The Fiske Center Blog

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

December 14, 2014
by John Steinberg

Geophysics at the Fowler Clark Farmstead in Mattapan

Using the CMD mini at Fowler-Clark

Using the CMD mini at Fowler-Clark

We are half way through a survey of the Fowler Clark Farmstead in Mattapan.  We were set back a little by the nor’easter last week, but will be out again finishing the GPR survey on Monday and Tuesday (December 15-16).

The geophysical work in on behalf of Historic Boston Inc., who would like to keep the pastoral setting of the farmstead. Today the 200-year-old farmstead sits on half an acre at Hosmer and Norfolk streets.  It is not known when the main farmhouse was built, but it appears on maps drawn between 1786 & 1806.  The barn is from about 1860.  You can learn more about this project on their blog which as a great 3D scan done by Feldman Land Surveyors.

We have some very preliminary results from the CMD.  The CMD is one of the instruments we were able to purchase with our recent NSF grant for work in Iceland from 2015-2017.  In 2013 we got a small grant to test these out in Iceland and like the unit very much, especially the temperature compensation.   That compensation algorithm turned out to be particularly important for the current November –December survey.

CMD 3 conductivity preliminary readings at Fowler-Clark

CMD 3 conductivity preliminary readings at Fowler-Clark

We surveyed with 25 cm transect intervals and fiducials mostly at 5 m.  This is the clipped conductivity 3 (largest dipole center distance – 1.18m)  readings.  The image mostly shows the distribution of sub-surface and near surface metal.

We will post more as we process it.


December 10, 2014
by Stephen Mrozowski

The History Channel’s Giant Problem

Mrozowski after visiting Goshen

Mrozowski after visiting Goshen

When I was asked to appear on this History Channel show, Search for the Lost Giants, Episode 3 the producers told me that it concerned local mysteries and stone structures. I had recently visited several stone structures in Massachusetts, the builders of which remain a mystery. Therefore, I was curious to see what Bill and Jim had discovered.

The Goshen Tunnel that I inspected on the show was an intriguing structure comprised of a well, with a tunnel running from its base. The Vieiras’ interest was certainly genuine, and I admired their enthusiasm – not everyone has a dedication to get to the bottom of local mysteries and at some level all archaeologists have a reservoir of curiosity for questions of history.  I did not find any physical evidence that confirmed for me that the structure was built using modern metal tools such as chisels or pry bars, and I said as such. In my estimation the best explanation for the tunnel was that it was linked to some illegal activity: maybe to counterfeiting or  to the smuggling of bootleg liquor  probably coming from Canada.  The liquor could have been kept cool in the tunnel, which could have been concealed by a metal or stone cap placed at the bottom of the well, but above the level of the tunnel so that water could be filled in to make the well look like, well a well.  The day after the visit, I e-mailed Bill to look in the well for a possible ridge upon which the cap could have been seated. None of this appeared in the episode.

My point isn’t to question either the sincerity or motivation of Bill and Jim in pursuing their interest in the possibility of giants or the presence of a burial chamber connected to the Goshen Tunnel. I only wish they had shared this intended direction with me either before or during the filming or post-production information exchanges. During the 19th century, all sorts of theories were developed to explain the many large mounds and earthen structures located throughout North America.  Among others theories were put forward that linked the construction of these mounds to one of the lost tribes of Israel, Old World civilizations such as the Phoenicians, and a race of giants.  In 1890, Cyrus Thomas published the results of his review of all of the archaeological evidence collected from mound sites across North America. He concluded that the evidence confirmed that these large mound complexes were the work the indigenous populations. Archaeologists know today that these were the centers of complex, highly sophisticated indigenous societies. Attempts to link such structures to non indigenous peoples is part of a larger attempt to end Native American history and to replace that history with an American narrative that denies the identity of North America’s indigenous peoples. The perpetuation of long discredited ideas concerning a race of giants is an affront to the indigenous peoples of North America and need to be recognized as such.

December 5, 2014
by Stephen Mrozowski
1 Comment

Who said anything about giants?

In the Goshen Tunnel during filming

I was surprised and disappointed to see my appearance on the History Channel’s Search for the Lost Giants, Episode 3, used in a manner that appeared to give credence to a long-discredited theory concerning giants. Who said anything about giants?  I thought I was being asked to inspect the Goshen tunnel and to offer my opinion concerning who may have built it or what it was used for.  The site was very interesting.

