The Fiske Center Blog

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

November 10, 2015
by Fiske Center

Brown Bag Series: Project 400, 2015 Fieldwork on Burial Hill, Plymouth, MA

Drawing the wall profile of EUs 14 and 18

Drawing the wall profile of EUs 14 and 18

On Monday,November 16, 2015 at noon in McCormack, first floor, room 503

Drs. David Landon and Christa Beranek will talk about

Project 400: 2015 Fieldwork on Burial Hill, Plymouth, MA

Please join us and feel free to bring your lunch.

October 30, 2015
by David Landon

Public Presentation: UMass Boston’s Plymouth Archaeology Project


Tuesday, November 10, 7–8:30 pm • Plymouth Public Library

Fehlow Room, Main Library, 132 South Street, Plymouth, MA

Please join us for an overview of the planned work for the University of Massachusetts Boston’s archaeological and geophysical investigations in the Town of Plymouth. This work is being sponsored by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is designed to learn more about the history and archaeology of the Town as part of the lead up to 2020. Proposed work for 2016–2018 will be described followed by a question and answer session for the audience.


October 28, 2015
by Dennis Piechota

The tale of the tile: recovered from the Gore Place greenhouse

Gore Place, in Waltham, Massachusetts, was the home to former Massachusetts Governor and US Senator Christopher Gore and his wife Rebecca from 1791 to 1834. The Gores were responsible for constructing the standing mansion house (ca. 1806) as well as a greenhouse and fruit wall that are no longer extant. The Gore Place Society, which now owns the property, has embarked on a long-term project to understand the agricultural and horticultural landscape around the house. This research included archaeological excavations at the site of the 1806 greenhouse, which recovered this partial marble tile in addition to many other building materials and artifacts that were used in the greenhouse.


Gore Place CXT 953 Lot AF 2012
Marble Tile Fragment
32.5 cm x 22.7 cm x 5.8 cm
Tale of Tile Image Annotated


Before treatment the tile fragment, shown above after light cleaning, was examined and found to be encrusted on its top surface with soil matrix, mortar (1) and an unknown dark charred organic accretion (2) located in a shallow channel (1.5-2.0 cm wide) (3) parallel with and just inside of the mortar accretion (5 cm wide).


One well-finished, manufactured edge is present and visible at the bottom edge of the photograph (4). Two other edges were crudely finished and mortared at right angles to the manufactured edge. The fourth edge, shown at the top of the photograph, is a relatively modern break surface and follows what may have been an old crack. The gray color of the marble at the break surface and the charred organics suggests the tile was burned (5). The thick residue of charred organic matter covering the marble in a line just inside of the mortared edge also suggests exposure to fire. This thicker accretion may have been protected from complete combustion by contact with a lost architectural element. That and the presence of a mortar line residue suggests that the edge of an architectural element abutted the tile along that line.


The face shows extensive wear and organic acid-erosion except at the alkaline mortar-protected finished edge. While the exposed surfaces are deeply eroded the original manufactured saw-cut pattern is still visible on the protected edge in a corner where the mortar has recently been lost (6). The erosion, over most of the unprotected face, takes the form of a very uniform undulating pattern of shallow cups and appears at first to be deliberate (3). Under low power microscopy the erosion shows extensive chemical attack and suggests instead that this was not a manufactured pattern. In fact it is more consistent with a kind of inter-crystalline acid attack that was slow acting, evenly spread over the surface and longterm. In this context the source of the acid was probably contact with a stable covering of moss. It’s acid secreting roots would be dense and persistent enough under constantly damp conditions of a greenhouse to develop this type of delicate low-energy acid erosion pattern.


Away from the mortared edge (5) this crenellated erosion pattern appears to have been mechanically worn down, possibly by occasional foot traffic more towards the center of the tile than its edge. The face of the tile also shows scraping losses where a pointed tool as well as a broad scraping tool had both been used on the surface at least seven times. This action with the foot traffic probably destroyed or prevented the acid-erosion pattern from developing near the tile’s center. The scraping marks may have been left by periodic cleaning action perhaps aimed at removing what could have been a thick mat of moss.


