The Fiske Center Blog

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

June 6, 2016
by Jared Muehlbauer

Muskeget Island Through Time

While archaeology studies people and cultures of the past, much of what we do can be valuable to a number of other disciplines.  The Fiske Center recently worked with Dr. Rob Stevenson of the UMass Boston Biology Department on his research into vole species on Muskeget Island, off the coast of Nantucket.  In reading up in the island Dr Stevenson found that Wetherbee et al (1972) had shown that the island was moving and changing shape.  Dr. Stevenson confirmed this looking at historic maps and photographs.  Since this something that archaeologists frequently deal with, Dr. Stevenson asked the Fiske Center to help him quantify the changing shape and position of Muskeget Island through Geographic Information System (GIS).

Even though we often think of it as static, both human and physical geography are constantly changing.  In this case, Muskeget Island has shifted 2.3 miles to the east and has lost almost 2/3 of its area over the past 240 years.  The below images created by the Fiske Center Digital Archaeology Lab show how the island has changed in shape and position since 1776:

Muskeget Island Stages

Muskeget Island Before After

The Fiske Center was able to understand the changing nature of Muskeget through historic maps.  Starting in 1776, maps of Muskeget and its location off the coast of Nantucket were quite accurate as it was located on a major shipping lane.  Maps from 5 different years were traced into GIS and georeferenced based on the larger island of Nantucket.  By digitizing the historic maps and locating them in space through GIS, it allows us to not only display how the island has shifted, but also understand the rate of movement and area loss over time.

Through the use of historic maps and GIS, this project allowed Dr. Stevenson to get a better understanding of the dynamic environment of Muskeget and how this may have affected the species that live there.  More broadly, this sort of project has a great deal of potential both for archaeology and other disciplines.  Utilizing newer technologies like GIS to analyze historic maps can help us to get a new understanding of how the space of environments, geographic features and human settlements change over time.

Wetherbee, David K., Raymond P. Coppinger, and Richard E. Walsh.1972. Time lapse ecology, Muskeget Island, Nantucket, Massachusetts. MSS Educational Publishing Co., Inc. New York 173 pp.

May 16, 2016
by John Steinberg

Four MA thesis defenses in May

A lot of scholarship being presented in the next week or so:                                               

Drew Webster

“Ceramic Consumption in a Boston Immigrant Tenement”

Wednesday, May 18 @ 1:00 pm in M-1-503




Katherine Evans

“Chase Home for Children: Childhood in Progressive New England”

Thursday, May 19 @ 10:00 am in M-1-503



Janice Nosal

“‘Improvement the Order of the Age’: Historic Advertising, Consumer Choice, and Identity in 19th-Century Roxbury, Massachusetts”

Thursday, May 19 @ 1:00 pm in M-1-503




Richard Roy

“The Martha’s Vineyard Experience: A Zooarchaeological Analysis of Diet and Environment”

Monday, May 23 @ 12:00 pm  in M-1-503

May 13, 2016
by John Steinberg

Plymouth 400: Story Map

The story map for Plymouth 400

The story map for Plymouth 400

We have been working on additional ways to present the results of the research in Plymouth to the public and are happy to share a StoryMap, a web-based virtual exhibit, that we have developed.   You can find the webpage here:

StoryMap presents a sequential, place-based narrative in the form of a series of geotagged photos and captions linked to an interactive map
The link is

April 9, 2016
by John Steinberg

GPR-Slice animation from 72 Dale St. (Malcolm X’s boyhood home)

Brian Damiata and I put together a quick slice animation of the GPR results from our joint project in Roxbury with the City of Boston. The GPR readings help mapped the subsurface in the yard around the house, therefore the house, carriage house, and dirt pole are in white.   The house is the central white block and the dirt pile extends out  of the carriage house in the southwest.   If you look closely, there are many pipes running east-west.  The block to the north, in the neighbors yard, could show a circular feature that may be a well. The deepth of the slice is listed on the upper left (in cm).  Areas that reflect GPR energy (microwaves) are in red.  Where there was not reflection, the map is blue.  Based on these results  the excavations can be interpreted with better accuracy.

