The Fiske Center Blog

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

April 23, 2017
by Dennis Piechota

Studying the lost temper of Native American ceramics

Some Native American ceramics of the Woodland Period were made by adding to the local clays a temper of crushed shell. During burial this temper can be dissolved out of the clay by acidic soil water leaving the potsherds riddled with small holes or voids. Besides shell other materials can leave voids in fired ceramics including chopped plant stems which could be deliberately added or small plant seeds which may inadvertently find their way into the mix. During firing these organics are usually burned out and also leave distinctive void surfaces.

In the lab we study the size and morphology of these voids to identify the lost original components of the clay body. One method we are developing is to make latex rubber molds of the sherd surface with special attention paid to capturing the void surfaces.

April 11, 2017
by Fiske Center

School Days

Marbles, a toy cannon, and a possible toy part.

Our excavations on Burial Hill in Plymouth are designed to locate 17th-century features, but of course in such an urban area we discover interesting deposits from the later history of the town as well. Some of the 2016 excavations were located near the site of the first school on School Street and uncovered artifacts from the students’ work and play –slate pencils, a piece of graphite, marbles, and a toy cannon.

William Davis, one of Plymouth’s 19th-century historians, attended this school and described it in his memoirs (Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, 1906: 339):

“The high school house was situated on the north side of the Unitarian church between School street and the town tombs, and was a one story building about forty-five feet long and twenty or twenty-five feet wide with a door on the southerly end… Standing on sloping ground the foundation of the house of the street side was high enough to admit of a cellar above the street level…The house was built in 1770, and until 1826 was called the central of grammar school, but in that year it received the name of high school. It had a belfry on its southerly end, and a bell with the rope coming down into a cross entry between the outer door and the schoolroom. When the house was taken for an engine house the bell was placed on the Russell street school house.”

This is the second school deposit that we have tested along School Street; in 2014 we placed a single excavation unit at the location of the second (19th-century) school that was located further north on the same block. There we also found writing implements, both slate pencils and ferrous pen nibs.

April 4, 2017
by Christa Beranek

17th-Century Ceramics from Plymouth

One in a series on the artifacts from the Fiske Center’s summer 2016 excavations on Burial Hill. For information about the 17th-century features referenced in this post, see here.

With the exception of the pit dug to bury the calf skeleton, none of the 17th-century features that we uncovered on Burial Hill in 2016 were intended as trash pits. Instead, they were pits and depressions formed for other reasons, but some artifacts ended up in them anyway. We have a good collection of small finds such as straight pins, lead shot, and trade beads, little items that were lost in the yard area. The rest of the artifacts in the collection are similarly small – fragments of glass, lithics, and ceramic vessels that were broken, possibly swept out of a house and trampled, and eventually incorporated in the archaeological features.

Border ware, North Devon, and stoneware fragments from the 17th-century features.

The ceramics from the buried 17th-century ground surface and the features are therefore in small fragments. From these, we can identify a ware type but not usually a vessel form. The ceramic types include a salt glazed stoneware with brown oxide on the exterior, probably Frechen, three different types of North Devon wares (two gravel free and one gravel tempered), Border ware, tin glazed ceramics (both pink and buff paste), redware, and Native ceramics. The assemblage from each feature is different, though redware and Native ceramics predominate across all contexts.

Based on differences in ware types, we have identified 15 separate vessels among the European ceramics. In most cases, we can only guess at a range of possible vessel forms, based on what was commonly made in certain wares. However, some of the Border ware sherds, although tiny, have several distinct characteristics that suggest they may be mugs or other drinking vessels. These sherds are finely potted, and glazed on both sides in two different colors, characteristics that Pearce (Border Wares, 1992) writes occur almost exclusively on mugs.

We have a number of additional research questions based on these artifacts. First, were the Native ceramics in the 17th-century contexts from vessels used during the early colonial period, or artifacts that came from earlier Native sites in the area (which we know existed)? Secondly, in other regions of the Eastern United States with more known 17th-century sites, scholars have a very strong grasp on the decades in which certain ware types first appear and then become less common. This chronology is not as well established in the Northeast, and we look forward to using this collection to start answering those questions.

Initial ceramic identification and analysis by Leigh Koszarsky and Christa Beranek.

March 28, 2017
by Dennis Piechota

Heavy Liquid Separation at Burial Hill

By Dennis Piechota

At the Burial Hill site in Plymouth, Massachusetts we screen all excavated soil though 1/8” or ¼” screens. The 1/8 inch screens are used for features, and they recover hundreds of very small unknowns, tiny soil covered objects that may be micro-artifacts or naturally occurring soil components. Their identification requires careful cleaning and close microscopic examination. During initial naked eye review distinctive visual properties, such as color, are used to begin the sorting process. From our truncated trench (see description here), we recovered many small black objects that were grouped in poly bags for further identification as coal, charcoal or other materials.

