The Fiske Center Blog

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

November 10, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Field Retrieval of Composite Objects

Fiske Center conservator Dennis Piechota has been teaching a mini-course on conservation for archaeologists for the past four weeks.  Included in this mini-course was a demonstration on excavating and retrieving composite objects, in this case a wood handled iron knife.  Listed below are the steps that Dennis recommends for maximum preservation of both the wood and iron during storage and transport from field to lab.  Most of the materials that he used in this demonstration can be easily purchased before a project or off-site during one, and assumes that the project has access to a refrigerator.  For further reading, he recommends Retrieval of Objects from Archaeological Sites, edited by Robert Payton (Archetype Publications).

1.  When exposed to air the wood component begins to irreversibly shrink and distort due to drying – spray wood handle with distilled water if possible constantly to maintain its surface moisture and then cover it with polyethylene whenever possible.

The wrought iron/steel component is also corroding due to exposure to the air. Though it would benefit from being dried and placed in a bag with dessicating silica gel this would destroy the wood component so focus on maintaining the wood moisture first. While the wrought iron component is not stable and will need treatment it is more robust than the wood.

2. Excavate around the object and pedestal it creating a block of supportive soil matrix surrounding the artifact (idea is to then be able to lift the pedestal out and flip it upside down to expose the underside without it all falling apart)

3.  Cover the exposed artifact with a barrier film, like a strip of polyethylene. Thin clear high-density poly (HDPE) works well and is often available as trash bags!

4.  Apply plaster bandaging (available from art/craft stores) to the pedestal- Lay the wet bandaging over the polyethylene layer so the block of soil is covered on 5 sides (you’re basically making a plaster box).

5.  Label the plaster with orientation, context and artifact ID when it is hardened and dried.

6.  Slide something thin and stiff under the plaster to lift it out. Aluminum flashing cut to the size of the pedestal works well and is available at hardware stores. Aluminum foil-covered cardboard will work in a pinch especially for small artifacts.

7.  Lift and flip the pedestaled artifact while keeping it sandwiched between the aluminum flashing and the plaster support. This will safely put the artifact within the five sides of the plaster ‘box’.

8. You may remove the aluminum flashing to further clean the artifact while supported within its plaster ‘box’ or leave that for the lab.

9. Wrap for transport: Prevent drying by bagging the sandwich of plaster/artifact/aluminum in clear polyethylene e.g., a clear trash bag and wrap the bagged sandwich tightly in clear packing tape. Place it in a refrigerator as soon as possible to preserve moisture and slow the iron corrosion rate.

10. De-oxygenating bags made of Escal barrier film and an oxygen scavenger (available from KeepSafe ( will help preserve the iron while maintaining the moisture in the wood. If you put it in the Escal/O2scavenger bag and refrigerate it, treatment of your composite artifact can wait until the end of the field season if necessary. Without the Escal system the artifact should be conserved as soon as possible.


November 7, 2014
by John Steinberg

UMass Boston Archaeologsts Presenting at this year’s meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology

There will be several papers by UMass Boston Archaeologsts at this years meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology (CNEHA).  Many of them will be in David Landon & Christa Beranek’s “Revisiting the Archaeology of the Plymouth Colony.”  That session will describe much of the work that went on this summer on Burial hill.

As a quick preview of the paper by Steinberg, Damiata & Bolender (Ground Penetrating Radar on Burial Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts) we have a 3D movies of EU 2

November 6, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Founder and Director of Archaeology in the Community to Speak at UMass Boston

Dr. Alexandra Jones, founder and director of Archaeology in the Community (AITC), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., will speak today at 4:00PM in M-1-503 during the graduate seminar “Public Archaeology.  AITC’s mission is to promote and facilitate the study and public understanding of our archaeological heritage through informal educational programs, hands-on learning, professional development and hosting community events.

Dr. Jones will be leading a discussion on “Public Archaeology:  Classrooms and Museums”.  All are welcome to attend.  If you are interested in learning more about AITC, you can listen to her interview with Chris Webster of Digtech LLC here.

Please contact Professor Jerry Howard at with any questions.





October 27, 2014
by Jessica Rymer

Public Archaeology Case Study #2: Working with Collections

BCM Collections Intern Brittany Contratto does matching activity with visitors

BCM Collections Intern Brittany Contratto does matching activity with visitors

Since Boston Children’s Museum is one of the few children’s museums in the world to have a collection, we knew from the earliest planning stages that the collection would be incorporated into our program.  One of our overall goals was to communicate why archaeology was important, and working with the collection gave us the opportunity to do this.

To this end we devised a matching game that asked children to pair items that would normally be found at an archaeological dig- stone tools from the Museum’s Eastern Woodland holdings- with recognizable objects of the same function from the early American collection.  In this way we hoped to encourage children to think creatively while showing that archaeology has real links to how we live in the present.

Objects for the matching game.

Collections objects at the matching station.

One of the advantages to the matching activity was that it was flexible enough that the person running this station could easily modify it for a variety of ages. For children too young to make the kinds of connections we were aiming for, looking at objects under magnifying glasses or simply holding the tools and feeling their weight sufficed (it should be noted here that in order to handle objects children were required to put on the white gloves we provided and were not allowed to handle certain objects).

One of the disadvantages to this activity was that it required someone with collections experience to manage.  This meant that depending on the night, either the Collections Manager, the Collections Intern, or myself (a former Collections Intern at the Museum) had to take turns manning the table for the entire 2 hours.

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series can be found here and here.

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….