The reverse face of the tile is unfinished and uniformly coated with thick mortar. The mortar is extensively cracked due either to traction (shrinkage while under tension) during its initial set or due to exposure to high temperature. The undulating decay pattern is not present on the reverse side i.e. there is no inter-crystalline decay of the marble perhaps because it was isolated from the elements of the exposed side and because it was protected by the alkaline mortar which would neutralize organic plant acids.


This examination suggests the following possible sequence of use, re-purposing and discard:


– Manufactured as a larger marble slab

-Two edges were roughly re-cut perhaps to re-purpose the slab for use in a greenhouse as a drain liner and probably installed horizontally

– During an extended period of use the marble surface was eroded by a live mossy root mass

– Periodically the surface was mechanically cleaned and exposed foot traffic

– It was then exposed to a fire that caused charring of the mossy root mass in place on the marble. The high temperature also turned the surface gray wherever it was not protected by the thick lime-based mortar

– The tile was buried until 2012 in a non-acid soil containing fire-related ash that helped to preserve the original acid erosion pattern.



The above was developed from the Fiske Center conservation treatment report, C-00667.


Dennis Piechota


October 26, 2015

For more information about the greenhouse excavations, you can download the full technical reports from

October 15, 2015
by John Steinberg

Brown Bag Series: The Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey: Research in North Iceland, Summer 2015

The Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey: Research in North Iceland, Summer 2015

Doug Bolender
John Steinberg

Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at noon
McCormack, first floor, room 503

Drone picture of Excavations in progress at Norse Churchyard

During July and August the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey (SCASS) excavated a churchyard and a number of Viking Age settlements.  We will talk about how we are comparing the settlement sequence to the geography of churchyards.  Come hear about the summer’s work and the research program.
Please join us and feel free to bring your lunch!

September 29, 2015
by John Steinberg

Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in Mattapan Kick off Event


John Steinberg and Joe Bagley at the Fowler-Clark Epstein Farm kick off event.


Mayor Martin J. Walsh speaking at the kick off event.

Joe Bagley, the Boston City archaeologist  and I were at the kick off for a campaign to raise more than $1 million to restore the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm at 487 Norfolk St in Mattapan.  There was a nice article about the kick off in the Globe by Cristela Guerra The Mayor was also there.  You can read more about the project, the partners, and the event on Historic Boston’s website.

In preparation for Urban Farming, the Fiske Center had done a geophysical survey and a few shovel test pits at the property.  You can read a summery of the archaeological work on Historic Boston’s blog.  The full report can be downloaded from the Research page of the Fiske Center’s website.

September 23, 2015
by Fiske Center

Brown Bag Talk Series: Majolica and Margaritas

Majolica and Margaritas:
Summer 2015 Adventures in New Mexico

Heather Trigg

Monday, September 28, 2015 at noon
McCormack, first floor, room 503

2015 excavations in New Mexico

2015 excavations in New Mexico

In July 2015, we began excavation of a 17th-century Spanish ranch in New Mexico. This ranch was a multi-cultural household that included Spanish colonizers and indigenous Plains and Pueblo peoples who were forcibly incorporated into the ranch’s daily activities. This NSF sponsored project explores the social and environmental consequences of Spanish colonization in New Mexico. Come hear about the summer’s work and the research program.
Please join us and feel free to bring your lunch!

September 18, 2015
by John Steinberg

Brown Bag Lecture Series: Our Digital Presence: UMB Archaeology on Social Media and the Web MONDAY NOON

Brown Bag Lecture Series

Our Digital Presence: UMB Archaeology on Social Media and the Web


John Steinberg, Christa Beranek, and Douglas Bolender


Monday, September 21, 2015 at noon  McCormack, first floor, room 503


UMBWebpageWe currently have blogs, Facebook pages, and a Twitter account that we use to share our research and engage the public.  Come to this talk for a discussion of how to share your research via these applications, archaeological ethics and social media, and to provide your feedback on social media presentation.

