The Fiske Center Blog

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

March 5, 2014
by Fiske Center

Summer Field Programs

We have two field schools running this summer from May 27th to June 27th.

Participants in the 2013 archaeological field school in Plymouth.

Participants in the 2013 archaeological field school in Plymouth.

Field School in Plymouth, Massachusetts
The field class will take place at a series of sites in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This summer’s work is part of “Project 400: The Plymouth Colony Archaeological Survey,” a broad project of site survey and excavation leading up the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Colony in 2020. In 2014 the focus will be on surface reconnaissance and mapping of a series of sites, shallow geophysical remote sensing, and test excavations in downtown Plymouth. Through daily archaeological fieldwork and laboratory analysis students will learn the process of field recording, mapping, excavation, sample collection, and basic artifact analysis in historical archaeology. The course includes a special emphasis on shallow geophysics for mapping subsurface deposits, and students will learn how remote sensing techniques are applied to site analysis, excavation, and interpretation. A series of trips to local museums and sites is included as part of the class.
For more information, or to register:


Field School at Hassanamesit Woods in Grafton, MA
The Hassanamesit Woods Project is a collaborative effort involving the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research, the Town of Grafton, Massachusetts, and the Nipmuc Nation. The goals of the project are to use archaeology and geophysical survey to explore the history and heritage of the Nipmuc people of Massachusetts. Previous excavations have focused on the 200-acre parcel known today as Hassanamesit Woods. Previous excavations have demonstrated that the parcel was part of Nipmuc country for at least 4,000 years. The chief focus of our research has been the Sarah Burnee Phillips/Sarah Boston farmstead that was a Nipmuc residence between 1750 and 1840. Work has also focused on the Eighteenth Century home site of Deborah Newman, a Nipmuc woman who was a contemporary of Sarah Boston’s and was part of the same Hassanamesit community.

During the summer of 2014 excavations will focus on the Deborah Newman site and the surrounding area of Keith Hill in Grafton, Massachusetts. Students will gain training in large-scale block excavation, stratigraphic interpretation, field recording, material culture identification and mapping. Students will also have the opportunity to work with specialists from the Fiske Center who specialize in geophysical survey and remote sensing. These techniques will be used to carry out geophysical surveys of additional sites in collaboration with the Nipmuc Nation.
For more information, or to register:

January 14, 2014
by John Steinberg

Kate Johnson’s JAS paper is picked up by the Huffington Post

Article about Kate's work

Article about Kate’s work

Kate Johnson (who got her MA in historical Archaeology from UMass Boston)  recently published paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science called  Rediscovering the lost archaeological landscape of southern New England using airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR).  This paper was picked up first by National Geographic, then by Science, then by the Huffington Post, and then most recently by CT NPR.  Kate gave us a preview of this paper a few months ago.

October 29, 2013
by John Steinberg
1 Comment

Brown Bag Lecture by Kate Johnson

Department of Anthropology and the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research
Brown Bag Lecture Series

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) as a methodological tool for historical archaeology in New England


Kate Johnson (University of Connecticut)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 12:00 McCormack, first floor, room 503

September 17, 2013
by John Steinberg

Massachusetts Archaeology Month Poster

2013 Archaeology Month Poster

The 2013 Massachusetts Archaeology Month Poster prominently features Stephen Mrozowski’s excavation at Grafton.  The Poster shows the foundation of Sarah Boston’s house under excavation. In the foreground, the drain out of the cellar is being investigated.  The photo was taken by Heather Law, an alumna of the MA Program in Historical Archaeology and now a PhD student at UC Berkeley.  Mrozowski, in his orange jumpsuit, can be seen in the background.


2006 Archaeology Month PosterThis is the second time in 7 years that a Fiske Center project has been featured on an archaeological month poster.  In 2006 David Landon’s excavation at the African Meeting House on Joy St was featured.

Open and ready for analysis.

June 28, 2013
by Fiske Center

Six Feet Under with the Vibracore

During this month’s excavations in downtown Plymouth, our team set up test pits across two site locations with the goal of locating intact seventeenth and eighteenth century deposits. However, we often reached the limit of how deep we could safely dig without hitting either our target time period or sterile subsoil. Sometimes we even hit the water table while still finding nineteenth century deposits. Could it be possible that there were still earlier artifacts preserved by the damp conditions deeper in the ground? To find out, we brought in a vibracore.

Jerry and Jesse with the vibracore.

