The Fiske Center Blog

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

July 8, 2014
by Jessica Rymer
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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

July 8, 2014
by Jessica Rymer
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Intriguing answers to some old questions lead to new possibilities

Since Day 1 we’ve run into puzzling or just plain odd stratigraphy that’s raised more questions than answers as we’ve continued to unravel the mystery of Deb Newman. Fortunately Fiske Center conservator Dennis Piechota came out to the site yesterday to collect soil samples for thin section analysis and took some time in the afternoon to explain some of what we’ve come across. He also offered insight into what it all might mean for our interpretation of our three sites (Deb Newman, the enclosure, Lewis Ellis), and was gracious enough to let me record his talk, excerpts of which you can listen to below.

Excerpt 1: Dennis explains some of the stratigraphy at the site, including the deeper A horizon soils that influenced our STP survey and what kinds of human impacts these might indicate (for a brief review of the survey click here).

Excerpt 2: Dennis explains the stratigraphy at the Lewis Ellis site, where Carolyn and Janice uncovered a buried A horizon

July 2, 2014
by John Steinberg
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BURIAL HILL DIG: Can archaeologists solve a 300-year-old mystery by 2020?

BURIAL HILL DIG The Old Colony Memorial (plymouth.wickedlocal.com) had an interesting story about the the work at Plymouth.  If the link goes down, you can see a printed version here.  It is perhaps one of the most detailed stories on the work.   The Author, Frank Mand, is an interesting guy.  He has been taking a photo around Plymouth at sunrise for the last year.

June 29, 2014
by John Steinberg
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Smithsonian.com article about the excavations at Plymouth

Archaeologists Are Trying To Figure Out Exactly Where Plymouth WThere is a nice article about the work that just finished up at Plymouth in Smithsonian.com.  The article is in the SmartNews series, as part of the interesting pieces on Exploring the American Experience.  The author, Marty Beth Griggs, is a  good science writer.  If the link goes down, you can get a pdf here.

June 26, 2014
by Jessica Rymer
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Despite threat of poison ivy, the search for Deb Newman continues undeterred

After adjusting our strategy for the remainder of the season, our STP survey took us across the street, where the foundation of Lewis Ellis’s home beckoned through the poison ivy. Drs. Trigg and Bolender, Sam, and myself faced the task of marking off the STPs without getting poison ivy on the tapes or ourselves. In an ideal world this would be possible with the aid of a Total Station- our particular model can find the stadia rod all on its own, with minimal human prodding- but with our line of sight blocked by the trees we did it the old-fashioned way, by pacing off every 10 M with tapes. Naturally this entailed dragging them straight through poison ivy, which is why the tapes are now stored in their own bag in a separate bucket until we clean the equipment at the end of the project.

Jessica gets coordinate information from the Total Station

Jessica gets coordinate information from the Total Station

Sam checks the line of sight

Sam checks the line of sight

Back across the street we have officially designated the area around the “barn” as a brand new site because the area doesn’t fall into either of the 1727 allotments of either Deb Newman and Lewis Ellis. Other potential uses for the enclosure include a meeting-house or schoolhouse for the seven Nipmuc families at Hassanamesit in the 18th century, making it even more important that any units dug in this area be given a separate designation in our records.
Dr. Trigg has begun coring inside the enclosure to find the best places for taking soil samples. Like the phosphate analysis she will conduct for the lambing pen, testing these samples will help us narrow down the possible uses for the enclosure.

Dr. Trigg examines a soil core sample

Dr. Trigg examines a soil core sample

Dr. Trigg removes another sample while Carolyn (middle) places a flag in the previous one and Janice (left) prepares to do the same

Dr. Trigg removes another sample while Carolyn (middle) places a flag in the previous one and Janice (left) prepares to do the same

June 25, 2014
by ericjohnson002
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How do we know where to dig?

Good question. Luckily, historical archaeologists have a lot of resources to help us out. Long before the team opened excavations on the perimeter of Burial Hill, we collected old maps and conducted geophysical surveys to help us determine the precise coordinates of each excavation unit.