Please join us for the first talk of the year, and feel free to bring your lunch.

September 1, 2015
by Fiske Center

Back to School: The 1827 School, Plymouth

For all of the students heading back to school…

This post is part of the “Further Research” series (see here). Research on the school and the artifacts was conducted by Justin Warrenfeltz, a graduate student in the MA program in Historical Archaeology.

Slate pencil fragments, pencil leads, and pen nibs from EU7, Burial Hill, Plymouth.

Slate pencil fragments, pencil leads, and pen nibs from EU7, Burial Hill, Plymouth.

During the 2014 excavations on Burial Hill in Plymouth, one of the units was placed near the former location of a school, constructed in 1827. Beneath a dense deposit of brick rubble, we found many school-related small finds including 32 slate pencil fragments, 4 pencil leads, 18 pen nibs, 6 slate fragments, a piece of an ink bottle, and a copper alloy fragments that has been interpreted as part of a compass. Other artifacts in the deposit were also small (beads, pins, a hook and eye, rodent bones), suggesting that this was material that had fallen through the gaps between the floor boards.

Other small items from the same deposit, including the possible compass fragment, bottom row, 3rd group from the left.

Other small items from the same deposit, including the possible compass fragment, bottom row, 3rd group from the left.

The school lot was acquired by the Committee of the Center School District in 1826 (PCRD 156: 288). Davis writes that the school was constructed in 1827, the year after the purchase, and sometimes called the “town school” (Davis 1899: 286). Davis recalls, in his memoirs:

A school called the town school, was kept in my day by Thomas Drew in a house built in 1827, which has been recently taken down. It stood also on School street, near the way up Burial Hill, a little distance south of the high school house. The boys attending that school were older and larger than the high school boys (Davis 1906:343).

A section of the 1874 Beers map of Plymouth showing the buildings along School Street.

A section of the 1874 Beers map of Plymouth showing the buildings along School Street.

Historic maps of the later 19th-century indicate some variability in the building’s function. Though 1874 and 1896 maps clearly label this building as a school, 1885 and 1891 maps label it as storage. This could have meant that the school was only taught part time, which is not uncommon for the time period, or that its school function was over, but the building was known by its former use. By 1901, the school building, as well as the other non-residential buildings along School Street, had been demolished.

Discussion of the possible compass fragment

Detail of a compass pencil holder, showing a parallel for the piece recovered archaeologically.  Photograph from Hambly 1988.

Detail of a compass pencil holder, showing a parallel for the piece recovered archaeologically. Photograph from Hambly 1988.

The first bow compasses got their name from the bow-shaped spring mechanism joining the two compass legs. These started appearing in drafting sets by 1650. Advancements in metal alloy production in the 18th century led to production of compasses in brass and sterling silver. During this early period, German manufacturers predominated, though major European cities such as London and Paris had their own accomplished instrument-making tradesmen (Hambly 1988:20-23). British manufacturers in the 18th century were the first to include pencil inserts for cedar-encased graphite rods in their bow compasses (Hambly 1988:66).
With the Industrial Revolution came the growth of mass production of these kinds of instruments, and in 1850, German manufacturers introduced a new alloy: German or ‘nickel’ silver. Also commonly called electrum due to its similarity in appearance to the Roman metal of the same name, this alloy of zinc, copper, and nickel was non-corrosive and more durable than both brass and sterling silver. Though skilled tradesmen were still needed to assemble the various parts of compasses, most of the manufacturing by the middle of the 19th century was handled by machines. By 1888, craftsmen were producing instruments more cheaply for use by students and professional surveyors. Also around this time, European immigrants to America began setting up their own instrument-making enterprises, first in Philadelphia, and later in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. By 1900, American consumers were no longer relying on imports from London to sustain their growing need for scientific and mathematical instruments. William Kueffel, Hermann Esser, and Theo Altender – all prominent makers of scientific instruments in the 19th and 20th centuries – saw their business grow during this time period (Hambly 1988:28-30). A 1912 Sears and Roebuck catalog lists a drawing compass for sale:

Compass and Divider. Reliable in its work, useful for school children, artists, draftsmen, etc. Nickel plated, regulated by spring and screw adjustment, in boz. [sic] with nickel box containing six extra leads. Price … (Postage extra, 4 cents) … 16c. (Sears, Roebuck, & Co. 1912:956).

