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:

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.

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

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 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

Hassanamesit Woods Field Season | 2013

May 30, 2013 by Fiske Center | 0 comments

Welcome everyone, to the 2013 archaeological field season at the Sarah Boston Farmstead Site! For the next month, we’ll be working with a crew of 3 undergraduates and 7 graduate students at the Sarah Boston Farmstead Site, an 18th and early 19th c. Nipmuc Farmstead site in Grafton, Massachusetts. The Fiske Center for Archaeological Research takes pride in our collaboration with the Nipmuc Nation and the Town of Grafton on this project. These blog posts are an attempt to make the archaeology we do more accessible to the community, so that people with a vested interest in Nipmuc history can share in our endeavors. You can read more about the project and the goals of the project here.

We were very pleased to introduce the site to a new group of field school students this week, and we look forward to your questions and comments about our work this season. The Fiske Center has conducted an advanced field school at Hassanamesit Woods for the past 7 seasons, so we have accomplished a lot already! But there are some questions that remain and we will focus our efforts on addressing those as soon as we get settled. Today was spent cleaning out the site, raking leaves, drying tarps, laying in units, and of course, going over the basics of our excavation strategy with the students. Expect updates on our first excavations soon. For now, I’ll leave you with a few photos from our first day on site. Thanks for your interest!

Kelly, learning the art of screening.

James and Katherine clean out one of our units from last year.

by: Heather Law Pezzarossi

April 25, 2013
by John Steinberg

Field School in Historical Archaeology at Hassanamesit Woods

This summer the department of Anthropology in conjunction with the Andrew Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston will sponsor a field school in historical archaeology at Hassanamesit Woods in Grafton, Massachusetts.  You can learn more and enroll at

February 6, 2013
by Fiske Center

The Boston Farmstead’s Handpainted Pearlware Rim Patterns

Last winter, I put together a minimum vessel count for the blue handpainted pearlware from the Sarah Boston Farmstead assemblage. We decided to take on this task as a test to determine if in fact it would be possible to mend the ceramic collection into distinguishable vessels. We chose the blue handpainted pearlware in part because it seemed like a manageable segment of the greater ceramic assemblage, and also because we assumed ceramics with linear patterns and paint strokes would be easier to refit than say, plain white, or transfer print pieces. What we found was a little disappointing at first. We were unable to reconstruct a single vessel in the blue handpainted pearlware category. However, we were able to reconstruct enough of several rim fragments to start to

small 1cm sherds like these informed our pattern analysis

put together a catalog of all the blue handpainted rim patterns in the collection. While maybe not as exciting as entire vessels, we thought you might enjoy seeing these patterns.
As it turns out, the majority of blue handpainted pearlware rims fell into a category of ceramic glaze called, “china glaze”, a popular style of English-made refined white earthenware made between 1775-1812 ( These vessels were covered in a blue tinted glaze and painted with imitation Chinese patterns popularized by the more expensive Chinese porcelain they were meant to reference (

This brings up an interesting question, and one that I think is very relevant for our work on the Sarah Boston Site in general: can an English ceramic, with Chinese decoration, have meaning for a Nipmuc family? The answer, as you might have guessed, is: of course it can! What we are seeing here is the entanglement of global influences (English clay and ceramic technology, Chinese styling, Native aesthetic preferences) in one local knot. This is the kind of thing we encounter all the time when we study the material dimensions of colonialism. The fact that Sarah and her mother participated in the consumption of English ceramics and Chinese patterns shouldn’t surprise us, after all, Sarah Boston and her mother Sarah Burnee didn’t experience colonialism in a vaccuum, rather, they were a part of the early American experience, buying dishes and fabric and other goods that expressed their style and preferences, just like everyone else. That didn’t make them any less engaged or involved with their Nipmuc heritage, rather it’s interesting to think about how their Nipmuc identities may have informed some of their consumer choices.

This is a common representation standard in archaeology. The right side of the vessel is an illustration of the exterior, the left is an illustration of the cross-section of the vessel and the interior.

by: Heather Law Pezzarossi

October 12, 2012
by Fiske Center

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