A vibracore is a specialized piece of equipment that is used to take deep soil cores from waterlogged environments such as ponds or marshes. It consists of a clear tube and a small battery-powered motor. When turned on, the vibracore vibrates as it digs into the ground, helping to loosen the soil for sampling. These samples can then be analyzed for things like pollen counts or soil stratigraphy. For our project, we used the vibracore to quickly venture deeper into pits that we could no longer reasonably excavate on our own. We wanted to see if there were any soil changes or artifacts that would point to an earlier buried ground surface.

Heather Trigg positioning the vibracore in the unit.

Using the vibracore was a team effort, and everyone had their job: guiding the core, pushing it down into the pit, venturing headfirst into the pit to cap the sample, and hoisting the heavy core back up again. After an unsuccessful morning of attempted coring, we were finally able to extract four progressively deeper soil cores from STP 13, ultimately allowing us to see down to 1.9 meters, or a little over six feet, below the surface.

Drew with a successful core.

Open and ready for analysis.

The four soil cores that we obtained from STP 13 contained a dark soil rich with coal ash. The few artifacts we found (brick, ceramics, and glass) continued to be no earlier than the nineteenth century. Even at 1.9 meters (more than 6 feet), well below the current water level of Jenney Pond, we did not locate sterile subsoil or a previous ground surface. While this is not what we had hoped to find, the vibracore was able to give us a better understanding of the site’s subterranean topography–the lots at Jenney Pond are much more urban-like than suburban, with many deep deposits and complex filling and refilling episodes. Moving forward, we will need to consider this carefully in planning any further excavations at the site.

By Drew Webster

PS — One of our traditions is writing poems about aspects of our fieldwork. Drew composed this haiku about the results of the coring:

Searching for Pilgrims
Two meters under the ground
Still just dumb coal ash.

Alex and Kelly work on the new southeast corner.

June 26, 2013
by Fiske Center

More Structural Understanding at SBFS

We’ve had some more new developments in the foundation excavations this week! We were able to uncover a new intact corner of the foundation in the southeast. We found corners already in the northeast, and last week we found one in the northwest. More and more, we are finding that the foundation of this 260+ year old structure is remarkably sound. It was designed, like most dry-stacked structures, to allow water and fine sediment to pass through, avoiding the destructive pressure of water built up behind the retaining wall. Rather than trying to keep the water out of the cellar like most modern foundations, this one was meant to channel it through the upslope wall, down through the gravel and sand-bed floor, and out through the stone lined drain on the downslope side of the house. While this means that these kinds of foundations require more maintenance than others to keep sediments out of the cellar, it also lends them to less warping over time. This old, but trusty construction technique is probably what has allowed us to find so many sound corners of Sarah’s cellar.

Alex and Kelly work on the new southeast corner.

By: Heather Law Pezzarossi

June 23, 2013
by Fiske Center

A structure and a sheet midden

Excavation unit 1 (EU 1) is a 1 meter by 1 meter pit that initially began as an expansion of shovel test pit (STP) 6. In our survey of the lot next to Jenney Pond in downtown Plymouth, STP 6 stood out as a good place to open up a larger excavation unit as it revealed part of two large flat rocks lying next to each other. Considering that most stones in our previous STPs had been smaller and generally had rounded, smoother surfaces, we believed that these flat stones might be part of a wall foundation meriting further investigation.
As we expanded the unit and began to get down to the level of the stones exposed by the STP, it became evident that this unit was quite different from most of the other areas we had sampled, which had been mixed modern and historic deposits that were determined to be fill. EU 1, on the other hand, seemed to retain intact contexts from the 19th century, or layers with artifacts that all date to the same time period. Soon more large flat stones and rubble began to appear, and the soil became dark, rich, and organic with a high artifact density. We had reached a previous ground surface, or sheet midden, that would have been on the exterior side of a wall. We know this because of its rich artifact density and the presence of chunks of plaster, brick, and charcoal fragments that speckle the three walls not containing the stone foundation, which is located primarily on the northern half of the unit. Artifacts from this sheet midden all date to the 1830s and 40s, and include ceramics such as hand-painted and transfer printed pearlwares, glazed redwares, metal and ceramic buttons, part of a bone brush, a tailor’s thimble, a blue glass bead with white stripes, and a cut section of an animal long bone that had been curiously worked. Large amounts of butchered bone were also found including pig, sheep, cow, and even whole fish skeletons.

Kellie excavating the sheet midden.

Thimble from EU1

Unfortunately, a glimpse of the early 19th century was all this window into the past had to offer, as we reached non-cultural subsoil under these deposits. All in all, this unit was a real treat to excavate, but left us with some questions as to the extent of the wall and its purpose. Was it the foundation of a structure, or part of a retaining wall used to create a flat terrace out of a sloped landscape? In an effort to answer this, we opened up adjacent units to the east, EU 2 and 3, to try and transect the apparent line of large flat stones. Results of those units coming soon!
By Kellie Bowers

EU1 on the left, with EU2 in progress on the right.