Comparative collections from other 19th century schools
As part of the research on this deposit, we surveyed the literature on other school sites in the northeast. Extensive work has been done on the Abiel Smith School, a mid-to-late 19th-century free public school for African-American children on Beacon Hill in Boston (Mead 1995; Pendery and Mead 1999; Landon 2007). These excavations have rightly focused on the School’s role as an important institution in the African-American community. These excavations uncovered numerous slate pencils and probable writing slate fragments. Excavations at another school on Beacon Hill – the early-20th century Peter Faneuil School – focused on deposits pre-dating the schools construction (Clayton et al. 1993).
UMass Amherst conducted field excavations on a site associated with a number of buildings, including a late-18th century schoolhouse in Deerfield, Massachusetts (Rotman et al. 2001). Excavations did not recover any intact features relating to the schoolhouse, though several slate pencils were recovered (Rotman et al. 2001:19). Researchers from the same University were more successful in their excavations of the schoolyard of a still-standing 1840 schoolhouse in Hadley, Massachusetts (Donta 1998). Archaeologists found 41 school-related items from 17 STPs: 30 slate fragments, 5 pieces of chalk, three slate pencil fragments, two pen nibs, and one thumb tack, accounting for 8% of the total artifact assemblage (Donta 1998:15). No mention is made of any copper-alloy artifacts that could potentially be school instruments.
Several excavations conducted by the Delaware Department of Transportation have recovered artifacts relating to public schools across the state (Catts et al. 1983; Bowers 1986; Catts et al. 1986; Walker 2009). Ranging from 1820 to 1920, artifacts recovered from the schools researched as part of these projects have included clay marbles, slate pencils and flat slate fragments, chalk, toys, an inkwell, a porcelain horse’s head figurine fragment, and a doll’s cup fragment.
Schools represent a unique opportunity to see how childhood was constructed materially in a setting where children were being enculturated to become productive adult members of society, yet school deposits are not generally studied through the lens of the archaeology of childhood. What items they had with them during the school day could tell archaeologists a great deal about what these children valued and how they mitigated the very rigorous structure of school life.

Bowers, Martha H.
1986 Architectural Investigations of the Route 7 North Corridor, Milltown of the Pennsylvania State Line, New Castle County, Delaware . In Archaeological Series No. 48, pp. 131-148. Delaware Department of Transportation, Dover, DE.

Catts, Wade P., Kevin W. Cunningham and Jay F. Custer
1983 Archaeological Investigation at the Welsh Tract School District No. 54, Newark, New Castle County, Delaware. Delaware Department of Transportation Archaeological Series No. 60. Dover, DE.

Catts, Wade P., Mark Shaffer, and Jay F. Custer
1986 Phase I & II Archaeological Investigations of the Route 7 North Corridor, Milltown to the Pennsylvania State Line, New Castle County, Delaware. In Archaeological Series No. 47, pp. 32-134. Delaware Department of Transportation, Dover, DE.

Clayton, David E., Ricardo J. Elia, and Nancy S. Seasholes
1993 Archaeological Investigations at the Peter Faneuil School Site on Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts. Report of Investigations No. 113. Office of Public Archaeology, Boston University, Boston, MA.

Davis, William T.
1906 Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian. Bittinger Brothers, Plymouth, MA.
1899 Ancient Landmarks of Plymouth, 2nd edition. A. Willliams and Company, Boston, MA.

Donta, Christopher
1998 Archaeological Intensive (Locational) Survey for the Proposed Hockanum School Stabilization Project, Hadley, Massachusetts. UMass Archaeological Services, Amherst, MA.