April 7, 2016
by John Steinberg

Brown Bag Talk (Tues April 12@12:30) Sigríður Sigurðardóttir – From Text to Trowel: how a local rural heritage museum thrives in the 21st century

Coring in the ash midden outside the turf house museum

Coring in the ash midden outside the turf house museum

Sigríður Sigurðardóttir, Director of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum will give a Brown Bag talk on  Tuesday, April 12 at 12:30 t UMass Boston in McCormack 1/503. The talk is  titled “From Text to Trowel:  how a local rural heritage museum thrives in the 21st century.”

The talk will describe the diverse portfolio of activities that the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum conducts that make it a vibrant center of cultural life for a valley in northern Iceland that has 6000 people and is located 60 miles south of the artic circle.  The Museum mixes local and international projects with traditional and cutting edge approaches to work in areas that require knowledge of hard science and local legend. The museum embraces 40,000 or so tourists every year but has a café frequented by locals. The Museum also offers international courses that take advantage of the regional knowledge of the traditional craft of turf house building.  Finally, she will describe how the small archaeological department has become one of the largest recipients of Icelandic government grants.

The Skagafjörður Heritage Museum is UMass Boston’s Partner in the National Science Foundation funded Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey (SCASS).  That project will run for 3 years and has received well over $500,000 in grants.

March 31, 2016
by John Steinberg

Geophysics at 72 Dale St – Malcolm X’s boyhood home


Brian Damiata and Katie Wagner using the GPR at 27 Dale St in Roxbury


Jared Muehlbauer, Brian Damiata, and Joseph Trebilcock running a GPR transect

Our joint project with the City of Boston Archaeology Program has been getting a lot of press. You can see some of the articles using a google news search.  One of the more in depth articles is by Sylvia Cunningham for NBCBLKJoe Bagley, the City Archaeologist, has been posting many pictures on Twitter, Instagram  and Facebook.

We have now finished the geophysical portion of the project.  Excavations, will begin next week.  We will post some of the results soon.

March 16, 2016
by Fiske Center

Alum profile: Ashley Peles

Ashley Peles, graduated from UMB in 2010
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Uncovering a possible sub-floor pit at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest, Summer 2012.

Uncovering a possible sub-floor pit at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Summer 2012.

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I’m currently a graduate student at the University of North Carolina; I’m ABD and am expecting to have another two years here, between dissertation analysis and write-up. This year (and next year) my main job is as a Research Assistant for one of my advisors, Vin Steponaitis. We are working (along with one other RA, the Research Laboratories of Archaeology’s (RLA) public outreach coordinator, and the RLA’s associate director) on building a website about North Carolina archaeology, modeled on Texas Beyond History. More specifically, I’m working to take site reports and articles about specific sites and turn that into more public-friendly information. When we start getting submissions from the archaeologists who excavated many of those sites, it will be my job to edit those and get them up on the site as well. You can actually see what we’ve got in progress at I’m also working a small number of hours as an RA for an NSF that our department got (C. Margaret Scarry, Dale Hutchinson, and Ben Arbuckle). The goal of their NSF project is to combine paleoethnobotanical, zooarchaeological, and bioarchaeological data from sites in the North Carolina Piedmont in order to better understand diet and health in the late prehistoric and early historic periods. Right now I’m working on compiling information about aging deer and will also be getting into contact with the Fish and Game people to find out what they know about herd demographics in NC and see if we can get some aged jaws from them. Outside of those jobs, I’m organizing materials and tying up loose ends from the 2012 field season at the Feltus Mounds in Mississippi, working on a 3D modeling project (early French colonial Natchez, Mississippi), and completing a rough sort on all the faunal material for my dissertation.

