The Fiske Center Blog

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

June 13, 2019
by ericalang001

The 2019 Hassanamesit Field School

On May 29th, Hassanamesit Woods Field School students returned to Grafton, Massachusetts to continue work at the Deb Newman site. Last year’s 2018 field school unearthed the remains of an eighteenth-century Nipmuc wetu, but due to time constraints they were unable to fully finish excavating the area. This year’s field school students will spend three weeks working at the Deb Newman site, and then travel to Shelter Island, New York to excavate at Sylvester Manor – a 17th century provisioning plantation that was an arena of interaction between its English owners, the Sylvesters, the enslaved Africans who lived and worked there, and the local indigenous populations who may have either traded with or worked for the Sylvesters as well.

Led by Dr. Stephen Mrozowski, Dr. Heather Trigg, and teaching assistant Gary Ellis, the field school students spent the first week in the field uncovering last year’s excavation units to finish photographing, drawing plan views and wall profiles of several units, and excavating features that were not finished last season. Features are an important component to archaeological sites, especially at this 2019 field school which is focused on unearthing a wetu. At Hassanamesit Woods, we typically find features such as post holes, hearths, stone walls, and other amorphous soil stains. These components are able to reveal more about the architecture and general use of the area by the Nipmuc.

Claire excavating a unit level.

During the second week of the field school, students broke ground on five new units while also continuing to work in last year’s units. With the new units, we are hoping to find features that can provide insight into the layout of the wetu and how the Nipmuc were utilizing the space to better understand their lives. While excavating, the field school students need to be particularly careful. Because features are such an integral component of the Deb Newman site, everyone must watch for any subtle sign of change in soil color and texture, which can indicate a potential feature. So far, a few possible post holes have been unearthed and more features with charcoal, ash, and burnt soil were uncovered, suggesting the area could have been used for food preparation or as a heat source.

Among the various types of cultural material uncovered including pearlware, creamware, glazed redware, and iron nails, some of the particularly unique artifacts found thus far include two fragments of flat window glass with tooled edges. The tooled edges indicate that the Nipmuc were modifying consumer goods in order to use it as a tool. In this case, perhaps the worked glass was used as a scraper for woodworking or on animal hides.

Dennis describing the process of taking soil samples from the field to later analyze in his lab.

Archaeology is a highly collaborative discipline, and field school students experienced firsthand the ways that Fiske Center staff often lend their specialized skills to ongoing projects. For instance, this past week Dr. Trigg collected soil samples to examine phytoliths, or microscopic plant matter that usually survives well in the ground. In doing so, Dr. Trigg hopes to determine which organic materials were used by the Nipmuc when building the wetu. Dennis Piechota, the archaeological conservator of the Fiske Center, also joined the crew for a day in the field. He painstakingly carved out blocks of soil from features to take back to his lab, where the micro-stratigraphy of the samples can be analyzed to better understand the features, and by extension the people who created them.

As the field school enters its final week at Hassanamesit Woods, students and faculty are excited to continue unearthing the past to see what other features and artifacts will be revealed, so that we can learn more about the long history of the Nipmuc in Grafton.


June 23, 2018
by elizabethquinlan002

The Penultimate Week at Hassanamesit Woods

It’s been a busy penultimate week out at Hassanamesit Woods, with three areas of excavation and quite a few interesting site features being discovered by the field school students.

A view of students excavating under a beautiful blue sky

Graduate students Gary (left) and Brian (right) work on paperwork and profile straightening for their respective units under a brilliant blue sky. The weather this past week has been amazing out in Hassanamesit Woods.

Over at the Augustus Salisbury site graduate student Rick and Dr. Trigg have continued to excavate units associated with the extant Salisbury foundation, finding several architectural features as they’ve gone. The most important has been what appears to be the continuation of the wall still visible on the surface, which will give us a better idea of the extent of enclosure on the property. This is especially important for Rick, as his thesis is focused on the utilization of land surrounding Keith’s Hill in Grafton. Dr. Trigg and Rick also found an interesting bone-related mystery for graduate student Liz to ponder. Liz is a faunal analyst, and is working with Dr. Trigg to solve the mystery– a rare opportunity at Hassanamesit Woods, as the preservation for organic material is not the best.

Field school students prepare to draw the profile of their unit.

Tyler (left) and Andrew prepare to draw the east profile of their unit. Tyler is marking out the grid for drawing, and Andrew is using a brush to clarify stratigraphy changes in the unit wall.

A student holds a massive chunk of top level duff.

Graduate student Liz holds a particularly stubborn (and massive) chunk of duff removed from her unit. Due to the densely packed bushes, lichens, and other plant material on the hilltop, the top level of soil can only be removed in chunks and broken up manually.