Hambly, Maya
1988 Drawing Instruments: 1580-1980. Sotheby’s Publications, New York, NY.

Landon, David B., ed.
2007 Investigating the Heart of a Community: Archaeological Excavations at the African Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts. Cultural Resource Management Study No. 22. Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.

Mead, Leslie A.
1995 Intensive Archaeological Survey at the Abiel Smith School House At Boston African American National Historic Site, Boston, Massachusetts Archaeology Branch, Cultural Resources Center, National Park Service, 400 Foot of John Street, Lowell, MA.

Pendery, Steve, and Leslie Mead
1999 Archaeological Investigations at the Boston African American National Historic Site, Boston Massachusetts. Archaeology Branch, Northeast Cultural Resource Center, Boston System Support Office, National Park Service, Lowell, Massachusetts.

Rotman, Deborah, Robert Paynter, Christopher Null, and Kai Heidemann
2001 Report of the 2000 University of Massachusetts, Amherst Field School Study of Lot 33 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA.

Sears, Roebuck, and Company
1912 Catalog No. 124. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, IL.

Walker, Joan M.
2009 A Phase I and II Survey of Lancaster Pike (Route 48) from Newport Gap Pike (Route 41) to Centre Road (Route 141) and Phase III Investigations of the Oak Hill Schoolhouse, New Castle County, Delaware. Delaware Department of Transportation, Dover, DE.

August 19, 2015
by Fiske Center

A Fragment of a Grave Marker

This post is part of the Further Research series (see here). Research identifying the possible carver of this gravestone was conducted by Alexandra Crowder, a graduate student in the MA program in Historical Archaeology.

Gravestone fragment from EU3

Gravestone fragment from EU3

Rubbing of the fragment.

Rubbing of the fragment.

During the 2014 excavations on Burial Hill in Plymouth, a fragment of a carved slate gravestone was recovered from the fill layers of EU3, deposits associated with the destruction of stable buildings last owned by Zenas F. Leach, demolished between 1884 and 1885. The fragment was found in context 33, located approximately 77-120 centimeters below the ground surface and on a steeply sloped section of Burial Hill. Context 33 was interpreted as a fill layer of silty sand, and contained historic ceramics, architectural material, and industrial slag. The fragment appears to be gray slate with a green-tinge, and has several hand-carved designs on it. It is approximately 5 cm in length and 2.5 cm in width. The carvings on the stone consist of at least two swirls, two parallel lines forming some sort of border, and an unknown carved decoration. Based on the curved nature of the parallel lines, it is likely that the fragment is from the top, arched portion of a gravestone.
New England is well known for its gravestone designs. Well-documented and widely studied, gravestones in the region are recognized for their changing iconography over time. Studies by scholars have identified three main images present on gravestones: the deaths head, cherub, and willow & urn. The occurrence of these images appear to follow seriation patterns over time, which scholars have linked to changes in religion and attitudes about death (Baugher and Veit 2014: 7-8, Deetz 1996: 93-95). While there is noted variation between different carvers and local aesthetics, the three images were the main source of gravestone iconography (Deetz 1996: 95-96).
Drawings of the death’s head, cherub, and willow & urn gravestone iconography. (Image from NMSC Archaeology Lab).

Drawings of the death’s head, cherub, and willow & urn gravestone iconography. (Image from NMSC Archaeology Lab).

Of the 2,269 gravestones on Burial Hill, approximately 1,400 are slate, sandstone, or schist. These stones were the primary materials used for headstones until 1820, when granite and marble became more popular. The slate headstones are especially well documented, and over 950 of them were most likely carved locally. Many can be attributed to a specific carver (Berg and Friedberg 2012: 5, 17). Studies have shown that most New England gravestone carvers worked within small geographic areas and had distinctive styles (Deetz 1996: 91). Plymouth gravestones are well known for a complex stylistic evolution due to the area’s isolation as well as unique derivations of the death’s head motif (Deetz 1996: 108). This evolution is clearly visible in the stones present at Burial Hill and makes associating certain gravestones with specific carvers possible.