A sample of the type of small finds that can be separated using heavy liquids. (Burial Hill, Plymouth, EU17, CXT325)

To help with this routine process a heavy liquid is sometimes used to discriminate objects that look similar based on differences in density or specific gravity (specific gravity is the density of a material divided by the density of water). In such a special liquid light black materials such as charcoal and coal will float and heavy black materials will sink. In the lab fume hood, an aqueous solution of lithium metatungstate is adjusted by adding enough deionized water to make a liquid with a specific gravity between the two types of target objects. This heavy liquid is sold as Fastfloat (Central Chemical Consulting). As water is added the resulting specific gravity of the liquid is monitored using calibrated floats sold as Shale Density Beads (U.S. Geosupply). With this method small amounts of heavy liquid can be custom adjusted to any specific gravity up to 2.86.

In practice one finds that this method trains and gives confidence to the new analyst enabling faster and more accurate visual identifications. It also helps to find less common and unexpected artifact materials.

March 22, 2017
by Christa Beranek

A First Look at the Early Features in Plymouth

Last fall, we announced that we had discovered the first archaeological features from the 17th-century palisaded town of Plymouth during our 2016 field season on Burial Hill. Now, as we prepare the technical report, we are starting to have a more detailed understanding of the features that we have found and the artifacts in them. This post will discuss those features, and later posts will go into more detail about the different classes of artifacts.

The 2016 features during excavation. Sarah and Anna in the foreground are excavating the calf burial.

In 2015, we had found a very small segment of an early colonial feature: a pit or trench that was cut off on one side by the demolition cut of a later building and ran into the wall of our excavation unit on the other. The section that we had was too small to be able to say much more about it. The disturbed deposits above the feature contained a small number of 17th-century artifacts. One the strength of this discovery, we opened 8 square meters adjacent to this in 2016 which contained a buried ground surface and a complex of 17th-century features, all of which appeared as soil stains. This is what we would expect to see from both Native and early colonial features: areas in the light sandy subsoil that are darker and more organic, representing the locations of pits, trenches, or decomposed posts. All of these features are fairly ephemeral, consisting only of differently colored and textured dirt. Identifying and mapping them relied on careful excavation and documentation. At this level, we switched from our normal quarter-inch mesh screens to eight-inch mesh to find the smallest artifacts. Keeping artifacts together by context (soil layer and feature), drawing and photographing the soil stains, and carefully describing the color and texture of the soil allows us to interpret each feature. This is what we have been doing over the fall and winter, and we can now present a preliminary interpretation, though there is still plenty of work to do!

Features discovered in 2016 (north is to the left). The 2015 excavations were east of this area, just beyond the top edge of the photo.

The dark soil along the eastern edge of the excavation area is the continuation of the feature discovered in 2015, a trench with a steep profile, quite broad at the top and deep and narrow at the bottom running NW to SE. It was filled with a very organically enriched soil with a low artifact density: shell and animal bone, fragments of Native ceramic vessels, and a small number of historic ceramics (redware and North Devon), a trade bead, and a small number of nails. In the south central part of the excavation area is a planting hole that contained a large number of fish bones. Running north to south across the 3 meters that we had open was a shallow trench that contained trade beads, straight pins, lithic flakes, and small fragments of Native and European ceramics including some early stoneware and Border ware. In the center of the trench was a much deeper pit used to bury a calf, largely articulated (meaning that the skeleton was still held together by some tissue when it was buried) though missing its head, rear limbs, and feet. There are post holes both east and west of the trench and another faint soil stain at the north edge of the excavation area.

Our preliminary interpretation is that all of these are features outside a house, and that the shallow N-S trench represents the slight depression created by a drip line or walking path just outside a building. Historians of the early town believe that John Alden and Miles Standish owned the houses in this part of the settlement, raising the possibility that we are close to the location of one of their original home sites. Given these features and the Native site excavated in 2015 north of this area, we believe that we have identified the inside and outside of the settlement, and we hope to be able identify the location of the palisade wall in future seasons.

February 17, 2017
by Fiske Center

Cole’s Hill Mystery Artifact!

by Nadia Waski

We need your help!

Excavations from this past summer’s fieldwork on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, revealed a 19th century cache of intentionally buried personal items—which we are calling the Cole’s Hill Memorial Cache. (Click here for additional background about the deposit.) While most artifacts from this collection have been identified, we are still puzzled by these copper coils. They were discovered underneath cobbles in the southern half of the excavation unit, associated with a small glass bottle, spectacles, and a pansy pin.

The coils in situ, surrounding a small glass bottle.

