The Fiske Center Blog

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

June 11, 2021
by Christa Beranek

Back on Cole’s Hill: Goals for the 2021 Season in Plymouth

The UMass Boston field school is back in Plymouth this year, at two sites where we have worked before.

Overhead view of two students excavating.

Nicholas and Kiara excavating a late 18th-century midden deposit in 2021.

One of these is a lot along Cole’s Hill that is owned by Pilgrim Hall Museum.  Today, it is grassy and open, but in the early 1800s, it would have been divided into four different lots, with multiple houses and outbuildings.  We excavated here in 2016 and are back this year to learn more about some of the significant deposits.  Pilgrim Hall plans to landscape this parcel to visually connect it to the other memorials along Cole’s Hill, turning this space into a Remembrance Park honoring the Great Dying of 1616-1619 (an epidemic that affected the Wampanoag of Patuxet and other Native groups), the deaths of the Mayflower colonists in the winter of 1620-1621, and the 2020 pandemic.

Before they do that work, our archaeological excavations will gather more data about a few areas of the property, particularly the two older houses; one was owned by a series of mariners and the other was the first residence of the Jackson family on this lot.  Previous excavations learned a lot about the 19th-century residents; this season is targeting information about the 18th-century households.  We are also following up on excavations done by UMass Amherst in the 1990s that identified a small area where parts of a much older Native site were preserved despite all of the later building activity.  We have three excavation areas open now, with a fourth planned.

19th-century sketch of Cole's Hill

An 1882 sketch of Cole’s Hill showing the 19th-century duplex on the lot. Several 18th-century houses had existed on this lot previously.

You can visit the site during the week; docents from Pilgrim Hall Museum and Plymouth 400 are available to talk about the work and the plans for the park between 10 and 3.  The Associated Press story about the work, with some photographs of the excavations in progress can be found here.

September 24, 2019
by katherinealbert001

Working in a New Medium: Filming the Burial Hill Excavations

By Kati Albert

Early in the morning during the last week of the Plymouth Field School, a general question went out to the students: “Does anyone know how to use a video camera?” Tentatively, I raised my hand. I didn’t tell anyone I had only edited films before, was a self-taught home-movie maker, and only had experience taking still shots. Still, I volunteered myself, because in my mind there was a first time for everything, including shooting footage with a video camera I had never worked with before. Ten minutes later, I had a new video camera in my hands and the mission to begin filming the excavations in progress.


There was a reason for the video equipment on the site. As part of the exhibit for the Plimoth Plantation Museum, the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research wanted to create a short film to complement the artifacts and text on display in a new exhibit that in the works. The film would also explain why we are studying Burial Hill, what we are looking for, and what some of the finds were from the 2019 field season. My vision for the film was to be a showcase for the students’ work as they excavated, screened, drew illustrations of the stratigraphy, and found artifacts in the field.

I felt honored to be given the task of documenting the excavations “on film”. It was a phenomenal opportunity to be creative and to hone my skills as a filmmaker. I was given free reign to wander the site, capturing both the exciting discoveries, and turning the mundane processes of archaeology into visually compelling art. Everyone was very supportive of my efforts, and willing to explain what they were doing, or give a short interview about their experiences at the field school.


Filming on an open excavation site was challenging to say the least, especially without any time to plan what I wanted to record. As such, I had little choice but to film “guerrilla style”, with the camera clutched in my hands and my ears and eyes constantly on alert for any interesting find or insightful conversation. I was poised at the ready for something worthy of being documented to happen anywhere on the site.

Photo by Melody Henkel

Of course, I was only a one-woman crew, and the field was not a soundstage, nor anything close to a controlled environment for filming, and this was reflected in the daily footage. For every great scene I shot were dozens of shots that were unusable because of too much background noise, too much shaking, or the action was caught just a split-second too late. I could not get as close to the some excavations as I wanted to which cost me informative visuals and precious explanatory dialog. I regretted letting those opportunities slip past my lens.


Nevertheless, I was proud of what I shot. In total, I had recorded about 35 gigs (several hours) of footage over the course of a day and a half.  I caught so many interesting and beautiful moments that show the hard work of the excavators and the complex nature of Burial Hill. So much of the archaeology translated well to a visual medium, including screening, sampling, and stratigraphy profiling. Additionally, I was glad that footage captured the feeling of being in the field, as well as the efforts of the students as they dug. This was because I had been adamant that I did not want to recreate any scenes of discovery, but instead I wanted to create an atmosphere of authenticity. I would rush over and try to capture scenes and exchanges between the students as they were happening.


Now that I had finished shooting, the next step was editing—a process that still has not ended.

Screenshot of the editing software with several clips queued up. Photo by author

Screenshot of the editing software with several clips queued up. Photo by author


Much like the unofficial rule of thumb for archaeology, “for every day in the field you can expect 3 or 4 days in the lab”, the same is true for filmmaking. Editing and post-production has been a long, slow, and meticulous process. I have been using iMovie to go through my footage and turn it into a viewable film. This software allows me to trim the video clips, arrange and rearrange the clips to be convey a narrative, edit the sound to take out the background noise or enhance the voices, and add subtitles and voice over. My goal is to make a film that is both informative and visually engaging; something that is appealing to both archaeologists and to the general public.

