The Fiske Center Blog

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

October 25, 2019
by katherinealbert001

Archaeology Month Updates

Archaeology Month at the Fiske Center

By Kati Albert

Happy October and happy Massachusetts Archaeology Month to all who follow the Fiske Center and UMB Archaeology!

To speak very personally, I love archaeology month. I see it not just an opportunity for us to pat ourselves on the back and celebrate the great work that we do, but also as a time to reach out to the public and show a larger audience what it is that we do, and why it is so interesting. Connecting to the public is such a powerful thing for archaeologists; there is a lot that both groups can offer each other if they take the time. As such, this Archaeology Month is as much a time for sharing with others as it is for highlighting our efforts for our colleagues and ourselves.

It’s been a great month for us at the Fiske Center/UMB so far both in terms of our field projects (a geophysical survey at Gore Place in Waltham, MA, and an  STP survey in Pembroke, MA), as well as our special outreach events.

The month began with members of UMB’s Society for Graduate Archaeologists (SGA) tabling in the university Campus Center. Armed with books, archaeo-botanical samples, a video of students in the field (check that out here: ), and an artifact guessing game, the SGA worked to spread the word about the archaeology at UMB from the research projects, to the master’s program, and the opportunities to volunteer. It was a great opportunity to share our work with the larger student body, and to touch base with people interesting in learning more about our work, or becoming involved with us.


SGA members tabling for Archaeology Month

SGA members tabling for Archaeology Month














The SGA will be back tabling next week on Monday the 28th and Wednesday the 30th. Feel free to stop by, say “hi”, and learn about the amazing archaeological experiences UMB has to offer.


Students have also given talks relevant to their theses this month as well. On October 10th, current 3rd year Elizabeth Tarulis gave a presentation about her thesis research at the Alden House Barn. She discussed the larger connections and trade networks behind some of the ceramics from the Alden collection and the vessels that have been recovered during the excavations at Burial Hill during the Plymouth Field School.

Alden Talk Poster featuring Elizabeth Tarulis' thesis presentation

Alden Talk Poster featuring Elizabeth Tarulis’ thesis presentation

This past weekend, current graduate students Lissa Herzing and Jared Muehlbauer working on the Boston-Higginbotham House collections gave a presentation to the Nantucket on the excavations conducted there in 2014 and the subsequent research that has been conducted. They shared some of their analysis on the rich collections of artifacts recovered from the excavations, which shed more light on the diverse people from the island’s history.

Even though we’ve done a lot already, we still more archaeology events planned for October! Coming up on October 30th, associate director of the Fiske Center, Dr. David Landon, will be presenting at Pilgrim Hall Museum on the excavations that have been conducted in downtown Plymouth over the past several years. This will be an opportunity to learn about the most recent excavations and discoveries from Burial Hill, where part of a 17th-century structure has recently been found.

For more information about up-coming events happening all across Massachusetts, please visit the Massachusetts Archaeology Month page on the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s website at:

Hope to see you around!

Have a happy and safe Archaeology Month!

January 14, 2019
by John Steinberg

Results of Geophysical survey at Langone Park: 100 Years since the Great Molasses Flood

By John M. Steinberg & Grace E. Bello

View of softball diamond at Langone Park.  The infield  and pitcher’s mound is outlined in brown, which helps to orient the following geophysical images.

As we said in our previous post,  the City Archaeologist, Joe Bagley asked us at the Fiske Center if we could conduct a geophysical survey over the area of Langone Park that, 100 years ago, had a tank which ruptured and caused The Great Molasses Flood of 1919.  This is in preparation for Tuesday January 15th, 2019—the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Grace Bello beginning to set up the geophysical grid by placing PVC flags along the first base line.

For our archaeological geophysical survey, we used two common techniques: ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electromagnetic (EM) conductivity.  The area was first prepared for the survey by placing out a grid of PVC flags.  Because the grid was oriented to the softball diamond, the locations of each of the corner flags (and many of the intermediate flags) were recorded with a survey grade GPS.

John Steinberg walking along the third base line with the CMD-Mini.

First, John used the CMD-MiniExplorer conductivity meter, which requires the operator to walk across the target area holding the unit just above the ground.  These transects are then combined to create a  conductivity map of the subsurface. The CMD-Mini creates a data set with two components at three different “depths.”   The different depths are from the three different receivers in the orange tube at various distances from the single transmitter.  The farther apart the receiver from the transmitter, the “deeper” the reading (1 is the closest, 3 is the farthest and thus deepest).   The two components are complex.  The Quadrature component, usually called bulk conductivity (Con) represents the apparent conductivity of the volume of earth under the unit and is measured in milli-Siemens per meter (mS/m).   Good conductors (e.g., salty wet earth) have high conductivity, while poor conductors (e.g., rocks) have low conductivity.  The in-phase component (IP) is usually expressed in parts per thousand (ppt) and is very sensitive to buried metal.  Thus, we have a total of  six different maps from the CMD-Mini: Con1 & IP1, Con2 & IP2, and Con3 & IP3.