Examining different gravestone iconography and carving styles present in Burial Hill and the general region indicates that the gravestone fragment may have been part of a “Medusa”-style carving. A derivation of the death’s head motif, the Medusa motif is known for a face with wild, wavy or curly hair. Developed by Ebenezer Soule, the Medusa style follows its own evolution of imagery over time (Deetz 1996: 111). The gravestone fragment most likely came from an iteration that had curly hair (as opposed to wavy) and a border between the figure and the top of the headstone. According to James Deetz’s sequencing of Plymouth gravestones, this version was one that Soule produced in the early to middle portion of his career (Deetz 1996: 111).

Photograph of a Medusa style carved gravestone similar to the recovered fragment. The headstone belongs to Benjamin Cortiss of Halifax, and is dated 1756. (Image from the American Antiquarian Society, Farber Gravestone Collection.

Photograph of a Medusa style carved gravestone similar to the recovered fragment. The headstone belongs to Benjamin Cortiss of Halifax, and is dated 1756. (Image from the American Antiquarian Society, Farber Gravestone Collection.

Ebenezer Soule was a well-documented carver from Plympton, MA. Grave carving was often a family business and his five sons are listed as working with him (Eriquez, 2009: 36). Born in 1710, he completed most of his gravestone carvings from 1740-1772. Besides his Medusa style, Soule was known for often using local green slate (Eriquez 2009: 36). The majority of the fully developed Medusa carvings with spiral elements date from the 1750s-1760s (Deetz and Dethlefsen 1994: 35).
If the recovered gravestone fragment was a Medusa figure carved by Ebenezer Soule, it is possible to place a date range on when the original gravestone was sited in the cemetery. Examples of Soule’s gravestones can be seen throughout southeast Massachusetts, primarily in the Cape Cod area. There are at least two examples of Soule’s gravestone carving in the Medusa style present in Plymouth: the headstones of Joshua Bramhall (1763) and Ruth Turner (1755) (American Antiquarian Society). Neither of these two examples exactly match the gravestone fragment, however they show the likelihood that there are more Soule carvings present in the area. The Burial Hill National Register nomination form identifies the Hannah Cooper stone (d. 1763) as a Medusa style stone from the Soule family and the Perez Tilson stone (d. 1767) as a stone carved by Ebenezer Soule Sr. (Berg and Friedberg 2012: 7) The widespread nature of Soule’s work illustrates the extensive trade networks that would have made him successful as a carver and possibly allowed him to carve stones full time, instead of as they were needed.
Determining the motif on the recovered fragment helps situate it in its original context and may assist with determining whom the original stone belonged to in the future, if it is still extant. However, the stone was found a ways away from its original location and buried under several feet of sandy fill. This presents a unique opportunity for the gravestone fragment to not only provide information about the stone it came from, but also explain how it ended up where it was excavated. The sloped nature of the hill may help explain the deposition of the gravestone fragment. If it spalled off or was broken off of one of the tombstones up the hill, then it likely rolled down as the hill was being re-contoured. Its location within a fill layer suggests that it was deposited no earlier than 1884, the last year that the building uncovered in the unit was mentioned in the documentary record. If the fragment did spall off, then it may have been deposited during the winter when water in cracks of the stones would have frozen and expanded, breaking off pieces of the headstones. The alternative, that the piece was broken of instead of spalled off, may have happened during construction activities on the hill.

American Antiquarian Society
2014 The Farber Gravestone Collection. Accessed 15 December 2014.

Baugher, Sherene, and Richard F. Veit
2014 The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Berg, Shary Page, and Betsy Friedberg
2012 Burial Hill National Register Nomination Form. National Park Service, Plymouth.

Deetz, James
1996 In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Books, New York.

Deetz, James, and Edwin Dethlefsen
1994 Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow. In Interpreting Objects and Collections, Susan Pearce, editor, pp. 30-37. Routledge, New York.

Eriquez, Christina
2009 Our History In Stone: The New England Cemetery Dictionary. Sinematix, Brookfield.