The Fiske Center Blog

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

May 18, 2018
by John Steinberg

Twelve MA Theses in Historical Archaeology Defended in School Year 2017-2018


Kelton Sheridan talks about her MA thesis

Today at about 3 PM the Master of Arts Program in Historical Archaeology at UMass Boston will achieve a significant milestone:

More MA Theses were defended than new students accepted this year.

While the difference was only 2, it is important that this achievement be celebrated.   In addition to the 3 students that defended today:
Anya Gruber
Kelton Sheridan
Joe Trebilcock

And the 4 students who defended on Wednesday :
Sarah Johnson
Victoria Cacchione
Caitlin Connick
Leigh Koszarsky


We had 5 other students who defended earlier in the school year:
Caroline Gardiner
Alexandra Crowder
Ashby Sturgis
Jessica Hughston
Nadia Kline

This means 12 students defended during the 2017-18 school year. There are 10 graduate students in the 2017-18 matriculating Historical Archaeology class. There will always be some attenuation, thus having more students defend than enter will remain a very rare occurrence (as long as our program is thriving).  Our goal is that all of our students will finish their MA’s with an outstanding thesis and they will do it in a timely manner.

The Anthropology faculty and Fiske Center staff are constantly assessing the success of our MA program, not just by career path after leaving UMass Boston, but also looking at the time to degree.  The changes implemented over the last few years have probably made the MA even more rigorous.  At the same time, expectations and time tables have been more formally and clearly defined in the last few years.  That being said, most of the credit for this milestone goes to the hard-working students!

Just today there was an opinion piece in the New York Times by Ellen Ruppel Shell describing the financial consequences of not finishing an undergraduate degree.  While there are no statistics for Archaeology MAs, I suppose the costs of failing to complete the requirements are similar, though probably not as extreme. The success of our program depends on producing well-trained students who control the local archaeological sequences they are studying, deeply understand the unique and challenging archaeological methods they are using, and contribute to the theoretical problems in archaeology.   We will continue to work to put our students in a position to be successful.  Congratulations to all involved!

May 13, 2018
by John Steinberg

Spring MA thesis defenses for the Historical Archaeology program

Ground Penetrating Radar radargram from Chapter 4 of Joe’s Thesis

**Please join us for spring MA thesis defenses for the Historical Archaeology program.**

All defenses will be held in McCormack, 1-503. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

10 am, Sarah Johnson, “The True Spirit of Service”: Ceramics and Toys as Tools of Ideology at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls.
11:30 am, Victoria Cacchione, “There are among the coloured people of this place remains of the Nantucket Indians”: Identity through Ceramics at the Boston-Higginbotham House.
1 pm, Caitlin Connick, An Analysis of Form and Function of Ceramic Rim Sherds from La 20,000, a 17th Century Estancia Outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.
2:30 pm, Leigh Koszarsky, Understanding Epidemic and Encampment: Yellow Fever and the Soldiers of Smallpox Bay, Bermuda. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

10 am, Anya Gruber, Palynological Investigations of 17th Century Agro-Pastoralism and Ecological Change at LA 20,000, New Mexico.
11:30 am, Kelton Sheridan, A Century of Ceramics: A Study of Household Practices on the Eastern Pequot Reservation. 
1 pm, Joe Trebilcock, Quantifying the Reliability of Ground Penetrating Radar at Archaeological Sites. 

April 27, 2018
by John Steinberg

Wellfleet beach bluff 3D images

As part of our work for the Cape Cod National Sea Shore, we are beginning to monitor  erosion trajectories.  Thus, we have begun to make 3D models of some of the beaches.  While the data is collected for purely scientific reasons, UMass Boston Historical Archaeology Graduate Student Grace Bello made a fly through movie using photos taken by John Schoenfelder.

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.

December 14, 2017
by John Steinberg

Taxing Science?

One of the piles constructed as part of the Manhattan Project

Two interesting opinion pieces in the Washington Post gave complementary perspectives on the UMass opposition to the Federal Tax Reform package. Both opinion pieces focus on the House of Representatives’ proposal of taxing graduate student waivers.

The first, by vice provost David Nirenberg at the University of Chicago, highlights the critical role that graduate students play in American prosperity.  Interestingly, he specifically calls out universities for not doing “a very good job of explaining the importance of graduate education to society.”  The second, by graduate student Sarah Arveson at Yale, argues that the charging and subsequent waiving of tuition that would now be taxed is part of a Yale University “pretense” that graduate students “are students liable for tuition, rather than employees, creating value for the institution and our fields of knowledge.”