Grace Bello with the Malå GPR unit.

Second,  Grace and John walked back and forth dragging the Malå GPR unit with a 500 MHz antenna.  The GPR unit sends out microwaves and if there is a change in soil moisture (or some other similar property) some of the microwave energy will be reflected back up to the GPR unit, which also has a receiver.  The GPR unit then, like the CMD, collects data along transects which produce a data stream called a radargram. Multiple transects are combined and then sliced at different depths, which allows us to create a series of maps that depict some of the aspects of the changes in the subsurface at different depths.   We created 25 different slices, but only present two below.

Example radargram from the transect 5 m (16.5 ft) north of the third base line.

Outlines of  all the structures from the maps described in our previous blog post

In our recent blog post, we describe the georeferencing of various historic maps of Langone park.  When all of the various structures depicted on these maps are combined, you can get a sense of just how complex this lot is.  Many of the structures may be the same structure, but  with slightly different locations provided by different maps, and we do not know how accurate any of them are.  In this case, we have been asked to identify one of the last structures on the lot.  Generally, the construction of  later structures compromises or destroys the earlier structures.  Thus, our most likely potential target is an area where there is a broad, consistent absence of distinct structures. Furthermore, given the hasty construction of the tank, any remements are probably shallow.  This approach is in stark contrast to our usual method—where we are trying to identify remnants of the earliest structures.

GPR slice 50 cm (about 20 in) below the ground surface.

GPR slice 150 cm  (about 60 in) below the ground surface.

Starting with the GPR results, there is a distinct hard reflector 50 cm below the ground surface (bgs). This hard reflector is circled in pink.  This infield hard reflector is distinct from the outer edge of the infield (marked in brown).  This hard reflector is potentially caused by the remnants of the tank in question.  That being said, we want to be a little careful, because this hard reflector is almost the same as the grass infield area from when this was a little league diamond.  However, this slice is a little too deep to show that contrast.  Furthermore, the wide dirt path from the mound to home plate is not visible in this slice.  Both of these lines of evidence suggest that this hard reflector is a result of current or recent landscaping. The deepest GPR slices do not seem to show remnants the tank but instead show some of the potential dock and landfill boundaries, just to the north of first base.  Interestingly, this dominant southeast angle does not reflect any of the structures or orientations seen in our georeferenced maps.

In-phase for the most shallow CMD-Mini readings (IP1). The potential tank location is in pink.

In-phase for the middle  CMD-Mini readings (IP2).

The CMD-Mini yields much more complex results that correspond to many of the structures outlined in the georeferenced maps.  Starting with the IP components, IP1 shows a blue (high IP) area in the infield that corresponds to the area identified in the GPR (again circled in pink).  Just north of the first base line, in right field, is a rectangular blue area that has the same general dimensions and orientation as the structure seen in the 1917 map, just north of the tank in question.  That structure has an add on (in brown) that curves along the curve of the tank that touches 1st base. The potential tank area is more distinct in the deeper components (IP2 & IP3), while the building in right field is less distinct.

Conductivity for the most shallow CMD-Mini Readings (Con1).

The bulk conductivity component of the data from the CMD-Mini is much more complex, but all three sensor-transmitter distances show the same basic map.

In-phase for the deepest CMD-Mini readings (IP3). The potential tank location is in pink

Conductivity for the middle CMD-Mini Readings (Con2).

The Slatter 1852 Map with Con3 superimposed.

The Bromley 1917 map with Con3 superimposed.

Unlike the IP, the Con does not hint at the tank location, there are three high (blue) conductivity areas that seem to correspond to the distribution and orientation of structures in some of  the georeferenced maps.  The blue area in left center field matches quite closely with the angled structure drawn in the 1852 Slatter map.  Some of the low conductivity lines (which could be lines of rocks) correspond to lines drawn in that 1852 map.  Once a property orientation is established, it tends to persist.  Thus, it is not surprising that the geophysics can correspond to more than one map.  Specifically, the three blue areas in the outfield roughly correspond to the three drawn structures abutting the tank in question depicted in the 1917 Bromley map.

Proposed location of tank superimposed on air photo.