The final version of the film will be released in late 2019. Also in progress are two other short films that were shot during the Burial Hill excavations this summer: one showing the work of the survey crew performing a geo-physical survey of Burial Hill, and one with student interviews of their experiences on Burial Hill. These films, I hope, will allow us to share the Plymouth Project to a wider audience, and show the broader public the all processes of archaeological excavation and the dedicated crew who worked on recovering Plymouth’s early history.

June 13, 2019
by katherinealbert001

The View from the Hill: A Brief Progress Report on the Burial Hill Excavations

The view from Burial Hill looking down on several excavation units

Greetings from Plymouth, MA! The excavations on Burial Hill are in full swing, and there is quite a lot happening. Every day the piles of dirt grow, and every day, as the students dig deeper in their excavation units, more artifacts from the 17th, 18th, and 19thcenturies are recovered. Though we’ve had a few set backs from rain days, we have accomplished a lot during our week and a half on the Hill.

It may be dirty but the view sure is nice

Students screening the soil from their excavation units looking for artifacts


The excavation site on Burial Hill is located at the edge of the cemetery on one side, and a crypt dating to the 1830s on the other. Though the slope can be intense, we still have plenty of room for our 24-person crew of students, TAs, Fiske Center faculty, members from the Mashpee Wampanoag, and local volunteers to work.

Broadly speaking, there are two components of the site we are looking into: an intact Native American site (most likely a Wampanoag occupation from the 16thor 17thcentury) on the northern edge of the Hill, and on the south side, a structure dating to the 17thcentury. As we dig, we hope to learn the how large these two areas of interest are and crucially, how they relate to each other in space and time.

Additionally, we are also looking for evidence of the 17thcentury palisade, a barricade that would have enclosed the early settlement. Though we’ve dug in some likely locations for the palisade, we’ve had no luck so far finding any evidence. Now, new units have been opened up that connect the northern half of the site to the southern half, with the hope of showing not only what the soil layering looks like across the hill, but also increased odds that we will find the stains in the soil from the posts of the palisade.


Work begins connecting the two halves of the site together with two more excavation units


On the northern half, several excavation units have been opened to recover the extent of the Native American site that was excavated in 2016 and 2017, and to see if there is a clear definition between the inside of the Pilgrim settlement, and outside of the settlement. So far, the students have recovered only a few pieces of Native American ceramic and flakes from stone tool making, and very few artifacts that are likely from the colonial period, which seems to support our hunch that as we move towards the structure, we are moving inside the Pilgrim’s settlement. All we need to do is find evidence of the Pilgrim’s palisade and we’re golden!



Excavation units which contain a 17th-structure

Excavation units which contain a 17th-structure

On the southern end of the site, in the shade of a large copper beech tree, there is evidence of a 17thcentury structure on the southern side. Stains in the soil from last year’s excavation suggest that a building stood on the side of the hill in the mid-17thcentury. This year, the students are not only working in last year’s excavation units to continue digging down to 17thcentury soils, but also expanding the previous seasons’ excavation units to find the extent of this structure. However, most of the artifacts recovered so far from these new units have been from the 19thcentury, but as we dig deeper we are finding more materials from the 17thcentury. Notable finds from these excavations include some beautiful pieces of pottery, a button, and lots of glass, nails, and daub (plaster used for insulation in early houses). These will undergo cleaning and analysis in our labs.


There’s still plenty of more work to be done and only 2 weeks left here in Plymouth. Feel free to come visit us on Burial Hill during the week for daily updates on our progress and to see archaeology in action!

The possible foundations of a wall inside an excavation unit with architectural artifacts

The possible foundations of a wall inside an excavation unit with architectural artifacts

Photo Credits: Christa Beranek

June 6, 2019
by Christa Beranek

Plymouth field school 2019: shovel test pits

Shovel test pit excavations

UMass is back in Plymouth for a 7th field season!

By Anya Gruber

Excavations are underway for UMass Boston’s 7th field season in Plymouth, MA! Over the years, UMass’s team has excavated in three areas across the town–Burial Hill, Brewster Gardens, and Cole’s Hill–and this year we’ve added a lot off Carver Street to the list, and have returned to Burial Hill to build off the very exciting discoveries we made last field season.



TA Megan (left) and Mariah, from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Historic Preservation Office, look for artifacts in the screen.

The Carver Street lot is actually two pieces of land; one is owned by Plymouth residents and local history enthusiasts, while the other is owned by the town. This spot is located just down the road from Cole’s Hill, in an area that has a long settlement history. Based on historic maps and records, oral history, and previous excavations at nearby sites, we believe that this may have been inside the eastern edge of the palisaded village established in the 1620s. The Fiske Center’s resident geophysics wizard Dr. John Steinberg, alongside graduate students Melissa and Megan, conducted an extensive GPR (ground penetrating radar) survey to better understand what lies beneath the soil here. The GPR data showed a few anomalies that may belong to a building foundation, or perhaps a stone wall. But we won’t know until we dig a little further!