2. What is the most interesting project (field, lab, academic, or community) that you have worked on recently?
My own dissertation is actually going to be pretty cool (zooarch and pbot analyses from three Late Woodland mound sites in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas)! But in terms of something that I can say more about – last summer and this coming summer we are running a field school at the Wall Site, a palisaded village that dates from roughly 1400-1600 and is located along a bend in the Eno River in Hillsborough, NC. Although much of the village has been disturbed by plowing, we still find the postholes from the palisade and houses, as well as large pits that seem to have refuse from some type of feasting or communal event. And last summer, while placing the water screening set up in the woods, we actually found undisturbed and well-preserved midden! It looks like it was on the edge of the plowed field, where soil accumulated, and that seems to be what saved it. There was a ton of deer coming out, as well as smaller amounts of fish, squirrel, rabbit, etc., plus some really neat bone tools and pottery. That’s one area that we’ll definitely be targeting again this summer. As part of the NSF I mentioned above, I’m also going to be analyzing the faunal material from that unit once the field school is over.

3. What is one thing that you remember specifically about your time at UMass?
Well, some of the people who were in my cohort are still some of my best friends. But if I had to pick something more specifically about the program, it would be the professors. I had the opportunity to work on projects with Steve Silliman, Steve Mrozowski, and David Landon, as well as be advised by Heather Trigg. That gave me experience on a lot of different projects with different types of methods, and I feel like I grew a lot as an archaeologist between when I started in the program and when I finished.

4. What is the best advice you got (or wish you had gotten) in graduate school?
Give yourself multiple options when it comes to jobs. Having an idea of your dream job is helpful for giving you an overall focus and direction, but life can get messy and being over-committed to one thing can make you feel like you are in an all-or-nothing situation. You can’t do everything, but learning a few different skills can help you out a lot when it comes to getting hired later. For example, I got trained in pbot and zooarch, which puts me in a relatively unique position; I’ve also dabbled in ArcGIS (practically a requirement these days) and digital archaeology methods. Plus knowing that you have multiple options can help keep things in perspective when you get stressed out about life and work in general (I think this is also good advice for anyone going on to get a PhD and has certainly helped keep me sane).

5. Anything else you would like to add?
Take the opportunity to do CRM! One of the unique aspects of UMB, at least when I was there, was the cross-section of people in the program. This gives you an incredible opportunity to get into some contract work. I was able to pay my UMB fees by doing CRM on breaks and ended up in a full-time position for two years while I was actually writing my master’s. While I’d say that getting a Master’s at UMB was the most important thing I’ve done, doing CRM was the second most important thing I (accidentally) did for myself. It gave me even more experience with different survey and excavation methods, and helped me to gain a lot of contacts that are still important to me today. And to reiterate the above comment – knowing that I can always work in CRM again (and am planning on applying for those jobs when I finish) has helped me to put things in perspective when I’ve gotten stressed out about the PhD and job prospects.

March 16, 2016
by Fiske Center

Historical Archaeology Program Alumni Profiles

At the SHA meeting in Washington DC this January, we had an informal student, faculty/staff, and alum event for the UMB Historical Archaeology Program. It was great to see so many people, including some folks with jobs outside archaeology, and it really drove home the size of the UMB network, and what a wide and exciting range of things everyone is doing. Building on that, we decided to do a blog and social media series of alumni profiles so that people could digitally “get to know” people in other cohorts. The full profiles will be posted here on the Fiske Center blog so that they will have a permanent home and be shared on the UMB Archaeology social media sites.

March 10, 2016
by John Steinberg

How Chocolate Came to Be – first Brown Bag talk Thursday, March 10 at 12:30

2016 Sampeck Chocolate

How Chocolate Came to Be

Dr. Kathryn Sampeck


Thursday, March 10, 2016 at 12:30

McCormack, first floor, room 503


Chocolate is a fairly unremarkable part of daily life today. We have fairly clear ideas about what color it is, how it should taste, and what kinds of foods it should be part of. All of these qualities seem natural, unremarkable. Little would you suspect that chocolate has a colonial past that involved some of the greatest horrors of colonialism in Spanish America. The fascinating journey from these early colonial encounters with chocolate to the more modern experience of it had much to do with who produced chocolate, where, and when and for whom–in other words, labor relations in Latin America, local politics, and Atlantic World trade. It is a story of struggles against abuse and marginalization, covert and overt resistance, victories both small and large despite changes in the political economy designed to thwart those very efforts.

Dr. Kathryn Sampeck who is a visiting scholar at Harvard this semester will be coming to talk about her archaeological and ethnographic research on chocolate and the people who produced and consumed it.



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