The Fiske Center Blog

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

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.

October 23, 2014
by John Steinberg

David Landon to talk on Archaeology Partnerships for 2020 at Plimoth Plantation tonight

David Landon excavating on Burial Hill in PLymouth in 2014

David Landon excavating on Burial Hill in Plymouth in 2014

Professor David Landon from UMass Boston’s Fiske Center for Archaeology will discuss the collaborative partnership between the Fiske Center and Plimoth Plantation as we count down to the 2020 anniversary.  How does Plymouth fit into the context of Atlantic history? What new light can be shed using 21st-century archaeological techniques? Professor Landon will discuss results of the 2014 field season along School Street and the ongoing search for Plymouth’s original fortifications on Burial Hill

When Thursday, October 23, 2014, 7 – 8pm
Where Plimoth Plantation
Category Indoors, Talks and Lectures
Cost Free, Open to All

October 21, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Practicing Public Archaeology: A Case Study

Graduate students enrolled in ANTH 615 (“Public Archaeology”) this fall were challenged to identify a situation in the community in need of public archaeological engagement and to create a (hypothetical) program to address that need.  As luck would have it, fellow graduate student Steph Hallinan and I happened to already be planning a program at Boston Children’s Museum for Massachusetts Archaeology Month.  And just in case you didn’t think we could get any luckier, you should know that our professor liked our idea and agreed to let us use it for this class.  Sometimes things just come together like that.

The idea for an archaeology month program stemmed from a unique aspect of the Museum:  it is one of the few children’s museums in the world to maintain a collection.  A product of one hundred and one years of donations and gifts, the collection boasts everything from dollhouse furniture to Egyptian art.  It includes objects from countries on every continent (excluding Antarctica) and goes back as far as a few thousand years.  But it takes an archaeologist to teach archaeology, and this is where we came in.  Using the Museum’s Eastern Woodland holdings as our inspiration, we created two different activities designed to run simultaneously:  a game that asked children to decide what a stone tool was used for by matching it with a similar object from the early American

 collection, and mock dig kits designed to teach the law of superposition by using plaster and potting soil to mimic New England geography in aluminum tins (pictured above).  Our most popular activity, mending ceramics (pictured right) was added at the last moment because we realized we had broken more plates than we could possibly put in the dig kits.

As we’ve learned in class, public archaeology means different things for different people.  For myself, it means being public about what worked and what didn’t so others can benefit from your experience.  And at the risk of this turning into something more suitable for than this blog I’ll end here, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each activity in their own posts over the next few weeks.

October 17, 2014
by John Steinberg

Stephen Mrozowski, Director of the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at UMass Boston, to talk about Indiana Jones

Jlogooin Plimoth Cinema at Plimoth Plantation as they present a lively talk by Dr Stephen Mrozowski (a real life Indiana Jones) and the film classic Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The evening starts with a meet and greet and 6:30pm and for those who want to join us we will once again be offering reserved box suppers. Next we will listen to real live archeologist and fantastic speaker, Dr Stephen Mrozowski followed by the film that thrilled a nation, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

September 30, 2014
by John Steinberg

Audrey Horning to speak on “The Ever Present Past”

Special Archaeology Fall Lecture at UMass Boston

Professor Audrey Horning of the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology at  Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland will speak:
Wednesday, October 1
3:00-4:00 pm McCormack Building, First Floor, Room 503

The title of her talk is:

“The ever present past: Colonial legacies and the archaeology of the Atlantic world”

All are invited….

July 8, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Excavations end raising brand new questions

At the close of excavations last week the Search for Deb Newman offered some exciting possibilities for future fieldwork while raising some tantalizing questions.
The minimal amount of artifacts recovered from the most likely area for the home forced us to reconsider what short-term occupations like Deb Newman’s would have looked like. In order to better understand the area as a whole we embarked on an intensive STP survey, which ultimately lead to the opening of 2M X 2M excavation units in three different locations: Deb Newman, Lewis Ellis, and the “enclosure”.
Carolyn and Janice focused on the Lewis Ellis site, putting in a unit near the foundation after STPs in the area turned up large pieces of 19th century ceramics. They uncovered a potential builder’s trench (pictured below) and piece of boot leather in addition to other 19th century artifacts consistent with the STPs. Though Lewis Ellis was a bootmaker, neither of these pieces of evidence are enough to make a case for the site definitely being either his workshop or home. They are, however, enough to bring us back to the site in the Fall to investigate further.

Potential builder’s trench uncovered by Carolyn and Janice that may be a part of Lewis Ellis’s shop

Potential builder’s trench uncovered by Carolyn and Janice that may be a part of Lewis Ellis’s shop

Down the hill Kristina and I worked in a unit adjacent to the enclosure, next to an STP that yielded an usual amount of creamware, mochaware, and hand-painted polychrome creamware in the “duff”, or topsoil above the cultural strata.
Kristina and Jessica clean their unit for a photo.  The red tint is from stains in the B horizon along the bedrock, which Dr. Trigg suggested came from decayed root

Kristina and Jessica clean their unit for a photo. The red tint is from stains in the B horizon along the bedrock, which Dr. Trigg suggested came from decayed root

The unit was part of our strategy to understand the function of the enclosure, which could have contained a school or meeting house. The school, however, was never built according to historic maps of Grafton (see map pictured below). Dennis Piechota has suggested that the unusual amount of sediments (as opposed to soils) in the unit were colluvial sediments being washed downstream from an area close by, potentially explaining the wealth of ceramics in the “duff”. This initially seemed to provide evidence in favor of a meeting house, however, Steph and Sam’s unit inside the enclosure ended unexpectedly in bedrock, making the results of Dr. Trigg’s phosphate analysis and Dennis’s thin sections all the more important for our understanding of this area.
1795 map of the town of Grafton showing the location of a meeting house

1795 map of the town of Grafton showing the location of a meeting house

Back at the Deb Newman site Danny, Shala, and Dallana opened a unit in a second area where high concentrations of artifacts were recovered from the 2010 STPs. In true archaeological fashion, they began turning up brick, ceramics, and even a burned tobacco pipe in the last week.
While we are starting to form a clearer picture of the historic landscape, this season’s excavations ultimately left us with questions that can only be answered by future excavations, proving that archaeology means never having to say you’re finished.
The 2014 Hassanamesit Woods team

The 2014 Hassanamesit Woods team