announced that we had discovered the first archaeological features from the 17th-century palisaded town of Plymouth during our 2016 field season on Burial Hill. Now, as we prepare the technical report, we are starting to have a more detailed understanding of the features that we have found and the artifacts in them. This post will discuss those features, and later posts will go into more detail about the different classes of artifacts.

The 2016 features during excavation. Sarah and Anna in the foreground are excavating the calf burial.

In 2015, we had found a very small segment of an early colonial feature: a pit or trench that was cut off on one side by the demolition cut of a later building and ran into the wall of our excavation unit on the other. The section that we had was too small to be able to say much more about it. The disturbed deposits above the feature contained a small number of 17th-century artifacts. One the strength of this discovery, we opened 8 square meters adjacent to this in 2016 which contained a buried ground surface and a complex of 17th-century features, all of which appeared as soil stains. This is what we would expect to see from both Native and early colonial features: areas in the light sandy subsoil that are darker and more organic, representing the locations of pits, trenches, or decomposed posts. All of these features are fairly ephemeral, consisting only of differently colored and textured dirt. Identifying and mapping them relied on careful excavation and documentation. At this level, we switched from our normal quarter-inch mesh screens to eight-inch mesh to find the smallest artifacts. Keeping artifacts together by context (soil layer and feature), drawing and photographing the soil stains, and carefully describing the color and texture of the soil allows us to interpret each feature. This is what we have been doing over the fall and winter, and we can now present a preliminary interpretation, though there is still plenty of work to do!

Features discovered in 2016 (north is to the left). The 2015 excavations were east of this area, just beyond the top edge of the photo.

The dark soil along the eastern edge of the excavation area is the continuation of the feature discovered in 2015, a trench with a steep profile, quite broad at the top and deep and narrow at the bottom running NW to SE. It was filled with a very organically enriched soil with a low artifact density: shell and animal bone, fragments of Native ceramic vessels, and a small number of historic ceramics (redware and North Devon), a trade bead, and a small number of nails. In the south central part of the excavation area is a planting hole that contained a large number of fish bones. Running north to south across the 3 meters that we had open was a shallow trench that contained trade beads, straight pins, lithic flakes, and small fragments of Native and European ceramics including some early stoneware and Border ware. In the center of the trench was a much deeper pit used to bury a calf, largely articulated (meaning that the skeleton was still held together by some tissue when it was buried) though missing its head, rear limbs, and feet. There are post holes both east and west of the trench and another faint soil stain at the north edge of the excavation area.

Our preliminary interpretation is that all of these are features outside a house, and that the shallow N-S trench represents the slight depression created by a drip line or walking path just outside a building. Historians of the early town believe that John Alden and Miles Standish owned the houses in this part of the settlement, raising the possibility that we are close to the location of one of their original home sites. Given these features and the Native site excavated in 2015 north of this area, we believe that we have identified the inside and outside of the settlement, and we hope to be able identify the location of the palisade wall in future seasons.

March 9, 2017
by Fiske Center
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Alum Profile: Mike Way

Mike Way, graduated from UMB in 2010
Senior regulatory compliance manager at Caldwell Compliance

Mike’s desk is regularly covered with modern-day artifacts at Caldwell’s Pleasanton, CA office.

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

I am a senior regulatory compliance manager at Caldwell Compliance. I manage environmental and regulatory compliance as a contractor for a nationwide wireless carrier. My job is to ensure all telecom sites deployed by the carrier meet National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requirements. After obtaining my M.A. in Historical Archaeology from UMB, I conducted archaeological field surveys for three years for telecom projects with an environmental consulting firm. I was then promoted to head of the archaeology department nationwide, a position I held for a year before moving to Rochester, New York to try my hand at real estate and site acquisition for telecom sites. After a year, I came back to California and took up my current position, which requires both my archaeological and site acquisition background.

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

I recently worked on a project on California’s Central Coast in an area sensitive to a California Coastal Native American Tribe. I was able to facilitate discussion between the tribe and the wireless career and consulted on a redesigned site plan to resolve the Tribe’s concerns, allowing the project to move forward in a manner agreeable to all parties.

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

I remember exciting opportunities to work with top-tier archaeologists in the field on sites deeply important to American history, from Nantucket to Lexington and Grafton, MA.

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

The advice I wish I had received is to dive in and own your thesis. Dig into the archaeological and historical data, clearly define the questions you want to answer and be sure the data you will collect will provide an answer to your question, one way or another. I spent a lot of time concerned about all of the issues and complexities I couldn’t cover, and in hindsight I should have focused more on my specific question and trusted my own ability to be an expert and come to a reasonable and logical conclusion.

5. Anything else you would like to add?

My training in the Historical Archaeology M.A. program has served me well. Career paths are not always linear, so be open to learning new things. Chances are your previous training, experiences, and success will take you down a rewarding and fulfilling career path.

February 17, 2017
by Fiske Center
2 Comments

Cole’s Hill Mystery Artifact!

by Nadia Waski

We need your help!

Excavations from this past summer’s fieldwork on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, revealed a 19th century cache of intentionally buried personal items—which we are calling the Cole’s Hill Memorial Cache. (Click here for additional background about the deposit.) While most artifacts from this collection have been identified, we are still puzzled by these copper coils. They were discovered underneath cobbles in the southern half of the excavation unit, associated with a small glass bottle, spectacles, and a pansy pin.

The coils in situ, surrounding a small glass bottle.


We have considered a number of possible uses for these delicate coils, whose ends are designed to fasten together, including a possible necklace, a girdle, a portion of a woman’s hoop skirt, or even a man’s sleeve garter. Comments or opinions on this object would be greatly appreciated to help guide our efforts to identify this artifact!

The coils in their protective housing in the lab.

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