The Fiske Center Blog

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

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.

March 22, 2017
by Christa Beranek

A First Look at the Early Features in Plymouth

Last fall, we announced that we had discovered the first archaeological features from the 17th-century palisaded town of Plymouth during our 2016 field season on Burial Hill. Now, as we prepare the technical report, we are starting to have a more detailed understanding of the features that we have found and the artifacts in them. This post will discuss those features, and later posts will go into more detail about the different classes of artifacts.

The 2016 features during excavation. Sarah and Anna in the foreground are excavating the calf burial.

In 2015, we had found a very small segment of an early colonial feature: a pit or trench that was cut off on one side by the demolition cut of a later building and ran into the wall of our excavation unit on the other. The section that we had was too small to be able to say much more about it. The disturbed deposits above the feature contained a small number of 17th-century artifacts. One the strength of this discovery, we opened 8 square meters adjacent to this in 2016 which contained a buried ground surface and a complex of 17th-century features, all of which appeared as soil stains. This is what we would expect to see from both Native and early colonial features: areas in the light sandy subsoil that are darker and more organic, representing the locations of pits, trenches, or decomposed posts. All of these features are fairly ephemeral, consisting only of differently colored and textured dirt. Identifying and mapping them relied on careful excavation and documentation. At this level, we switched from our normal quarter-inch mesh screens to eight-inch mesh to find the smallest artifacts. Keeping artifacts together by context (soil layer and feature), drawing and photographing the soil stains, and carefully describing the color and texture of the soil allows us to interpret each feature. This is what we have been doing over the fall and winter, and we can now present a preliminary interpretation, though there is still plenty of work to do!

Features discovered in 2016 (north is to the left). The 2015 excavations were east of this area, just beyond the top edge of the photo.

The dark soil along the eastern edge of the excavation area is the continuation of the feature discovered in 2015, a trench with a steep profile, quite broad at the top and deep and narrow at the bottom running NW to SE. It was filled with a very organically enriched soil with a low artifact density: shell and animal bone, fragments of Native ceramic vessels, and a small number of historic ceramics (redware and North Devon), a trade bead, and a small number of nails. In the south central part of the excavation area is a planting hole that contained a large number of fish bones. Running north to south across the 3 meters that we had open was a shallow trench that contained trade beads, straight pins, lithic flakes, and small fragments of Native and European ceramics including some early stoneware and Border ware. In the center of the trench was a much deeper pit used to bury a calf, largely articulated (meaning that the skeleton was still held together by some tissue when it was buried) though missing its head, rear limbs, and feet. There are post holes both east and west of the trench and another faint soil stain at the north edge of the excavation area.

Our preliminary interpretation is that all of these are features outside a house, and that the shallow N-S trench represents the slight depression created by a drip line or walking path just outside a building. Historians of the early town believe that John Alden and Miles Standish owned the houses in this part of the settlement, raising the possibility that we are close to the location of one of their original home sites. Given these features and the Native site excavated in 2015 north of this area, we believe that we have identified the inside and outside of the settlement, and we hope to be able identify the location of the palisade wall in future seasons.

March 9, 2017
by Fiske Center

Alum Profile: Mike Way

Mike Way, graduated from UMB in 2010
Senior regulatory compliance manager at Caldwell Compliance

Mike’s desk is regularly covered with modern-day artifacts at Caldwell’s Pleasanton, CA office.

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I am a senior regulatory compliance manager at Caldwell Compliance. I manage environmental and regulatory compliance as a contractor for a nationwide wireless carrier. My job is to ensure all telecom sites deployed by the carrier meet National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requirements. After obtaining my M.A. in Historical Archaeology from UMB, I conducted archaeological field surveys for three years for telecom projects with an environmental consulting firm. I was then promoted to head of the archaeology department nationwide, a position I held for a year before moving to Rochester, New York to try my hand at real estate and site acquisition for telecom sites. After a year, I came back to California and took up my current position, which requires both my archaeological and site acquisition background.

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

I recently worked on a project on California’s Central Coast in an area sensitive to a California Coastal Native American Tribe. I was able to facilitate discussion between the tribe and the wireless career and consulted on a redesigned site plan to resolve the Tribe’s concerns, allowing the project to move forward in a manner agreeable to all parties.

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

I remember exciting opportunities to work with top-tier archaeologists in the field on sites deeply important to American history, from Nantucket to Lexington and Grafton, MA.

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

The advice I wish I had received is to dive in and own your thesis. Dig into the archaeological and historical data, clearly define the questions you want to answer and be sure the data you will collect will provide an answer to your question, one way or another. I spent a lot of time concerned about all of the issues and complexities I couldn’t cover, and in hindsight I should have focused more on my specific question and trusted my own ability to be an expert and come to a reasonable and logical conclusion.

5. Anything else you would like to add?

My training in the Historical Archaeology M.A. program has served me well. Career paths are not always linear, so be open to learning new things. Chances are your previous training, experiences, and success will take you down a rewarding and fulfilling career path.

February 17, 2017
by Fiske Center

Cole’s Hill Mystery Artifact!

by Nadia Waski

We need your help!

Excavations from this past summer’s fieldwork on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, revealed a 19th century cache of intentionally buried personal items—which we are calling the Cole’s Hill Memorial Cache. (Click here for additional background about the deposit.) While most artifacts from this collection have been identified, we are still puzzled by these copper coils. They were discovered underneath cobbles in the southern half of the excavation unit, associated with a small glass bottle, spectacles, and a pansy pin.

The coils in situ, surrounding a small glass bottle.

We have considered a number of possible uses for these delicate coils, whose ends are designed to fasten together, including a possible necklace, a girdle, a portion of a woman’s hoop skirt, or even a man’s sleeve garter. Comments or opinions on this object would be greatly appreciated to help guide our efforts to identify this artifact!

The coils in their protective housing in the lab.

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 30, 2017
by Dennis Piechota

From Dustpan to Daguerreotype

In this post, Dennis Piechota, the archaeological conservator at the Fiske Center, recounts the discovery of the central objects in the Cole’s Hill cache. In the field, we recognized that we had something rectangular and fragile, with leather components, so we transferred it directly to Dennis’s care at the Fiske Center, rather than letting it wait at the field lab. You can read more background about the deposit here, and additional posts about other objects from the cache here.

From Dustpan to Daguerreotype
By Dennis Piechota

As first removed from the field.

When extremely fragile and unidentifiable artifacts are encountered in the field they are often block-lifted with the surrounding soil matrix and transported to the laboratory where excavation can continue along with conservation and identification through microscopic analysis.

In the field one uses whatever supports are at hand to lift out a fragile artifact, in this case some aluminum foil on a dustpan. When received in the lab we saw only the foil-lined unknown assemblage shown above containing something fibrous and rectangular hidden in a mass of soil. It was transferred onto an archival cardboard support that could be placed in the refrigerator when not in treatment.
Exploratory cleaning began with soft brushing which showed that the fibers came from a single braid of blonde human hair. And next to the braid was a common water-worn rock that lay atop a group of four gold-leafed leather-bound containers.

After initial cleaning.

The braided hair, though originally unpigmented, was now stained brown by contact with the soil. It was consolidated with a cellulosic resin just enough to lift it free of the assemblage and place it on a study/storage support.

Braid, after removal.

Under the braid we found the fragmentary remains of a red paper that appeared to be tied in place with black silk ribbon.

Detail of paper, ribbon, and case edging.

Further cleaning showed a two-by-two stack of four 19th-century photograph cases, the type of hinged display case used for ambrotypes and daguerreotypes. Composed of leather-covered wood frames, their interiors were originally lined with velvet with the photograph held in place by an etched metal mat called a ‘protector’. We had no idea at this point how much of the interiors, especially the sensitive photographic imaging, would be preserved.

One by one the cases were removed and their exteriors were stabilized enough to be opened to examine the four images inside.

A daguerreotype of a standing young man, wearing what appears to be a uniform with a bag slung from his left shoulder and a cap with cockade in his gloved left hand.

Another daguerreotype, this one relatively poorly preserved, shows a young woman in a gingham check dress with empire waist.

An ambrotype of what appears to be the same young woman wearing the same dress!

An ambrotype of a mature woman, perhaps the same person imaged above as a young girl.

Though these images clearly show the effects of their burial in a soil environment for over a century, with 100 seasons of wet springs, hot summers and freezing winters, it is remarkable that any imaging has survived at all.
Currently the photographs have been sent to the specialists in photographic conservation at the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Analysis and interpretation of these amazing finds will continue upon their return.

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.

January 18, 2017
by Fiske Center

From Pine Cone to Gilded Ivory Brooch

By Dennis Piechota

Image of the object before cleaning.

Most objects encountered in the field are easily identified. But the identity of some, like this artifact from Coles Hill in Plymouth MA, can unfold slowly for the archaeologist and conservator.
When still partly covered with the soil of the excavation pit in the summer of 2016 this object looked like what is sometimes called an ‘eco-fact’, a natural product, in this case apparently a fragment of a pine cone. Then when freed from the soil its metal base and mounting pin were noted identifying this as a jewelry form, a brooch. During initial cleaning it looked like a delicate wood carving of a compound flower head composed of seven six-petal florets all mounted on a copper alloy base.

Detail after cleaning.

In the laboratory microscopic inspection showed the decoration was made not from one carving of a single block of wood, but from a complex of 15 separate miniature carvings that were assembled to form a flower.
Looking into the centers of each floret, away from the weathered edges, we see the carvings are actually translucent and white indicating they are not wood, even though their tips appear brown and opaque; the florets are all carved of ivory!

Detail of the base with evidence of gold leaf.

And the metal base of the flower held one more surprise. While we knew it was a copper alloy, probably brass, we could see a yellow finish here and there through the corrosion indicating the remnants of gold leaf.

While basic processing is now finished the research goes on with questions like what type of flower was this meant to be and what symbolism might it have held for the wearer?

January 9, 2017
by Fiske Center
1 Comment

Alum Profile: Bill Farley

Bill Farley, graduated from UMB in 2012
PhD candidate in Anthropology at University of Connecticut

Bill Farley, while teaching at the University of Connecticut

Bill Farley, while teaching at the University of Connecticut

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Since graduating from UMB in 2012 I have been a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. I’m now in my last year so I’m a “doctoral candidate” – otherwise known as ABD. Let me start off with a bit of advice though – I got accepted to a PhD program before I finished my thesis and spent my first semester at UCONN while I wrote my MA. That was so stressful – finish your MA BEFORE you go to a doctoral program, if you can! Thanks to my experiences with teaching at UMB, including TAing for a field school, I moved into teaching my own classes pretty quickly at UCONN. Teaching is my passion and I’ve sought every opportunity to do more of it as I have gone along. So much so that I now usually teach three courses a semester in addition to field school and intersession courses. I teach at UCONN as a part of my assistantship, but I also teach as an adjunct instructor at the University of Hartford and Connecticut College. I’m very happy to say that I will be starting as an Assistant Professor at Southern Connecticut State University in the Fall!

2. What is the most interesting project (field, lab, academic, or community) that you have worked on recently?
My research is focused on early 17th-century sites. For my diss, I’m comparing a 1630s Pequot village in Mystic, CT, to a 1630s-40s Puritan house in Marshfield, MA. These projects have given me the opportunity to work on ongoing field and lab projects. I also regularly collaborate with a number of communities including the Native American community in CT, CRM firms, and even avocational metal detectorists. I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work on these two rare and exciting sites, and they have opened up some amazing opportunities to explore cultural change and continuity during the earliest years of Euro- and Native American interactions.