Over at the Deb Newman site graduate students Brian, Gary, Tyler, and Liz, along with undergraduates Andrew, Bryn, and Alex continued to open and fully excavate several units surrounding metal detector hits marked by Brian in earlier weeks. As the week progressed, first Tyler and Andrew, and then Liz and visiting grad student Ivana moved over to a nearby hilltop about 300 yards from the Deb Newman site proper, to excavate some promising units surrounding glacial erratics (boulders) that would have been on the surface when the site was occupied. Unfortunately with the exception of a more recent hearth and a single possible posthole, these units have not revealed as much as hoped, and the plan for the final week of excavation is for Tyler and Andrew to move back over to the Salisbury site while Liz finishes up on the hill. 

Graduate student Melissa started the week mapping with Lauren, refining coordinates, shooting in elevations and datum points, and, with the help of Dr. Schoenfelder, teaching all of the field school students the basics of using a total station. Melissa then moved back to the Deb Newman site and has been working on another excavation unit near one of Brian’s metal detector hits.

A corner flag for a unit showing easting, northing, and elevation.

One of the many new flags shot in by Lauren and Melissa, showing easting, northing, and elevation information for a unit.


As this brilliantly hot and sunny week wrapped up, Dr. Mrozowski urged his students to not only consider the artifacts coming out of the ground, but the impact of both time and space on the sites they are excavating. He stressed that the most important information about site usage can come from holistic interpretation of recovered artifacts, oral and written history, and the consideration of how change and use over time intersects with the space inhabited by people at the site.

A view of a large field bordered by trees where the excavation is taking place.

A view of the Deb Newman site after cleaning up for the day.














Next week is our last week at Hassanamesit woods, and as we wrap up this blog will post exit interviews from some of the field school students to get an idea of how the experience has benefited them. We hope you’ve enjoyed following along with our progress, and we’ll update again soon! 

June 15, 2018
by elizabethquinlan002

Chasing Color Changes at Hassanamesit Woods

A view of the summer sky above Hassanamesit Woods

The first few weeks out in Hassanamesit Woods have been marked by (mostly) great weather and even better field experiences. Despite a rain day spent in the lab cleaning recovered artifacts on Monday the 4th, the second week of work gave the students a look at how changing stratigraphy within a unit can both puzzle and inform an excavator. Graduate students Melissa and Liz, joined by graduate student Ivana, began seeing some interesting soil changes as they brought their unit down to roughly 35-45cm below datum. These stratigraphic changes continued as they  followed the strata down to a final depth of about 75cm below datum. As this unit is located right up against the Augustus Salisbury foundation, it was hoped that these soil changes might indicate a builder’s trench in the unit.

View of the Northwest corner of Unit E448 N274

The northwest profile pictured above shows the bands of color that indicate stratigraphic changes. The C horizon is characterized by the greenish-grey sandy layer in the middle.

During construction of a building with a stone foundation it was often the case that builders would dig down into the sterile subsoil (known in this case as the ‘C horizon’ or ‘C strata’) in order to lay the foundation well below the contemporary ground surface. The soil displaced from this digging would then be loosely filled back in, along with building debris and other trash from the time period, so it could be dug out again later if repairs to the foundation were needed. The soil is often put back “out of order”, and areas of clear disturbance in the natural stratigraphy can clue in archaeologists to construction activities at a site. These trenches, and the artifacts recovered from them, can also help date the completion of a foundation.

By the beginning of the 3rd week it became clear that the stratigraphic changes observed in Melissa, Ivana and Liz’s unit were not being found in Rick and Alex’s adjacent unit, meaning the changes must be associated with the foundation rather than the wider yard space. Over in Tyler and Andrew’s unit, however, they began spotting some unusual stone placements, which also continued into Rick and Alex’s unit. At first it was thought they must have been placed deliberately by people in the area, as they were almost all propped up in an ‘upright’ manner. However, upon discussion with environmental archaeologist Dr. Trigg, Dr. Mrozowski, and the discovery of a large amount of loose frost fractured stones, it was decided that they most likely were the result of New England’s at-times violent freeze-thaw cycles.

Melissa and Lauren take elevations using a data collection unit and a prism pole

UMass Boston Historical Archaeology graduate students Melissa (left) and Lauren (right) use a data collection unit a prism pole to take elevations and lay out new units. These tools are used with a total station, operated by Dr. Schoenfelder (not pictured) to accurately map site coordinates.

Monday and Tuesday of week three also saw the arrival of Dr. John Schoenfelder and UMass Boston graduate student Lauren to the site. They worked with field school students to map further units near the Salisbury foundation, establish datum points at the Deb Newman site, and take some elevation measurements. This gave students attending the field school the opportunity to learn how to operate a total station and precisely map site coordinate

As this mapping was going on, Gary and Bryn finished their unit at the Augustus Salisbury site and moved over to the Deb Newman site to open the first unit there. This unit corresponds with some of the marked metal detection hits made by Brian in the first week. By Thursday they were joined by Liz and Melissa, while Alex, Andrew, Rick, and Tyler remain at the Salisbury site to finish their units.