I think some explanation is in order and since one of the assignments in David Landon’s Archaeological Methods graduate class was a proposal that includes a budget, I thought I would use these opinion pieces about the potential tax package as an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite subjects: grants and budgeting, and how they relate to tuition waivers.

There is some logic to the tuition and waiver process.  That process takes into account that the resources for students come from a variety of sources including grants, university funds, and endowment funds.  There is lots of room for improvement in how we budget and account for grant money, and the way we explain that to students. But the basic premise of tuition and waivers does work across educational institutions, whether in underfunded small state schools or large well-endowed private schools.  To make the system work, the tuition and waivers are variable, and they can be cobbled together in many different combinations.

Some funding agencies, across the spectrum of private, local, state, and federal, require cost matching or cost sharing to be eligible for their grants.  In these grants, a university would have to pay, or get from some other source, 10 to 50% of the budget.  Conversely, some agencies prohibit cost sharing (what the National Science Foundation calls “voluntary committed cost sharing”) so that the full cost of the grant is obvious.  Prohibiting cost sharing can help to reduce the advantage of richer schools in getting grants.  However, cost sharing demonstrates a university’s commitment to the specific research enterprise.  Often, the university uses tuition waivers as a portion of cost sharing.

Funding agencies also have overhead rates, sometimes referred to as “facilities and administration” or “indirect costs”.  Overhead is a part of the budget of a project, but is not used directly for the project but goes to the university to keep the lights on and fund other general expenses, that would be prohibitive to enumerate in a project budget.  Overhead rates vary dramatically; for some nonprofits the university rate can be as low as 10% but can be as high as 100% of the direct budget costs.  Overhead rates also depend on where most of the work is performed–on or off campus.  A small portion of the overhead may be given to the recipient and/or their department for other research expenses not outlined in the budget.  Generally, tuition waivers, while part of the direct costs, are not included in the total grant cost from which the overhead is calculated.

In a 1995 paper, that folks interested in grant budgets will find enthralling, Carol Gruber argues that the practice of universities contracting with the government, and the resulting overhead that came out of the “no-profit-no-loss” for universities approach, profoundly altered the research university landscape. The contract for research approach that provides overhead, an arrangement that was created during World War II, has helped to create the US university system as we know it today.  The principle behind no-profit-no-loss fits right into a university’s nonprofit status and like it or not—and Arveson clearly does not like it—students are part of that nonprofit approach.  Taxing graduate students’ tuition waivers is not just cruel to graduate students and harmful to academic pursuits, but a fundamental rebuke to the no-profit-no-loss university-government contracting relationship that was born out of the Manhattan Project.


Carol Gruber
“The Overhead System in Government-Sponsored Academic Science: Origins and Early Development”
Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences Vol. 25, No. 2 (1995), pp. 241-268



UPDATE:  December 17, 2017 –
The final draft of the Republican tax bill kills a proposed tax on tuition waivers.

December 4, 2017
by John Steinberg
1 Comment

Fiske Center in Cooperative Agreement with the National Park Service

Fiske Center Director Steve Mrozowski looks at an eroding beach bluff on Great Island.

The Fiske Center has recently entered into a cooperative agreement with the Cape Cod National Seashore to conduct environmental monitoring, geophysical survey, coring, and limited excavations at several archeological sites on the Outer Cape. The project focuses on the history and prehistory of the Wellfleet area, the threat of coastal erosion, and methodologies of archaeological site assessment. This exciting project will add to the broad range of Fiske Center funded projects that investigate the cultural and biological dimensions of colonization.

One of the goals of the project is to complete an intensive inventory of archaeological sites threatened by significant erosion and inundation due to climate change located along the bluffs above the Atlantic Ocean at Great Island and Great Beach Hill.

As part of this cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, the Fiske Center will have Graduate Assistantships for students in the  Historical Archaeology MA program for work on the cooperative agreement. Duties for the Research Assistants will include performing background research, processing data and artifacts in a laboratory setting, and entering data into computer programs. The Research Assistants will also participate in the fieldwork and aid in report preparation. It is hoped that student research that takes place as part of this agreement will produce conference presentations, papers, and master’s thesis topics.

