The Fiske Center Blog

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

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
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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.

January 30, 2017
by Fiske Center
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Federal land and archaeological sites


Archaeology has a preservation ethic, and in the US, the Federal Government plays a large role in preserving our shared cultural heritage, including archaeological sites, by virtue of owning land, especially in western states. A bill directing the Secretary of the Interior to sell public lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming has been introduced: H.R. 621. It has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources (members from UT, AK, TX, CO, VA, WY, MI, NC, FL, IL, GA, LA, AR, and CA). The full list of committee members can be found here. Selling the land weakens or eliminates the legal protection of any archaeological sites on the land.

The link to the bill, H.R. 621, is here.

If you would like to comment on this bill, especially if you live in one of the states with a member on the Committee on Natural Resources, you can find their contact information here.

There is a Google doc (authorship unknown) with committee contact information and a suggested script.

Related legislation, bill H.R. 622 would “terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and to provide block grants to States for the enforcement of Federal law on Federal land under the jurisdiction of these agencies.” This bill has also been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Agriculture. The effects on archaeological resources are less clear cut, but would probably entail states deciding the degree to which they wanted to devote resources to combat looting and site destruction on Federal land.

January 30, 2017
by Dennis Piechota
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From Dustpan to Daguerreotype

In this post, Dennis Piechota, the archaeological conservator at the Fiske Center, recounts the discovery of the central objects in the Cole’s Hill cache. In the field, we recognized that we had something rectangular and fragile, with leather components, so we transferred it directly to Dennis’s care at the Fiske Center, rather than letting it wait at the field lab. You can read more background about the deposit here, and additional posts about other objects from the cache here.
–CMB

From Dustpan to Daguerreotype
By Dennis Piechota

As first removed from the field.

When extremely fragile and unidentifiable artifacts are encountered in the field they are often block-lifted with the surrounding soil matrix and transported to the laboratory where excavation can continue along with conservation and identification through microscopic analysis.

In the field one uses whatever supports are at hand to lift out a fragile artifact, in this case some aluminum foil on a dustpan. When received in the lab we saw only the foil-lined unknown assemblage shown above containing something fibrous and rectangular hidden in a mass of soil. It was transferred onto an archival cardboard support that could be placed in the refrigerator when not in treatment.
Exploratory cleaning began with soft brushing which showed that the fibers came from a single braid of blonde human hair. And next to the braid was a common water-worn rock that lay atop a group of four gold-leafed leather-bound containers.

After initial cleaning.

The braided hair, though originally unpigmented, was now stained brown by contact with the soil. It was consolidated with a cellulosic resin just enough to lift it free of the assemblage and place it on a study/storage support.

Braid, after removal.

Under the braid we found the fragmentary remains of a red paper that appeared to be tied in place with black silk ribbon.

Detail of paper, ribbon, and case edging.

Further cleaning showed a two-by-two stack of four 19th-century photograph cases, the type of hinged display case used for ambrotypes and daguerreotypes. Composed of leather-covered wood frames, their interiors were originally lined with velvet with the photograph held in place by an etched metal mat called a ‘protector’. We had no idea at this point how much of the interiors, especially the sensitive photographic imaging, would be preserved.

One by one the cases were removed and their exteriors were stabilized enough to be opened to examine the four images inside.

A daguerreotype of a standing young man, wearing what appears to be a uniform with a bag slung from his left shoulder and a cap with cockade in his gloved left hand.

Another daguerreotype, this one relatively poorly preserved, shows a young woman in a gingham check dress with empire waist.

An ambrotype of what appears to be the same young woman wearing the same dress!

An ambrotype of a mature woman, perhaps the same person imaged above as a young girl.

Though these images clearly show the effects of their burial in a soil environment for over a century, with 100 seasons of wet springs, hot summers and freezing winters, it is remarkable that any imaging has survived at all.
Currently the photographs have been sent to the specialists in photographic conservation at the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Analysis and interpretation of these amazing finds will continue upon their return.

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