While in both the 1852 and 1917 maps the correspondences with geophysical readings and drawn structures  are not exact, they are well within the range of accuracy that we usually see with these kinds of maps.

When all of our data is combined (the georeferenced maps, the GPR and the Electromagnetic Conductivity) and tried to make fit, our best guess as to the specific location of the remnants of the tank that caused the Great Molasses Flood, is 3 meters northwest of the location drawn in the 1917 Bromley map—at least by our georeferencing of that map.  Obviously, we would need to excavate this dynamic and interesting area to begin to refine the location further, but the geophysical results suggest that the 1917 map is generally accurate.  There is no evidence of a consistent bias in the locations of structures as compared to the geophysics, so as georeferenced, the 1917 map is accurate to better than 5 m (16 ft).  As always, more research is necessary.

The 1917 Broomly map with the proposed actual location of the tank in pink.



Langone Park and Great Molasses Flood of 1919

January 13, 2019 by gracebello001 | 0 comments

By Grace E. Bello & John M. Steinberg

Areal image of what the waterfront looks like today.

The City Archaeologist, Joe Bagley, asked us at the Fiske Center if we could conduct a geophysical survey over the area of Langone Park that, 100 years ago, had a tank which ruptured and caused The Great Molasses Flood of 1919.  This is in preparation for Tuesday January 15th, the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

For our archaeological geophysical survey we used two common techniques: ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electromagnetic (EM) conductivity.   The results will be presented in the next post.

Before we interpret the results of a geophysical survey, we try and georeference every map we can of the area in question.  The georeferenced maps allows us to better understand the geophysical results.  Thus, below is a sample of some of the many maps that we looked at, to understand the complex history of this park.  Today, the park has a little league / softball diamond, and the outline of that feature is shown in brown on each of the georeferenced maps (which are mostly from the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library).  In  great article in the Boston Globe Magazine, you can see a georeferenced 1917 map showing that the location of the tank is in the general area of the diamond.   However, the Wikipedia map shows a smaller tank more north and a building between the tank and Commercial street.  Joe Bagley wanted us to see if we could refine the location of the tank that ruptured in 1919. Over time, maps generally become more accurate, but just how accurate, and how well out team has georeferenced them is and issue that we study intently.  Geophysical results can sometimes help us better georeference the maps and understand what parts are accurate, and what parts might require a little change.   This is akin to the work we have been doing in Plymouth, combining geophysics and georeferenced maps,  getting ready for the 400th anniversary of that colony.

1775 Map depicting the shipyard that occupied the area where the tank collapse

The landscape of Boston has been altered heavily over the past four hundred years.  The evolution of Boston’s landscape is evident in historic maps that depict the city’s waterfront property.  Maps, such as the ones shown in this sequence, are extraordinarily important sources of data about the past. These maps detail the dynamic history of the North End in Boston.

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, took place in a relatively small portion of the North End’s extensive history and has hardly left a mark on the landscape. The flood occurred on January 15th, 1919, when a 50 ft. tall and 90 ft. in diameter molasses storage tank, owned by the Purity Distilling Company, collapsed.  The collapsed tank then tipped over creating a wave of molasses close to 25 ft. tall which killed 21 people and injured up to 150. Today this is what the area looks like.

1814 Map.  surveyed by J.G. Hales ; J.R. & Penniman.

Starting with the 1722 Captain John Bonner map of the, then, town of Boston, which shows the then active docks that occupied much of the Boston shoreline.  This map was a monumental beginning to modern cartographic detailing that documented Boston’s shoreline. The docks, that are clear in the 1722 map, suggesting  dry and wet docks in the 18th century.  In a redrawn 1775 map, the area where the tank was located in the 20th century, was occupied by Hunts and Whites Ship yard.  In this georeference, the park diamond is centered on the “ar” of Ship Yard.

In an 1814 map, Commercial Street was labeled Lynn Street and the softball diamond seems to be on the mostly dry land with a building to the east.  According to an

1852 Map surveyed and drawn by J. Slatter & B. Callan.

1852 map the adjacent street is now Commercial Street and a substantial amount of land has been added in the form of docks.   It is not clear if the building along the first base line is the same one depicted in the 1814 map, but certainly the building curving around 3rd base seems to be new. The two border lines

1861 map made by Boston City Council, city engineer James Slade

coming together at the pitching mound may be visible in some of the geophysics, and will be seen in many of the later maps.

The same basic configuration is also visible in the 1861 map, made by the City.