Fiske Center conservator, Dennis Piechota, examines the bluffs on Great Island for potential micromorphological samples.

Steve Mrozowski will oversee the project and direct the fieldwork in collaboration with John Steinberg (geophysical survey), Dennis Piechota (micromorphology), and Christa Beranek (historic period deposits). Students applying to the Historical Archaeology Master of Arts program who are interested in working on the Cape Cod project should mention it in their personal statement. For more information contact or see the Fiske Center Website.

August 29, 2017
by Christa Beranek
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Upcoming Fieldwork at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Orchard House, Concord, MA. Image courtesy of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

A team of staff and students from the Fiske Center at UMass Boston will be working at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, this fall, conducting archaeological excavations in advance of the construction of a geothermal heating system for the historic buildings. The purpose of the excavation is to study any important archaeological deposits that are in the path of the construction. We will be looking for evidence of previous outbuildings, trash deposits, information about landscape changes, and data that shed light on people who lived in this area in any time period.

Orchard House is best known as the historic home of the Alcott family including Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women (1868), and her father Bronson Alcott, a member of the Transcendentalist movement. Since 1912, the house has been maintained as a historic site by the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, now as Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Inc. The Alcotts lived on the property from 1857 to 1877 and were responsible for the current configuration of the house (older structures that were altered during the Alcotts’ tenure) as well as many landscape changes. We know about some of these activities from the family members’ journals – they were prolific writers – and from two previous phases of archaeological excavation on the property.

Map of the 1999 STP transects north and northeast of the house.

The previous excavations in 1999 and 2001/2002 had two different goals. The 1999 work was a shovel test pit (STP) survey, a grid of small excavation areas regularly spaced, north and northeast of the house. These small test pits are used to gather the first round of archaeological information about an area to learn what kinds of landscape changes have taken place, what kinds of trash deposits or features (foundations or pits, for example) are present in an area, and to begin to put dates on the different deposits and activities. At Orchard House, the 1999 survey uncovered a lot of evidence of activity during the Alcotts’ occupation and shortly thereafter, including evidence of moving top soil from one part of the property to another and of re-landscaping the area around the house. The STPs also found areas with high concentrations of trash and building materials. The STP survey provided a general picture of uses of areas north of the house that had archaeological potential – the possibility for deposits that would provide significant information about residents of the property. Since the property is preserved and protected, none of these deposits were further excavated at the time.

The 2001/2002 excavations were focused on the areas directly around the house and were carried out in anticipation of work one the house’s foundation. In this case, since we knew that the area was going to be disturbed by necessary construction, rather than just identifying the locations of archaeological deposits, we excavated large portions of them to gather information before it was lost. This phase of work resulted in the excavation of a large Alcott period trash deposit just behind the house which was studied in detail by UMB student Allison Conner for her MA thesis.

Some of the ceramic vessels excavated in 2001.

This year, we are returning to the area covered by the 1999 STP survey. Since the geothermal heating system will cross this area, we need to excavate larger portions of the areas identified as having high archaeological potential. We will use the results of the earlier work, and the construction plans, to put targeted, larger excavation units in places where the work area crosses locations identified as significant. We will also test some new areas not covered in 1999.

The first activity on site will be to establish a site grid. We do our work in the Massachusetts State Plane grid using GPS units and a total station, which ensures that excavation unit locations are accurately mapped and that any researcher could find them again in the future. In preparation for this, we put the old excavation maps into Geographic Information System (GIS) software which will allow us to display all of the excavation units from multiple years on a single, layered map.

After Labor Day, we will begin excavation. We excavate stratigraphically, meaning that we remove each different soil layer separately. The soil from each layer is screened, and all artifacts from a soil layer are kept together. The archaeologists will also spend a lot of time drawing, mapping, and documenting their findings. Once the excavation is complete, artifacts will go to the lab at UMass to be cleaned, identified, and studied before eventually returning to Orchard House. We will share updates from the field and lab work here or on our Facebook page or Instagram account at UMBArchaeology. If you are visiting Orchard House, you can also ask the Orchard House staff or the archaeologists questions about the work. You can also ask a question in the comments here!

Education Foundations: Grafton 2017

June 19, 2017 by keltonsheridan001 | 0 comments

From potsherds to stone features, Grafton has been nothing but exciting this field season. After a two-year hiatus, an excavation team of professors, graduates, and undergraduates is back. The goal of this year is to continue opening units in Hassanamesit Woods. In 2015 a stone foundation was discovered. This season we are following that same foundation to understand the scale of the structure. Additionally, we intend to find other landscape features linked to the 18th and 19th centuries. Most artifacts that have been recovered so far are from the mid 19th century with a small percentage of 18th century materials. The goal of this season is to see if we can find additional evidence of an early 18th century school for Nipmuc and English children. A slate fragment with the abbreviations for the days of the week inscribed on it was found last year in addition to lead pencils that were unearthed this summer. Stay tuned to see what else the UMass archaeologists discover!

This gallery contains 2 photos

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 16, 2017
by Fiske Center

Alum Profile: Heather Law Pezzarossi

Heather showing a Nipmuc community member around the lab in 2012.

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis? For those of you who are further out from UMB, you can say something about your route to your current situation (additional degrees, career changes, etc.)

I earned my Master’s Degree from UMass Boston in 2008. My Master’s project was based on the Hassanamesit Woods Project, where I served as a TA in 2006, our first year of the field school, and continued until 2008. Since then, I’ve gone on to receive my doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. My doctoral project was also based on work at Hassanamesit Woods, where I continued to work as Project Archaeologist each summer until 2013. After I graduated from Berkeley in 2014, I moved back east to Syracuse University, where my partner and I have positions in the Anthropology department, he as an assistant professor, and I as a visiting scholar and adjunct professor. That position allows me to maintain an academic community so that I can continue to publish my work and pursue further research interests with an academic affiliation, which is important.

2. What is the most interesting project (field, lab, academic, or community) that you have worked on recently?

My two most important recent projects are Remi and Lilou, ages 2.5 and 11 months. I have devoted much of the last three years to their full-time care. Being a stay-at-home mom has taught me a number of things, not the least of which are: the true meaning of exhaustion, the limits of my patience, my tolerance for Daniel Tiger. But I also see that I’m lucky to have the opportunity to step back a little, slow down and focus on them for a while. Not everyone can do that and I know I’ll always be glad that I was able to.

Career-wise, I’m working my way through several writing projects. I have learned how much you have to truly want something to do it after a full day of momming. And in that sense, I’ve reaffirmed my goals and interests as an archaeologist. I finished my dissertation when my oldest was 6 months old. For the last year I have been writing and editing a volume on the Archaeology of Indigenous Persistence in the Americas for the University of New Mexico Press, which is nearly completed. I’m working on a book about Nipmuc archaeology with Rae Gould, Stephen Mrozowski and Holly Herbster, and I’m writing up my first book manuscript based on my dissertation. I’m also developing a second research project based on my interest in Indigeneity and Modernity that I’m really excited about. I’ve also designed and taught a class in the Indigenous Archaeology of the Northeast from the Paleolithic to the Present, and I continue to search for a more permanent teaching position as a specialist in Northeast Historical Archaeology and Collaborative Indigenous Archaeology. Many more progressive institutions are reassessing the unsustainable wages and unfair expectations associated with adjuncting positions and realizing the importance of supporting dual career families in more equitable ways, so I’m hopeful that something will work out in the near future.

Heather in her element at Hass Woods in 2007.

3. What is one thing that you remember specifically about your time at UMass?

My time at UMass was so special to me. I met my partner, Guido Pezzarossi there, and we made many lifelong friends. Dr. Mrozowski was (and continues to be) a great mentor. My summers in Grafton working with him, figuring out the Sarah Boston Site, that is what I remember most fondly about my time at UMass.

4. What is the best advice you got (or wish you had gotten) in graduate school?

I got a lot of advice in graduate school. Much of it had to do with the difficulties of advancing in academia as a career couple. I was warned repeatedly, that academia is not an easy path, especially for partners in the same field. They told us that we would never get into the same doctoral program, and we didn’t. But we each applied to 9 different programs, and got into two different schools that were close to one another. They told us we would have a hard time getting tenure track appointments at the same school, and so far we haven’t. But we are both active in the field and support one another’s progress. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad I was warned, but also glad that we were both too stubborn to let that stop us. The best advice I’ve gotten is that life is messy and complicated and the richer it is, the more unpredictable its path will be. I hope that helps people who are thinking about applying to the Master’s program at UMass, or thinking of continuing on afterward.

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