The search for giants is a long-standing and familiar tradition of denying indigenous histories by promoting absurd alternate explanations. In North America the notion of such a race of giants is one of a list of explanations used to deny the accomplishments of Native Americans. Speaking directly to Native American scholars or consulting a widely distributed text such as Kenneth Feder’s  Frauds, Myths and Mysteries would provide ample documentation of the history of such ideas and the evidence used to disprove them. The real giants of the past were the indigenous men, women and children who built the sophisticated societies that flourished across the continent for thousands of years. Their descendants have been denied such histories by theories such as that discussed on the program.

November 10, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Field Retrieval of Composite Objects

Fiske Center conservator Dennis Piechota has been teaching a mini-course on conservation for archaeologists for the past four weeks.  Included in this mini-course was a demonstration on excavating and retrieving composite objects, in this case a wood handled iron knife.  Listed below are the steps that Dennis recommends for maximum preservation of both the wood and iron during storage and transport from field to lab.  Most of the materials that he used in this demonstration can be easily purchased before a project or off-site during one, and assumes that the project has access to a refrigerator.  For further reading, he recommends Retrieval of Objects from Archaeological Sites, edited by Robert Payton (Archetype Publications).

1.  When exposed to air the wood component begins to irreversibly shrink and distort due to drying – spray wood handle with distilled water if possible constantly to maintain its surface moisture and then cover it with polyethylene whenever possible.

The wrought iron/steel component is also corroding due to exposure to the air. Though it would benefit from being dried and placed in a bag with dessicating silica gel this would destroy the wood component so focus on maintaining the wood moisture first. While the wrought iron component is not stable and will need treatment it is more robust than the wood.

2. Excavate around the object and pedestal it creating a block of supportive soil matrix surrounding the artifact (idea is to then be able to lift the pedestal out and flip it upside down to expose the underside without it all falling apart)

3.  Cover the exposed artifact with a barrier film, like a strip of polyethylene. Thin clear high-density poly (HDPE) works well and is often available as trash bags!

4.  Apply plaster bandaging (available from art/craft stores) to the pedestal- Lay the wet bandaging over the polyethylene layer so the block of soil is covered on 5 sides (you’re basically making a plaster box).

5.  Label the plaster with orientation, context and artifact ID when it is hardened and dried.

6.  Slide something thin and stiff under the plaster to lift it out. Aluminum flashing cut to the size of the pedestal works well and is available at hardware stores. Aluminum foil-covered cardboard will work in a pinch especially for small artifacts.

7.  Lift and flip the pedestaled artifact while keeping it sandwiched between the aluminum flashing and the plaster support. This will safely put the artifact within the five sides of the plaster ‘box’.

8. You may remove the aluminum flashing to further clean the artifact while supported within its plaster ‘box’ or leave that for the lab.

9. Wrap for transport: Prevent drying by bagging the sandwich of plaster/artifact/aluminum in clear polyethylene e.g., a clear trash bag and wrap the bagged sandwich tightly in clear packing tape. Place it in a refrigerator as soon as possible to preserve moisture and slow the iron corrosion rate.

10. De-oxygenating bags made of Escal barrier film and an oxygen scavenger (available from KeepSafe ( will help preserve the iron while maintaining the moisture in the wood. If you put it in the Escal/O2scavenger bag and refrigerate it, treatment of your composite artifact can wait until the end of the field season if necessary. Without the Escal system the artifact should be conserved as soon as possible.


November 7, 2014
by John Steinberg

UMass Boston Archaeologsts Presenting at this year’s meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology

There will be several papers by UMass Boston Archaeologsts at this years meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology (CNEHA).  Many of them will be in David Landon & Christa Beranek’s “Revisiting the Archaeology of the Plymouth Colony.”  That session will describe much of the work that went on this summer on Burial hill.

As a quick preview of the paper by Steinberg, Damiata & Bolender (Ground Penetrating Radar on Burial Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts) we have a 3D movies of EU 2

November 6, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Founder and Director of Archaeology in the Community to Speak at UMass Boston

Dr. Alexandra Jones, founder and director of Archaeology in the Community (AITC), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., will speak today at 4:00PM in M-1-503 during the graduate seminar “Public Archaeology.  AITC’s mission is to promote and facilitate the study and public understanding of our archaeological heritage through informal educational programs, hands-on learning, professional development and hosting community events.