We have considered a number of possible uses for these delicate coils, whose ends are designed to fasten together, including a possible necklace, a girdle, a portion of a woman’s hoop skirt, or even a man’s sleeve garter. Comments or opinions on this object would be greatly appreciated to help guide our efforts to identify this artifact!

The coils in their protective housing in the lab.

January 30, 2017
by Dennis Piechota

From Dustpan to Daguerreotype

In this post, Dennis Piechota, the archaeological conservator at the Fiske Center, recounts the discovery of the central objects in the Cole’s Hill cache. In the field, we recognized that we had something rectangular and fragile, with leather components, so we transferred it directly to Dennis’s care at the Fiske Center, rather than letting it wait at the field lab. You can read more background about the deposit here, and additional posts about other objects from the cache here.

From Dustpan to Daguerreotype
By Dennis Piechota

As first removed from the field.

When extremely fragile and unidentifiable artifacts are encountered in the field they are often block-lifted with the surrounding soil matrix and transported to the laboratory where excavation can continue along with conservation and identification through microscopic analysis.

In the field one uses whatever supports are at hand to lift out a fragile artifact, in this case some aluminum foil on a dustpan. When received in the lab we saw only the foil-lined unknown assemblage shown above containing something fibrous and rectangular hidden in a mass of soil. It was transferred onto an archival cardboard support that could be placed in the refrigerator when not in treatment.
Exploratory cleaning began with soft brushing which showed that the fibers came from a single braid of blonde human hair. And next to the braid was a common water-worn rock that lay atop a group of four gold-leafed leather-bound containers.

After initial cleaning.

The braided hair, though originally unpigmented, was now stained brown by contact with the soil. It was consolidated with a cellulosic resin just enough to lift it free of the assemblage and place it on a study/storage support.

Braid, after removal.

Under the braid we found the fragmentary remains of a red paper that appeared to be tied in place with black silk ribbon.

Detail of paper, ribbon, and case edging.

Further cleaning showed a two-by-two stack of four 19th-century photograph cases, the type of hinged display case used for ambrotypes and daguerreotypes. Composed of leather-covered wood frames, their interiors were originally lined with velvet with the photograph held in place by an etched metal mat called a ‘protector’. We had no idea at this point how much of the interiors, especially the sensitive photographic imaging, would be preserved.

One by one the cases were removed and their exteriors were stabilized enough to be opened to examine the four images inside.

A daguerreotype of a standing young man, wearing what appears to be a uniform with a bag slung from his left shoulder and a cap with cockade in his gloved left hand.

Another daguerreotype, this one relatively poorly preserved, shows a young woman in a gingham check dress with empire waist.

An ambrotype of what appears to be the same young woman wearing the same dress!

An ambrotype of a mature woman, perhaps the same person imaged above as a young girl.

Though these images clearly show the effects of their burial in a soil environment for over a century, with 100 seasons of wet springs, hot summers and freezing winters, it is remarkable that any imaging has survived at all.
Currently the photographs have been sent to the specialists in photographic conservation at the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Analysis and interpretation of these amazing finds will continue upon their return.

January 24, 2017
by John Steinberg

Archaeological Organizations Concerned about Funding for National Endowment for the Humanities

The Hill has published an article describing the Trump Administration’s plans for the 2017 budget.  They explain that the plan is close to the Heritage Foundation’s “Blueprint” (summary and full document).  The author, Alex Bolton, cites “Staffers for the Trump transition” as the source of the information on using the “Blueprint”  for the new administration’s plans.   On Page 79  of  the blueprint , it outlines eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), stating that “the government should not use its coercive power of taxation to compel taxpayers to support cultural organizations and activities.”

This concerns us greatly since NEH funds spectacular archaeology, including our Plymouth excavations.  The recent discoveries at Plymouth have received substantial media attention.

The Hill’s article has received widespread attention from lots of outlets (e.g., Time, Salon, Art News, Huffington Post, Snopes, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Independent, Fortune & Chicago Tribune) and the Hill has published a follow-up.

Most of the professional archaeological organizations and societies have sent letters  (SHA, SAA) to members, or posted on webpages (AIA, AAM), or Facebook (AAA) describing this threat to NEH (as well as NEA & CPB).  All of them direct to the National Humanities Alliance which describes the efforts and has a page that allows you to send an email to your officials.

There is also some petitions (and here), at, but they do not appear to be accepting signatures.

January 18, 2017
by Fiske Center

From Pine Cone to Gilded Ivory Brooch

By Dennis Piechota

Image of the object before cleaning.