GPR survey

John, Megan, and Melissa walk the GPR unit on Burial Hill to create maps which inform our excavation plans for the summer.

Once we’re done on Carver Street, we’ll move on to our main site at Burial Hill. This location has seen the majority of UMass’s work in Plymouth, and has yielded incredible insights into the early colonial and Native histories from the deep to the recent past. Last year, we concentrated most of our work on the western side of the crypt, and we will continue that pattern this year. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll find some more 17th century artifacts and preserved features this summer!

August 22, 2018
by Fiske Center

Digitizing the Allerton/Cushman Collection at Plimoth Plantation

Photo by Plimoth Plantation.

Grad student Elizabeth Tarulis working on later period artifacts from the 17th-century Allerton/Cushman site.

This summer Anya Gruber and Elizabeth Tarulis, graduate students in UMass Boston’s Historical Archaeology program, have been working at Plimoth Plantation to digitize the Allerton/Cushman collection. This work is part of an ongoing collaborative project funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, discussed in a previous blog post.

The Allerton/Cushman site is believed to be the home site of Isaac Allerton, merchant and official representative of Plymouth Colony. Located in Kingston, MA this was probably one of the first residences established by settlers immediately outside of Plymouth Colony. It was owned by several others over the years including Allerton’s son-in-law, Thomas Cushman.

The site was discovered in the 1970s when a couple purchased the land to build their home. As the topsoil was stripped, the architect for the construction project recognized that some artifacts were turning up which looked very old. He brought them to Dr. James Deetz, the Assistant Director of Plimoth Plantation at the time. Deetz realized that the construction crew had identified a significant 17th-century colonial site. He took a team out to excavate the site, and the majority of the artifacts they found are still at Plimoth Plantation. A small portion of the collection is also at the Kingston Public Library.

Photo by Plimoth Plantation.

Site documentation from the Allerton/Cushman site, being digitized as part of this project.

We are working to make Deetz’ work available to a wider audience by digitizing this collection. We have already completed the first step by scanning the site documents. We have very detailed site maps, but appear to be missing some field notes and inventories that are mentioned in a later report. Currently we are cataloging the artifacts and entering this information into a database. We began with the “19th and 20th-century materials” box, which has almost anything you can think of from dozens of cigarette butts to a plastic cowboy to two 20th-century rat nests.

Photo by Plimoth Plantation.

The dot/dash provenience labeling system.

As with any older collection, this one has a few quirks. All of these artifacts are labeled with color-coded dots and dashes to indicate their provenience, or the location within the site where they were found. While it is fabulous to have the provenience information, this paint system did not survive well on some of the artifacts. The colors have faded, which proves challenging when you need to distinguish between white and grey or yellow and gold. Further, the coating on top of the painted dots has yellowed, making it difficult to distinguish between green and blue or white and yellow.

These artifacts are also sorted by material rather than provenience (where they were found). Sorting by provenience is the current best practice, and one of the most time-consuming tasks of the digitization process has been to organize the color-coded artifacts from large bags of glass or plastic into their respective proveniences.  The end result of this process will be that artifacts that were found together will be once again stored together.

Despite these issues, this collection is in good shape for its age. We plan to fully catalog these artifacts, reorganize them by provenience, photograph the objects, and make this information accessible online to scholars and members of the public. Although we have not yet started working on the earlier materials, previous research suggests that this is a rich 17th-century site. It will be a valuable resource for future researchers, and we look forward to seeing what is yet to come.

April 10, 2018
by Christa Beranek
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NEH Grant for Digitization


We are excited to announce that the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at UMass Boston, in partnership with Plimoth Plantation, has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Division of Preservation and Access!  This grant, Digitizing Plimoth Plantation’s 17th-Century Historical Archaeology Collections, will support the creation of digital catalogs of four important collections: the RM, Allerton/Cushman, Winslow, and William Bradford II sites.  These sites were the homes of first and second-generation settlers in Plymouth Colony.  Excavated between 1940 and 1972, these archaeological collections remain some of the most significant primary sources for interpreting the first 80 years of English settlement in Massachusetts.

UMass students working in the Plimoth Plantation lab.

This project will make the collections and data drawn from them accessible to scholars, educators, and the general public.  The grant funded work, which will take place over the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival (1620-2020), will produce digital catalogs with accompanying photographs and on-line site descriptions and finding aids.  In the process, the collections will be re-sorted and re-housed.

Image courtesy of Plimoth Plantation.

Dr. Ness in the Plimoth lab.

This project builds on the results of a Survey and Planning Grant completed for the Massachusetts Historical Commission which surveyed all of the Museum’s historical archaeological collections, and a Creative Economy grant from the University of Massachusetts which piloted the digitization standards and workflow that will be used in this project.

The project is directed by Dr. Christa Beranek at UMass and Dr. Kate Ness at Plimoth Plantation.  UMass students will work on these collections at Plimoth Plantation.

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.

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