Dr. Jones will be leading a discussion on “Public Archaeology:  Classrooms and Museums”.  All are welcome to attend.  If you are interested in learning more about AITC, you can listen to her interview with Chris Webster of Digtech LLC here.

Please contact Professor Jerry Howard at with any questions.





October 27, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Public Archaeology Case Study #2: Working with Collections

BCM Collections Intern Brittany Contratto does matching activity with visitors

BCM Collections Intern Brittany Contratto does matching activity with visitors

Since Boston Children’s Museum is one of the few children’s museums in the world to have a collection, we knew from the earliest planning stages that the collection would be incorporated into our program.  One of our overall goals was to communicate why archaeology was important, and working with the collection gave us the opportunity to do this.

To this end we devised a matching game that asked children to pair items that would normally be found at an archaeological dig- stone tools from the Museum’s Eastern Woodland holdings- with recognizable objects of the same function from the early American collection.  In this way we hoped to encourage children to think creatively while showing that archaeology has real links to how we live in the present.

Objects for the matching game.

Collections objects at the matching station.

One of the advantages to the matching activity was that it was flexible enough that the person running this station could easily modify it for a variety of ages. For children too young to make the kinds of connections we were aiming for, looking at objects under magnifying glasses or simply holding the tools and feeling their weight sufficed (it should be noted here that in order to handle objects children were required to put on the white gloves we provided and were not allowed to handle certain objects).

One of the disadvantages to this activity was that it required someone with collections experience to manage.  This meant that depending on the night, either the Collections Manager, the Collections Intern, or myself (a former Collections Intern at the Museum) had to take turns manning the table for the entire 2 hours.

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series can be found here and here.

October 24, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Public Archaeology Case Study #1: Mock Dig



Prepping the dig kits

As I mentioned in my previous post on practicing public archaeology, our program featured two activities:  a mock dig and a matching game with objects from the Museum’s collections.  Though we had the room for 2 hours, the activities were designed to be completed quickly so families could experience other aspects of the Museum during their visit.  We did the program twice, on two different Friday nights.

Having a mock dig was initially on our wishlist until an educator at the Museum sent us the following link:  While this activity is meant for paleontology programs, the idea of using plaster appealed to us as a way to teach children about stratigraphy.  Using our experience digging in Grafton over the summer, we designed a dig kit that would mimic New England stratigraphy:  plaster would represent the clay of the “B horizon”, and would contain objects evocative of those used by Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans (shells, rocks for stone tools), while a layer of potting soil on top of it would represent the “A horizon”, and would contain objects associated with Europeans (broken plates, teacups, gaming pieces, fake coins).  The idea was that children would scoop out the potting soil and push it through the screens we’d provide then pop the objects out of the plaster with a (blunt) trowel.  We made 7 kits in all.  Each kit was designed to be used by one or two children at a time with the volunteers replacing the potting soil and reburying the “artifacts” for the next child.

As the picture below shows, this is a messy activity and some kind of floor covering is a must.

The dig kits in action

The dig kits in action

The potting soil worked well but required a 1/4 in screen, which most children were not interested in using.  The plaster actually dried around the artifacts, making it difficult for children to pop them out.  When we did this activity on the second night, we did not use plaster at all.

Though the stratigraphy aspect of the activity did not work well, we were able to engage with the children by getting them to think about what these objects could be, what they were used for, and what we could learn from digging them up.  With the exception of the under 5 crowd, the majority of the children were able to understand this line of reasoning.  They also picked up on the idea that ceramic pieces from the same kit can mend but, if they don’t, could represent multiple vessels.  Without any prompting from us, several children began taking ceramics from the dig kits to see if they mended with any of the plates at the mending station.  This also provided an opportunity to explain that archaeologists don’t always find all of the pieces to things.  And telling children that archaeologists don’t get to keep what they find was a convenient way to explain why they couldn’t take the objects home with them.

This activity was very popular, could be assembled quickly, and was a convenient way to suggest that children check out the other archaeology activities being offered.  The next and last post in this series will focus on the matching activity and address some of the challenges of using collections in public programs.