Faience

250 Years of History: Excavating Colonial St. Louis

In 1763, a small group of French traders made their way up the Mississippi River and established a settlement that would become Saint Louis. This colonial village, unfortunately, has been lost to time and urban development, as the city of Saint Louis has grown around and over it. However, just in time for the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city, archaeologists with the Missouri Department of Transportation have found the first evidence of these earlier settlers. Now, let me welcome you to a day of archaeology at the Poplar Street Bridge project in the heart of Saint Louis, Missouri.

French ceramics

Eighteenth-century artifacts recovered from under the Poplar Street Bridge.

Since February 2012, we have been conducting archaeological investigations around the downtown area, preparing for a variety of road and highway construction project. Today (July 10, 2014), marks the end of the 27th week of fieldwork (including remote sensing, testing, and full data recovery) on what has quickly become two of the most significant archaeological sites we have ever identified.

Excavation of the Madam Haycraft Site.

Excavation of the Madam Haycraft Site.

Despite widely held belief, archaeological field work is showing that a surprisingly large amount of colonial Saint Louis remains buried and intact in the downtown area. Working in less-than-ideal conditions, we find that each new area that is exposed by our excavation is better than the last. As we carefully work by hand, with shovel and trowel, our work is juxtaposed with the heavy construction (and demolition) going on just a few meters away.

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Archaeological Conservation at the Kelsey Museum

At the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, my colleague Claudia and I provide conservation for the Museum’s daily activities as well as for two of its excavations. Today we’re working on objects from Karanis, a Graeco-Roman farming town in Egypt, where the University of Michigan excavated in the 1920’s.

These objects will be shown in an upcoming exhibition here at the Kelsey Museum, Karanis Revealed, and they are currently undergoing conservation.

Two of these objects, the knife and the inkwell (top), will need conservation treatment before they’re exhibited. The knife blade, made of iron, has active corrosion that could get worse during the exhibition. The inkwell, made of faience, has cracks and areas where the surface needs to stabilized. The painted bone on the lower right just needs extra TLC; low light to protect the paint from fading, and special handling since the paint is powdery and comes off easily when the bone is touched.

The research and examination undertaken by conservators can help archaeologists understand the materials they excavate, but the primary goal of archaeological conservation is to preserve excavated artifacts. It would be sad if something that’s survived for 2,000 years fell apart after excavation for lack of care!