3. What is one thing that you remember specifically about your time at UMass?
I will never forget my first class at UMB. I was terrified and felt very sure that I did not belong with my new and obviously brilliant classmates. So I’m sitting in theory with Steve Silliman who started the class by going through a list of famous archaeological theorists, asking who we were familiar with in order to assess where we stood in our training. The only name I even recognized was Binford. This experience did not change my impression that I was woefully unprepared to be there. Every week after that class, with our heads full of new names and ideas, my classmates and I trekked to The Banshee to drink $2 shocktops and begin to unpack and unwind. With the help of my brilliant classmates and professors like Steve I learned more than I thought I could fit in my head when I started. Over my two and a half years at UMB I transitioned from an unsure undergraduate to a real archaeologist.

4. What is the best advice you got (or wish you had gotten) in graduate school?
Take every opportunity offered to you, if at all possible. Both the job market and the graduate school application process are fiercely competitive so be prepared to think outside the box and make your opportunities. Network! Being well-liked by people is still the best way to find out about and be offered opportunities. So few people find their dream job by cold-applying for it nowadays. Also, don’t be too reliant on advisers and senior scholars for providing you with ideas and research goals. The earlier you start pushing yourself to be creative and complete projects, the stronger you will be in the long run. Lastly, try to be zen about the whole thing. Graduate school is grueling and there will be times now and in your future when it will be soul-crushing. Practicing a degree of self-love is probably the most important thing you can do for yourself on this journey. If you do not learn to love yourself, you will get burned out. There are sadly very few outside sources providing you with positive vibes in graduate school. You must learn to produce those vibes from within.

5. Anything else you would like to add?
Graduate school can be painful. It can be thankless. As the years go on (and if you pursue a doctorate you can expect to add between 5-8 years to your stay, on average) it can be a challenge to stay motivated. You’ll watch many of your contemporaries in “normal” jobs, making decent money and having decent health insurance. My advice is to try and remember that you love doing this. And you’re good at it too. They wouldn’t have let you into grad school if you weren’t the cream of the crop. Your impostor syndrome can and will attempt to sabotage both your success and your happiness. Don’t let it! You are smart and wonderful and amazing – it can be difficult but try and remember that. Surround yourself with people who will honestly remind you why you can accomplish your goals. Love yourself!

December 6, 2016
by Fiske Center

Alum Profile: Kathryn Catlin

Kathryn Catlin, graduated from UMB in 2011
PhD candidate in Anthropology at Northwestern University

Kathryn Catlin finishing up a test unit in 2016 at Hendilkot on the farm Hamar in Skagafjörður, Iceland.  Katie Wagner took the photo.

Kathryn Catlin finishing up a test unit in 2016 at Hendilkot on the farm Hamar in Skagafjörður, Iceland. Katie Wagner took the photo.

1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I got my MA in Historical Archaeology from UMass Boston in 2011. Now I’m a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Northwestern University, and this year, thanks to grants from the Fulbright Program, the Leifur Eiriksson Foundation, and the NSF, I’m living in Iceland doing research for my dissertation, in which I investigate marginal medieval household sites and their relationship to social and environmental change.

I can’t really say I have a typical day, which I think is one of the great things about being in academia. Life as a grad student at Northwestern is fairly similar to UMass Boston: reading papers, writing papers, attending seminar classes and guest lectures, working on research for my own project or my advisor’s, and in many quarters, serving as a teaching assistant. It also involves a lot of grant writing. At NU, I have gotten involved with graduate student advocacy groups, something I never did at UMass and which has been very rewarding.

Here in Sauðárkrókur, Iceland in November, my day starts well before sunrise even if I sleep in (sunrise now is after 10 am). I have a desk at my flat as well as at the museum in town, so I might work at either place on data analysis or writing part of a report, article, or chapter for my dissertation. In September, I spent most days floating the macrobotanical samples we collected this summer, in preparation for mailing them to Boston. Some days I go to the archives or the library, where I am reading and translating records about the region that date from the late medieval period to the early 20th century. Twice a week I attend an Icelandic class aimed at foreigners, and this month I’ve been going to a book club where we are reading Sturlungasaga in Icelandic. In the evenings I come home and cry about the US election fallout while I practice knitting, or have dinner with friends. In January I plan to move to Reykjavik, where I will be in residence at the University of Iceland and my life will change again, and then in April I’ll come back north to start my final summer of fieldwork as the days start to get longer and warmer.