Most objects encountered in the field are easily identified. But the identity of some, like this artifact from Coles Hill in Plymouth MA, can unfold slowly for the archaeologist and conservator.
When still partly covered with the soil of the excavation pit in the summer of 2016 this object looked like what is sometimes called an ‘eco-fact’, a natural product, in this case apparently a fragment of a pine cone. Then when freed from the soil its metal base and mounting pin were noted identifying this as a jewelry form, a brooch. During initial cleaning it looked like a delicate wood carving of a compound flower head composed of seven six-petal florets all mounted on a copper alloy base.

Detail after cleaning.

In the laboratory microscopic inspection showed the decoration was made not from one carving of a single block of wood, but from a complex of 15 separate miniature carvings that were assembled to form a flower.
Looking into the centers of each floret, away from the weathered edges, we see the carvings are actually translucent and white indicating they are not wood, even though their tips appear brown and opaque; the florets are all carved of ivory!

Detail of the base with evidence of gold leaf.

And the metal base of the flower held one more surprise. While we knew it was a copper alloy, probably brass, we could see a yellow finish here and there through the corrosion indicating the remnants of gold leaf.

While basic processing is now finished the research goes on with questions like what type of flower was this meant to be and what symbolism might it have held for the wearer?

November 28, 2016
by Victoria Cacchione

Cole’s Hill Memorial Cache: An Introduction

In the course of this summer’s excavations on Cole’s Hill located in downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts, as part of the University of Massachusetts Boston’s multi-year archaeological project, Project 400, a group of archaeologists uncovered a mystery for the ages – a cache of intentionally buried personal items including jewelry, sewing items, and other finds. Some of these objects were mysteries in the field, and the most spectacular discoveries were made during careful conservation work in the lab.

Shell cameo brooch of Venus.

Inscription of "Venere" found on the back of the shell cameo.

Inscription of “Venere” found on the back of the shell cameo.

As one of the five units laid out on Cole’s Hill, excavation unit 3 (EU3) was a 1 by 2 meter unit oriented north-south, placed in an area of Cole’s Hill that emitted a strong signal from the frequency domain electromagnetic (FDEM) survey. Thus, the archaeologists expected to find a large concentration of metal in this unit, which they did in the form of slag or furnace byproduct in the upper levels. However, beneath these top layers excavators Victoria Cacchione, Nadia Waski, and Laura Medeiros found an intentionally dug pit, partially edged and capped with cobbles. It was in this pit, in the northern part of the unit where the mysterious cache emerged.

19th century syringe.

A large, intact 25 cm long glass syringe started it all. Once the archaeologists excavated this unique artifact, they began to unearth more strange and exciting objects, many of them of a personal nature. The most thrilling of these were two daguerreotypes and two ambrotypes in leather cases, all stacked together with a braid of a woman’s hair secured on top with silk ribbon. Associated with these were six glass jewels of assorted colors. From the north wall, the archaeologists uncovered a fully intact buckle with a patent date of Dec. 15, 1885 attached to a rolled leather belt. Other artifacts included a shell cameo brooch, anchor pin, straight pin, a locket, two ebony rings, an ivory brooch, and a complete brooch and earring set. In addition to the artifacts from the north wall, the archaeologists also found that the bottom of the pit appeared to be lined with a number of pieces of fabric (at least three distinct objects) that sat directly above the sandy, light colored subsoil. The artifacts were not isolated to just the north wall; the archaeologists discovered several of the organic objects and personal adornment items below the cobbles, indicting that the cobbles partially covered the deposit but did not extend to the north wall. The artifacts unearthed near the cobbles included a small glass bottle, a pansy brooch, and a pair of spectacles encircled by layers of metal coils. These coils remain another mystery within this already peculiar cache.

Pansy brooch with violet paint and gold enamel.

Pansy brooch with violet paint and gold enamel.

Daguerrotype of an adolescent boy.

Daguerrotype of an adolescent boy.

Ambrotype of young woman.

One would think that all these magnificent, bizarre artifacts would be enough to keep the archaeologists and conservator occupied. Yet EU3 and the mystery cache produced even more artifacts to add to the riddle. Located along the western side of the unit, the archaeologists found more of the organic objects associated with a gold plated thimble, a bone object, and a number of mismatched buttons leading them to believe it was a sewing bag or kit. Upon further investigation in the lab, the conservator and the archaeologists discovered even more buttons, jewelry, and a broken key still attached to its key ring.

Gold plated thimble.

Gold plated thimble.

In total, this mystery cache contains over one hundred artifacts. The conservation and analysis of these artifacts remain on going. In subsequent blog posts, the archaeologists invested in this project will continually reveal more about the people associated with these incredible and unique artifacts. The research will hopefully answer questions regarding whose belonging these were, the identities of the people in the daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, the circumstances that possibly lead to the deposition of these extremely personal objects, and the use and meaning of the artifacts. The posts will also bring attention to the importance of respectfully excavating, conserving, analyzing, and displaying such items of personal meaning.




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