The historical record suggests that the first Plymouth Colony fort was located at the top of Burial Hill and the palisade walls ran down the slope of the hill. According to early accounts, the walls of the fort were diamond shaped, and the main East/West street ran along modern-day Leyden St. in downtown Plymouth. Since archaeological sites are often disturbed by construction from later periods, we used historic maps provided by Plimouth Plantation to find areas with the best potential for the preservation of 17th-century material.

The eastern perimeter of Burial Hill has two qualities which make it a good place to start looking. First, the modern landscape is a larger open area, making it a good location for a geophysical survey. Second, according to old maps, we know there were buildings running along School St. in the 19th and early 20th centuries and probably earlier. If these buildings were built on top of older deposits, they may have preserved 17th-century material for us to find.

PlymouthOverlay

Outline of Plimouth Plantation over an aerial photograph of downtown Plymouth

Brian Damiata, the geophysicist on the team, analyzed data from the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey conducted in 2013 to help us determine where to place our excavation units. Our first priority is to not disturb any potentially unmarked graves on Burial Hill. Luckily, GPR can identify unmarked graves so that we can avoid them. The GPR survey also showed anomalies which appeared to be the foundations of 18th and 19th century buildings along school street a safe distance away from the graves on Burial Hill.

Map overlay of previous structures on historic maps and projected excavation units.

Map overlay of previous structures from historic maps, aerial photography, and projected excavation units.

So far, the historical data and geophysical data have worked hand in hand to help us figure out where to dig next. Now that we have opened up a few excavation units, archaeological data can help us make even more informed decisions.

June 23, 2014
by Jessica Rymer
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Changing Strategies at Deb Newman

As a general rule archaeologists have to be flexible, willing to rework their hypotheses and sampling strategies over the course of a project. Though we recovered nails, brick, and creamware from our 2 X 2 M units, which date our deposits to the correct time period, we aren’t satisfied that that particular area is the site of Deb Newman’s late 18th/early 19th c. home. To determine if the artifacts we found in our original excavation area were the result of artifacts washing down slope from a possible barn foundation higher up Keith Hill, we’ve begun digging shovel test pits every 10 M between the foundation and treeline. The test pits were based in part on a map created in ArcGIS by Doug Bolender of the Fiske Center showing statistically significant clusters of “A horizon”, the geographic strata where material culture related to Deb Newman would be located, from the 2010 and 2011 shovel test pits (pictured below).

Map of the Deb Newman site showing areas where STPs with deeper than normal “A horizon” (cultural strata) are clustered around one another (areas in black, “HH” on key”), potentially indicating human activity; the background (Natural_STPs 1 Value on the key) shows general “A horizon” depth across the area between the road and treeline)

Map of the Deb Newman site showing areas where STPs with deeper than normal “A horizon” (cultural strata) are clustered around one another (areas in black, “HH” on key”), potentially indicating human activity; the background (Natural_STPs 1 Value on the key) shows general “A horizon” depth across the area between the road and treeline)


Danny works on an STP

Danny works on an STP

Steph and Diana screen for artifacts

Steph and Diana screen for artifacts


Down in our original excavation area Kristina and Shala are finishing up the most challenging unit

Down in our original excavation area Kristina and Shala are finishing up the most challenging unit


Kristina and Shala work on a profile of their unit

Kristina and Shala work on a profile of their unit


While in another context the color change in the soil might suggest that these stones were used for drying fish or meat, the lack of artifacts point to the color resulting from excessive iron in the soil from the stones. The area also has the potential to be a riverbed, but we won’t know more until Dennis Piechota, the conservator at the Fiske Center who specialized in micromorphology, micro-excavation and elemental analysis of artifacts and the soil matrix, is able to examine them.
By: Jessica Rymer

June 21, 2014
by John Steinberg
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Front Page Boston Globe Story on Archaeological Excavations in Plymouth: The mystery of where Plymouth got its start

Boston Globe article about work in Plymouth

Boston Globe article about work in Plymouth

There is a wonderful page 1 story in the Boston Globe today about the work in Plymouth.  Dave Landon does a great job in the attached video explaining the work.  There are also a series of very nice photos that go with the story.  If you have trouble with the Globe site, you can see a printed version here.  The Author, David Filipov, has done a number of great stories.