I took a meandering path to get to NU, which began well before I started at UMass. My undergraduate degree and my first Master’s are in engineering. After working in that field for a few years, I decided I needed to make a switch, and began taking archaeology classes at my local community college. From there, I applied to graduate schools and came to UMass. I got my MA in two years and then worked for a year in the GIS department at the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which gave me great experience in GIS and web map programming, and also meant I was able to focus on PhD applications without worrying about my thesis at the same time. I would recommend that for anyone who wants to go on to a PhD – finish your thesis quickly, then take a year off of school to gain more practical experience and to write applications.

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

I think my dissertation is the most interesting! However, in the interest of diversifying this post, I’m going to talk about something else. (For my dissertation, I’m working in association with the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey, of which John Steinberg and Doug Bolender at UMB are PIs, so I will assume many readers are familiar with the broad outlines of that project. Feel free to ask me questions in comments though, or read this interview I gave to Polar Field Services last spring.)

My advisor at Northwestern is Matthew Johnson, and I’ve been working with him on the recently concluded Elite Landscapes of Southeastern England project, jointly run by NU with the University of Southampton Archaeology department and the National Trust in the UK. Through geophysics, landscape survey, standing building survey, historical research, and other techniques, we studied the evolution of the prehistoric through modern social and environmental landscapes at Bodiam Castle, Scotney Castle, Knole House, and Ightham Mote in Kent and Sussex Counties in SE England. I assisted with the surveys and led an effort to locate and synthesize grey literature, reports, and artifact finds from excavations and mitigation work at Bodiam over the last two centuries. I’ve learned a lot through the course of the project, especially about the traditions of medieval archeology and landscape analysis in the U.K., which has helped me to put my work in Iceland and on historic sites in the US into a broader international perspective. I’ve gotten to work with British stakeholders, professionals, and graduate students, as well as several teams made up of both American and British undergraduates, and the perspectives, experiences, and friendships we’ve shared have been very rewarding. Also, what can I say, working at medieval castles is every bit as fun as you might imagine! We have an edited volume coming out very soon in which I co-authored a few chapters.

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

One thing about UMass that I appreciated while I was there, and appreciate even more in hindsight, was the way everyone in the Fiske Center gathers together for lunch or for Tea @ 3 with Dennis (I hope you still do that!). It was a lovely change to take a few minutes out of the day to relax with students and professors and talk about something other than school, and I miss that.

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

The best advice I got at UMB (and I think this holds true for grad school and for life in general): take full advantage of your opportunities. If you have a chance to learn to float, develop your GIS skills, assist with a geophysical survey, apply for a grant, talk at a conference, dig at a new site, or teach a class, TAKE IT, even if it doesn’t seem directly related to your thesis. I learned so many new skills and worked on so many projects while I was at UMass just because I stepped up when the opportunity arose – sometimes I don’t know how I had time to do so much, but somehow, it all fit. In particular, the labs and collections and UMass and around the Boston area are fantastic; take advantage of them while you can. Conversely, if you see an opportunity that WILL help with your thesis, take it! One of the best decisions I made at UMass was to take an independent study in anthropological theory and Icelandic history instead of that semester’s elective seminar; it set groundwork that helped me to write a better thesis, and put me in a better position to succeed at NU.

The second best advice I got is to stop stressing about the thesis and just write it. It´s not an end in itself but a means to an end, and your most important work is going to come later (and I think that is true no matter what you intend to do after graduation). My current advisor puts it this way: Q: What do you call the author of the worst dissertation in the world? A: Doctor.

5. Anything else you would like to add?

Just two more pieces of advice! Be open to change. I came into UMass with a clear idea that I would write a thesis on the excavation and social context of ferry landings on the Potomac. But I took the chance to go to Iceland, and now I’m living here, and I wouldn’t trade it. Relatedly, if you have the desire and the means, it is never too late to completely change the course of your life — you just have to do it.

I´m happy to answer questions in comments about any of this or any other topic, and you are also welcome to email me at

For more about the Alumni Profile series, look at the inaugural post here.

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