The Fiske Center Blog

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

What did we learn from Deb Newman?


In the summers of 2010 and 2011, The Fiske Center underwent a search for the home-site of Deborah Newman, a contemporary of Sarah Boston’s and a fellow Nipmuc community member who was reported by local historians to have lived on the present outskirts of the Hassanamesit Woods Property. We wanted to study her home-site in relation to Sarah Boston’s, to start getting a better idea of the Nipmuc community on Keith Hill in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. You can check out a little of her history and read more about our field approach here. The initial search in 2010 involved an intensive archaeological survey of the field we thought most likely to contain Deb’s house. The survey, in which we excavated many small 50cm x 50cm pits over a wide area at a regular interval, yielded artifacts of precisely the right time period for Deb’s occupation, but despite that fact, we remained unconvinced that we had found the site because our artifact counts were very low in comparison to the survey test results for the Sarah Boston Site, conducted in 2004. In other words, we were looking for a site that looked like Sarah’s, complete with architectural remnants, middens, and stratified deposits that represented decades of constant occupation.

In 2011 we redoubled our efforts, conducting a less intensive, but much broader survey of the surrounding landscape designed by Dr. Mrozowski, Dr. Steinberg and the Fiske Center team. Our strategy being that in order to determine the significance of the results from the first field test, we must see how its artifact densities compare to the fields that surround it. Sure enough, the surrounding fields yielded relatively fewer artifacts than that of the first survey area. Statistically, we had found something, but we were initially a bit dissapointed. Where was the house? Where were the deposits? Well, maybe Deb Newman was meant to teach us a different lesson than we set out to learn.

Her home-site has made us think more critically about what a “home-site” is, and what “home” meant for Deb Newman and other Nipmuc people in the 18th and 19th centuries. All Nipmuc people did not enjoy the permanence and visibility that came with owning land the way that Sarah Boston and her family did. On the contrary, many Nipmuc families were never granted any land to begin with, and of those that were assigned land rights in Grafton, many had to sell their plots to survive. Those Nipmuc community members with no landholdings are very nearly invisible in the colonial archive, and as it turns out, they are also very difficult to find archaeologically. The Deb Newman Site can help us put those people back into the narrative of the local past, by broadening our understanding of what “residence” can mean. *

It seems Native people of the 18th and 19th century used many strategies of “residence” that extended well beyond farmstead lifestyles. Some took jobs in the community, as farm hands, as stonemasons, as teamsters, others joined the service, or sold baskets, brooms and other wares around the region. Some families built shelters on Euro-American farms, others traveled often, lodging with other Native community members or staying at Euro-American houses; still others built shelters in swamps or caves or other conspicuous places where they could either count on temporary shelter when travelling, or reside their more permanently.

Deb Newman’s family did not in fact own the parcel of land they were reported to have been living on. Deb’s family once had land-rights nearby, but that particular parcel belonged to someone else, so it seems reasonable to expect that we are looking for a different kind of occupation than the style we encountered at the Sarah Boston Farmstead. In fact, Deb and her family were only reported to have lived there for 10-20 years. Before that, they lived elsewhere in town, after that, we don’t know. Dr. Steinberg first recognized–and we all agreed–that Deb’s dwelling on Keith Hill may have been quite ephemeral at the time, and therefore have a very different and nearly undetectible archaeological signature.

Perhaps our modest findings in 2010 revealed more in what was NOT there, than in what little material we actually found. Maybe the lesson we learned is that the Nipmuc occupation of Keith Hill doesn’t have to be uniform, in fact it can take many forms, and be much more subtle than our findings at the Sarah Boston Site. So, did we find Deb Newman? Yeah, in fact I think we did.

* Silliman (2001:195) discusses “residence” as, “the attempts of individuals to stake out a claim in their social worlds, even under contexts of oppression and domination”. I think that “residence” can also apply to physical/material worlds and in fact the two are intertwined.


Silliman, SW
2001 Agency, Practical Politics and the Archaeology of Culture Contact. Journal of Social Archaeology 1(2):190-209.

by Heather Law Pezzarossi

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