Thinking Through Sampling and Stratigraphy at SBFS

June 20, 2013 by Fiske Center | 0 comments

Hi everyone,
Sorry about the lack of posts, your resident blogger has been under the weather. But I’m back now and ready to deliver the news from Hassanamesit Woods.

Last week our field school students worked to carry out our sampling strategy, set out by Dr. Mrozowski and Dr. Steinberg the week before. The following video is an explanation of that strategy that Dr. Mrozowski gave to the students on site:

Dennis Piechota, Fiske Center conservator and soils specialist, examines the stratigraphy underneath the northwest corner of the house.

We also worked to further refine our understanding of the house by excavating the northwest corner of the foundation. Rather than revealing the living floor underneath the rubble, we realized that the northwest corner was not part of the cellar. While the house footprint is clearly rectangular; the cellar is in the shape of an ell, with the northwest corner left standing and supporting a bed of stones. Discussions have settled on the idea that this standing corner may have served as a base for a chimney. The abundance of ash and charcoal in the northwest part of the cellar, as well as the presence of mortar in an other wise dry stacked stone foundation, seems to support this theory. This new finding has piqued our interest in vernacular stone architecture and we hope to have a more informative post on this topic soon. Thanks for following along!

By: Heather Law Pezzarossi

June 11, 2013
by christa.beranek

Update on the Plymouth Field School

As the start of a multi-year project to locate and study archaeological sites from the Plymouth Colony period (1620-1691), the Fiske Center is conducting six weeks of fieldwork this summer.  We began with a week of ground penetrating radar survey conducted by Drs. John Steinberg and Brian Damiata and are now in the middle of five weeks of excavation carried out by a UMass Boston field school, supervised by Drs. David Landon and Christa Beranek.  Our project is being assisted by Plimoth Plantation, and the staff there have shown the students both Native and Euro-American artifact collections on some of our rain days.

The excavations are taking place along Spring Lane; the first piece of land is on open lot near Jenney Pond.  There was a tannery on the parcel in the 18th century and residences there until the mid-20th century that were demolished during urban renewal projects.  We have been able to layer 19th-century maps over modern air photos and our excavation grid so that we can relate our excavation units to the more recent structures.

We are excavating 50 by 50 cm shovel test pits (STPs) at 5 meter intervals across the property.  This is a common first step to learn about the history of the landscape and to locate areas that have been disturbed by more recent demolition activities and areas that have better preservation.  What we are finding is that despite the “natural” appearance of the lot, the topography has been radically shaped by people, especially in the 19th century.  In places, we have 120 cm (about 4 feet) of fill, and the bottom layers still date to the mid-19th or even the early 20th century.  In other places the subsoil is just 40 or 50 cm below the surface, but there the stratified deposits are no older than the 19th century.  This suggests that much of the lot has been subject to both cutting and filling and had been particularly intensively reshaped in the 19th century.  Instead of the gentle slope to the water visible today, the lot may have sloped much more sharply to the pond or been terraced like the yards behind the houses across Spring Lane.

One of the perplexing problems is that we have reached the depth that we can safely and practically excavate in many test pits without reaching sterile deposits, so we don’t know what the fill is resting on.  Over the next few days, we plan to experiment with a coring device to see if we can answer this question.

Jerry and Aileen excavating an STP

Terraced yards behind houses across Spring Lane. The topography that we are finding might indicate similar terraces in the lot where we are working that have now been filled over.

June 9, 2013
by Fiske Center
1 Comment

Beginning Days: Sarah Boston Farmstead Site

Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Things are up and running at the Sarah Boston Site and we have enjoyed being in the woods on these beautiful sunny days. Our resident Scarlet Tanager, who visits us every year at the Sarah Boston Site, has come early and joined us for lunch on a few occasions.

We’ve set our sights on some achievable goals for the season. We’ll be doing a small amount of work in the foundation itself: creating some large profile drawings and working on a nearby feature. But most of our efforts will be directed toward a broad scale exploration of the farmstead area. We’d like to be sure that we’ve sampled each of the zones around the house carefully, in the event that the barn or the earlier pre-1750 dwelling is nearby. With the help of Dr. Steinberg, we’ve established a strategy that assures us that the 30m perimeter around the house has been evenly sampled. We begin work on these units on Monday. Stay tuned for updates!

Miles screening.

Dr. Steinberg and crew members locate the new units using the laser transit.

Katherine updates paperwork.

by: Heather Law Pezzarossi