1867 Sanborn Insurance map of Boston : volume 1 : plate 1
Cartographer: Daniel Alfred Sanborn

An 1867 map is the first real detailed map of the area. It is also one of the early famous Sanborn fire insurance maps.  It shows several coal sheds and hints that the building along the first base line, first seen in the 1814 map, might still be there 50 years later.

George Washington Bromley 1890 map

The  1890 Bromley map suggests that the “V” of two docks,  meeting at the pitchers mound, first seen in the 1852 map, is still present but that the building  that used to be along the first base line, is now substantially larger.  The docks are also very different.  A image of these kinds of docks can be seen in the birds eye view of downtown Boston dated 1877.  These docks were an active hot spot for landscape change during

Bachman 1877 birds eye view

the 18th and 19th centuries.  Further construction of larger docks and land masses were very common during these centuries by building cribbing or sinking ships to artificially fill in the harbor

By the 1908 map, the lot will take on the

1908 George Washington Bromley map

basic shape, the distilling company is labeled as the owner, and a small tank is indicated in the middle of the lot.

1912 George Washington Bromley map

This may be where the Wikipedia map gets its layout.  In this initial 1908 map one large building can be seen in pink that is replaced by multiple buildings in the following 1912 map.  The 1912 map shows a similar small tank but smaller building on Commercial St, and tracks going into the adjacent lot. To the right of the new park area is the soon to be location of the Purity Distilling Company which seems to have built larger molasses tanks as the business grew. This map shows the first distillery’s tank with two new buildings along side a new above ground railway.

1917 Bromley Map probably showing the tank before destruction.

A 1917 map shows the distillery buildings and the large molasses tank before the accident.   The 1917 map is what we will base much of our interpretation on.  It almost surely shows the large molasses tank that burst during the 1919 disaster as well as two new buildings.  This is the final map that the distillery appears on.  A 1922 map shows the absence of a distillery and tank, replaced with reused buildings by railway operations. Our final map, from 1938, again shows all of the buildings in the 1917 map, with the addition of a small shed where the pitcher’s mound is today.  In 1973 Langone park  was created.

1922 Bromley map

1938 Bromley map

In our next installment we will present the geophysical results from Langone Park.


November 27, 2018
by gracebello001

Updating Cape Cod 3-D Model

Our work with the Cape Cod National Sea Shore  continues as we monitor erosion trajectories.  This 3-D model was built to aid in quantifying beach erosion over time. While the data is collected for purely scientific reasons, I made a fly through movie using photos and GPS control points taken by John Schoenfelder, John Steinberg, Melissa Ritchey, and Jocelyn Lee.

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.

January 30, 2017
by Fiske Center
1 Comment

Federal land and archaeological sites

Archaeology has a preservation ethic, and in the US, the Federal Government plays a large role in preserving our shared cultural heritage, including archaeological sites, by virtue of owning land, especially in western states. A bill directing the Secretary of the Interior to sell public lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming has been introduced: H.R. 621. It has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources (members from UT, AK, TX, CO, VA, WY, MI, NC, FL, IL, GA, LA, AR, and CA). The full list of committee members can be found here. Selling the land weakens or eliminates the legal protection of any archaeological sites on the land.

The link to the bill, H.R. 621, is here.

If you would like to comment on this bill, especially if you live in one of the states with a member on the Committee on Natural Resources, you can find their contact information here.

There is a Google doc (authorship unknown) with committee contact information and a suggested script.

Related legislation, bill H.R. 622 would “terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and to provide block grants to States for the enforcement of Federal law on Federal land under the jurisdiction of these agencies.” This bill has also been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Agriculture. The effects on archaeological resources are less clear cut, but would probably entail states deciding the degree to which they wanted to devote resources to combat looting and site destruction on Federal land.

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.

December 23, 2015
by David Landon

Community Preservation Coalition Highlights Archaeology

The Community Preservation Coalition has recently highlighted the use of Community Preservation Act funds to support archaeology in Massachusetts. One of their featured projects is our work on Nantucket at the Boston-Higginbotham House, a collaborative undertaking with the Museum of African American History.

Nantucket Artifacts

Read more about it here:

October 30, 2015
by David Landon

Public Presentation: UMass Boston’s Plymouth Archaeology Project


Tuesday, November 10, 7–8:30 pm • Plymouth Public Library

Fehlow Room, Main Library, 132 South Street, Plymouth, MA

Please join us for an overview of the planned work for the University of Massachusetts Boston’s archaeological and geophysical investigations in the Town of Plymouth. This work is being sponsored by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is designed to learn more about the history and archaeology of the Town as part of the lead up to 2020. Proposed work for 2016–2018 will be described followed by a question and answer session for the audience.


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