While field work is generally supplemented by research and analysis after the season has officially ended, there are still times when you need to go home after a long day of excavating and consult a few books. After the discovery of a piece of pearlware or ironstone with a unique maker’s mark in a level suspected to be contemporaneous with the completion of the foundation, everyone ran to their phones to search the many online ceramic databases. When this proved to be too big a task for a quick in-the-field search it was decided that everyone would spend some time looking for the mark in online and print databases. Luckily the Fiske Center library is fully equipped for such a search. Three books containing examples of British and US pottery marksWhile the mark has yet to be identified, Dr. Mrozowski hopes that when it is it will give us a reliable TPQ (terminus post quem, or earliest possible date) for the Augustus Salisbury foundation’s completion. Perhaps the remaining units at the Salisbury site will provide more identifiable ceramic pieces from the same time period to aid in the TPQ determination.

The dual focus of this field school on both the Deb Newman and Augustus Salisbury sites provides an opportunity for comparative excavation and should prove very interesting in the coming weeks.



June 11, 2018
by elizabethquinlan002

2018 Hassanamesit Woods Field School Begins

Hassanamesit Woods LogoOn Wednesday May 30th the Hassanamesit Woods Field School crew officially broke ground at the Augustus Salisbury site and began the 2018 field season. This year’s focus is mainly on the 19th century Salisbury homestead, and the  18th-century Nipmuc deposits underlying the property. Under the careful direction of Dr.’s Mrozowski and Trigg, three undergraduate students and six UMass Boston graduate students have begun excavation of four 2x2m units.

Image of two tubes of Tecnu Extreme Poison Ivy Scrub

Removing poison ivy from both the Augustus Salisbury and Deb Newman sites will be a major part of this field work, so the appropriate precautions are needed.

Graduate students Melissa and Liz are working closest to the poison-ivy
Salisbury foundation, and have thus both acquired their own personal bottles of Tecnu.

Graduate student Rick, whose thesis will be focusing on the changes in land use of this site and others in the surrounding area, is working with URI undergraduate Alex in the next unit over from the Salisbury foundation. UMass undergraduate Andrew is working with grad student Tyler in a unit with stunningly meticulous sidewalls, which lies in the middle of the focus area. Right next to them is UMass undergrad Bryn and grad student Gary (another student working on Hassanamesit Woods data for his thesis), who are working closest to the “Hawk Foundation”. Together these units run from the north of the site area, near the visible Salisbury foundation, to the south where the “Hawk Foundation” was discovered in a previous season. The area in between, covered by three of the units, is thought to be where the Nipmuc community of Hassanamisco may have built a meetinghouse and/or school. The hope is that by excavating these previously untouched middle units, the underlying Nipmuc sites may be identified, shedding more light on the physical erasure of Nipmuc land and community represented by the Salisbury site

The students have been digging for two weeks now, however progress has been slow due to a deep layer of forest overgrowth and root mats. The site had to be cleared on the first day, necessitating many tick checks and poison ivy near-misses. Most objects coming out of the first few layers of the excavation units are architectural iron like nails and brackets, with small bits and pieces of ceramics here and there. Melissa and Liz are looking for a possible builder’s trench near the Salisbury foundation, while Rick, Alex, Tyler, Andrew, Bryn and Gary are all trying working down to the levels where Nipmuc sites may still be intact.

Archaeologists hold a tarp over an open excavation unit in order to take a photo

In the above photo, Gary, Dr. Trigg, Bryn, Alex, Melissa and Rick work to shade a cleaned and finished level within Gary and Bryn’s unit so it can be photographed for the site records. Photographing each level allows researchers to go back and look at the level-by-level changes in stratigraphy as a unit is fully dug down to the subsoil.  Dr. Mrozowski can be seen in the background in his blaze orange jumpsuit, contemplating a previously excavated unit. After discussions with Dr. Trigg, and consulting the site paperwork, he decided to open up the older unit to follow a previously discovered feature that had not been fully excavated the past year.

But what about the sixth graduate student? Brian has been over at the Deb Newman site, not far from the Salisbury site excavation, trying to definitively locate her dwelling using a new application of metal detection. Brian has past experience with metal detection use in archaeology on battlefield sites, but noticed some patterns in his previous work involving domestic sites and the types of metal artifacts that produce positive results from metal detectors. Using this method he is carefully covering the area around the Deb Newman site, and is marking out areas for later excavation. It is expected that some of the students currently at the Salisbury site will soon move over to the Newman site to begin further excavations there.

All in all it’s shaping up to be an exciting month of excavation at the Newman and Salisbury sites at Hassanamesit Woods, and we’re looking forward to updating you on the progress we make.


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