Franklin Court

My day of archaeology…

By Jed Levin, Chief, History Branch Independence National Historical Park Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA  (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum webmaster)

Did I really spend over an hour today trying to arrange for a technician come to the park and install a tape backup drive on a new computer server…and then, spend additional time trying to figure out where we would house the darn thing once we finally go it set up? I did, and it is hard to reconcile those efforts with my job title.

I work for the US National Park Service where I serve as Park Archeologist and Chief Historian at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The park’s mission is to preserve sites associated with the founding and early history of the United States, and to interpret to those sites and their associated history to the public. In support of those goals Independence Park has had an active archeology program since the early 1950’s.

My day today was fairly typical, which is to say it was filled with tasks that often ranged far afield from what I thought I’d be doing when, decades ago, I first decided to become an archeologist. Also typical is the fact that, like many of the archeologists I know, I wear several hats. I split my time between managing the history program, which involves overseeing historical research conducted to fulfill the parks mission and coordinating the park’s efforts to comply with federal law and regulations related to the preservation of both cultural and natural resources. We have to carefully consider how what we do might affect everything from historic buildings and landscapes to archeological sites and air quality. And, yes, I am also responsible for the park’s archeological studies.

I started my day by checking my e-mail, then I gave a presentation to a group of high school students who are participating in a summer program here at the park that offers students the opportunity to explore history as they develop their writing and artistic skills. We talked about the President’s House site, one of our recent excavations here in the park.

After my adventure in IT, which I mentioned at the start, I spent much of the rest of the day reviewing two construction projects: one planned and one on-going. In one case I had to determine if a list of proposed last minute changes to the renovations to the underground museum in Franklin Court, a project nearing completion, might adversely affect archeological or historical resources on the site. The other project involved the same kind of review for a new underground power line the electric company wants to install.

Before the day was over, I did get to visit the park’s archeology lab were the staff and a dedicated group of volunteers are working to complete the cataloging and analysis of artifact recovered during excavation at the National Constitution Center site, here in the park. I went specifically to review the progress of our efforts to scan the thousands of pages of field notes and thousands of photographs that document the excavation of the National Constitution Center site. Once digitized, an electronic copy these irreplaceable paper and film records can used in the analysis and report production, while a complete backup copy of the data can be stored safely off-site, in case of a disaster. We still have a long way to go, but accumulated data for this project currently exceeds 275 gigabytes. Hence the need for that new server we are installing.

My days always end happily if I get to spend at least some time, however brief, in the lab (or, when we have an excavation underway, in the field). When I see the freshly turned earth or the trays of artifacts that the soil yielded up, it never fails to reignite the sense of excitement that first drew me to archeology. These tangible connections to the past fill me with wonder and raise countless questions.

Jed Levin

Betsy Ross’ Pitchers

I have been an archeologist in the U.S. National Park Service for 24 years (can it really be that long?), where I now serve as head of the History Branch at Independence National Historical Park (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Today, June 27th, I spent several hours working with colleagues preparing a small exhibit commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This temporary exhibit will feature two ceramic pitchers we recovered in Independence Park during the excavations at the site where the National Constitution Center now stands. The pitchers were found in the bottom of a privy pit (outhouse) that once stood in the backyard
behind the house where Betsy Ross spent her last years.  Did Betsy throw them away?

Pitchers found in the bottom of a privy pit

Made in England between about 1816 and 1820, the pitchers bear images of two War of 1812 naval engagements in which the fledgling U. S. Navy was victorious over the mighty British Navy.  English potteries produced many such designs specifically for  export to the American market. In so doing, they were helping an adversary celebrate a victory over their own navy. I don’t know if they appreciated the irony in that. I do know that they were glad to find a willing market for their goods.  Whatever they meant to the British potters, for Betsy Ross’ family they probably marked the stirrings of national pride sparked by the War.
During the course of the day I also spent time meeting with a colleague from our maintenance staff trying to figure out the safest way to remove an obsolete 1970’s ventilation duct from inside the vault that protects some of the remains of Benjamin Franklin’s house at our in-ground archeology exhibit in Franklin Court. There was yet another meeting today. This last one involved deciding on how the archeologists and the museum curator in the park could best assist a team of faculty and students from Drexel University’s Digital Media program in adding accurate details to a 3D digital reconstruction of the 18th century house in which a African American coachman lived. The reconstruction is base on another site we excavated within the park.…and of course, as every day, there was lots and lots of paperwork to fill out. I do work for the government, after all.

Jed Levin
Independence National Historical Park
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA