historical archaeology

Digging into a A Project Archive

by Karen Lind Brauer
Maryland, USA

Today I spent time reviewing the excavation records and administrative archives of the Baltimore County Center for Archaeology. BCCA served as the field component of an elective high school course, “Exploring Our Buried Past”, taught in as many as 18 high schools in the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), a large, suburban, kindergarten-through 12th grade-school district located in the US state of Maryland.

The Center involved high school students with first-hand, real-life experience undertaking primary research at the site of a 19th century, iron-producing, company town. During the winter months, in the middle of the school year, the Center presented Grade 3 school visitation programs serving as many as 100 classrooms per year. There were Summer school camps and multiple Teacher-in-Service programs that also took place at the Center which was located in a Baltimore County Recreation and Parks property called Oregon Ridge.

The archaeological education in the BCPS was part of the essential, or taught, curriculum (as opposed to being extra-curricular, ‘outside’ the formal instructional offerings). In operation for more than two decades, the Center closed down in the mid-2000’s due to changing academic requirements that constrained social studies educational offerings and the retirement of the project’s creator and leader, Social Studies Curriculum Specialist and Teacher Archaeologist for the BCPS, George Brauer.

I am picking through the Center’s archive of files today because I recently learned that a fellow archaeologist, Stephen Israel, is attempting to gather information on the Center’s programs and on its teacher participants. I know this archive should contain information that could be of help to him. Israel is preparing profiles on individuals who have contributed to Maryland Archaeology for a project entitled, Maryland Archaeology: Past Portraits. Looking over these files today I happily recall my time in the 1980’s and 90’s assisting with this enriching, educational opportunity that was experienced by almost 10,000 students being raised in our county.

My Day of Archaeology in photos

I work archaeology, study archaeology, volunteer archaeology.  Each day my archaeology is everything from reminders of the First World War to traces of Stone Age life.  Here is a little collage of some of the things I was thinking about on 29 July 2016.

Bringing archaeology to life through public interpretation at Montgomery Parks

Henson portrait line drawing

Josiah Henson

This week, volunteers and staff of Montgomery Parks Archaeology Program worked through the latest blistering heat wave in Maryland to continue excavations at the Josiah Henson site and progress towards the eventual goal of our work here – public interpretation of the past through a museum dedicated to the life of Henson and to slavery in the county. Henson led a remarkable life; he lived on this plantation for more than two decades, eventually escaping to Canada to start a new, free existence. After publishing his slave narrative, Henson became a role model for Harriett Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom” character in her best-selling novel. To say this one slave’s experience had an influence on the arc of history in the United States during the mid-19th century would be no exaggeration! Montgomery Parks has committed to making that story as widely accessible as possible – many people have heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but many fewer have heard of Josiah Henson.

tooth and WW

Recent artifacts



photo 55

Volunteer Fran sharing the latest finds with a school group

Other than continuing our excavations on the plantation where Henson was enslaved – we continue to find the typical trash and features of a 19th century farm – this week we also welcomed an independent filmmaker on a mission to create a documentary of this largely unknown man’s life. The filming team, comprised of two Canadian gentlemen, are following Henson’s travels around the country and we were happy to have them visit us and share our findings as well as the place where Henson experienced life as a slave.

Paul profiling

Volunteer Paul profiling a finished unit

This week also marks the start of next stage in the design process for the Josiah Henson Museum – both for the outside landscape design and the indoor exhibit spaces. This upcoming year will see designs finalized and I expect it to be a fantastic and exciting way to bring so much of what we’ve learned to the public. As archaeologists, we love to find the bits of the past that survive in the ground, but making them meaningful to non-archaeologists is how we can share our particular focus on reconstructing that past. It makes the past alive again and that is what public interpretation is all about!

henson portal

Preliminary design plans for some of the museum exhibits




Anthroprobably 2015

Hello again, all, it’s Matt Tuttle! I’m a little late to the party this year but better late than never, right?

It has been an exciting and productive year in the field for this archaeologist. I worked on a number of projects around the historic Hampton Roads, Virginia area (U.S.) over the past year. Most recently, for the past 7 months, I have been excavating in Isle of Wight County at a 17th-18th Century colonial site that has been yielding very impressive finds. Underneath and amongst standing structures at the site there are forgotten objects and architecture that hint at what daily life was like for the sites inhabitants. These signatures of early colonial occupation have been my focus lately after the initial archaeological survey I completed during winter.

Excavating in Isle of Wight County, VA.

Excavating in Isle of Wight County, VA.

Among the most interesting and important features of the site is a root cellar encased in a brick foundation associated with an early structure. The preservation of the objects inside the cellar is better than anywhere else I’ve seen in the southeastern Virginia; usually conditions in this region are not conducive to artifact preservation as it is often tidal, has a very high water table, volatile weather, and temperature fluctuations from 0 to 100+ degrees F within a season.

When the cellar was no longer in use, probably sometime in the late 1700’s based on the artifacts, it was filled in and leveled off. We expect to learn a lot about the early colonial Virginians who closed this cellar by analyzing the refuse we found among the dirt, ash, bricks, and clay. The cellar is so well protected from the elements that fish scales, bone, teeth, metal artifacts, and even some wood have been preserved. Articles of clothing, tools, and recreational objects have also been turning up inside the cellar. This truly is an archaeologist’s dream and I am very fortunate to be working at such a unique colonial site. We hope to continue excavating the early structures and the remainder of the cellar over the next couple of seasons. One of the best parts about the site has been the outpouring of support and interest from the local community where the site is located. Once we are finished with research, we would like to establish an educational public archaeology park featuring the archaeological structures’ footprints to accompany the existing public historic site. See you next year!

Cellar excavation.

Cellar excavation.

Carol Nickolai – My Day in Random Archaeology

The house just after the gas explosion.

The house just after the gas explosion.

The only archaeology I planned for the day was the one I barely touched. I’ve been working on a book review for Historical Archaeology, but I couldn’t bring myself to stay inside — and stay hungry — all day so I went out for lunch at my favorite cafe. My errands took me past a place where a gas problem caused a house to explode and burn and destroy the house on one side and part of a condo complex on the other (no injuries! thankfully the people smelled the gas and started evacuating their neighbors before it exploded). I stopped to see how the re-construction on the condo complex is coming along and to look at the mounds of earth and rock where the two houses were demolished after the fire. I wonder what happened to the things it wasn’t safe for people to retrieve, are those things buried here or were they separated for the residents to go through during demolition? Sometimes I find little bits of things, some not surprising like pieces of ceramic and some almost tragic like half of a flip-style cell phone. And I try not to think about what my apartment would look like if this happened; what’s the point of a fireproof box if you can’t get to it? Sometimes I’m tempted by a little experimental archaeology excavating the houses, and think about what it means for future archaeology that the places we live and work will be almost devoid of “stuff”. At the cafe, I read a magazine article about the use of pneumatic tubes in the late 19th and early 20th century — I remember my Mom using these at the drive-through windows of banks, though I don’t know if banks still use them. A couple of technology companies want to use these to build high-speed transport for people between major cities. Considering how often it seemed the bank containers got stuck somewhere in the system, I’m not ready to ride in one myself! Finally I checked on the repair work going on in my new apartment, a 1915 building which might have some original woodwork under all the paint, and went back to my early 1970s apartment building to work on that book review — my friends have always laughed that in 20 years in Philadelphia this historical archaeologist has never lived in an old building!

Carol A. Nickolai, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, Community College of Philadelphia
Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology, Rowan University

Ray Sarnacki – My Day of Archaeology

This week, and for an additional two weeks in August, I have the privilege of digging as a volunteer at the Lake George Battlefield Park with Dr. David Starbuck as part of the State University of New York (SUNY) – Adirondack Campus field school. Located at the southern end of the lake, the Lake George Battlefield Park preserves the sites of major battles and encampments from the French & Indian War through the American Revolution, making it a prime site for conducting archeology. Many of the events that inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans, actually occurred here. Among the features found in the Park are the ruins of a stone bastion from Fort George, which General Jeffery Amherst authorized and began building in 1759, but later, abandoned after the British took control of Fort Carillon, now known as Fort Ticonderoga.

Digging at this site is made possible through the cooperation of the New York State Museum and the agency that operates the park, the Department of Environmental Conservation. The overall objective of this multi-year dig at Lake George is to provide information that will allow the State to improve signage and create an interpretive center to house some of the artifacts uncovered, giving visitors a greater appreciation of the park’s historical significance.

This is second year I have traveled from West Chester, PA to dig at the Battlefield. Last year I dug several test pits in open areas within the park and wrote an article about the experience, Digging a Battlefield of American History, that Popular Archaeology published in their Winter 01/01/2015″>Winter 01/01/2015 issue. My assignment this year, along with five other volunteers, is to dig test pits inside the bastion ruins with the goal of defining the walls of a barracks located within the bastion. The assignment is somewhat tricky as we are working on a steep incline. In addition, reconstruction of part of the original bastion took place during the 1920s and 1930s, likely disturbing portions of the site and adding to its complexity. If we are successful in uncovering at least a portion of the wall, stabilizing it would create a new point of interest within the park for tourists to visit.

The Past Sense Project: Pioneering Approaches to Therapeutic Archaeology


My post for this year’s Day of Archaeology covers work I’m undertaking for a pilot community archaeology project that I co-direct (‘Past Sense’, or ‘PSP’), with the other project co-director, Debra (a psychotherapist). PSP is a voluntary community and public project that adopts archaeological and psychological approaches in examining the material histories of violence in the home, and using such histories within trauma therapy. We explore the significance of material culture within and after situations of domestic and sexual violence and abuse in the past, through archaeological data and artefacts; objects within public archives and private collections; and a range of historical sources (including written evidence, photos, and oral histories). And we’re using this research in developing therapeutic archaeological workshops.

The project works within the fields of Contemporary and Historical Archaeology, analysing postmedieval material (for the purposes of PSP work, 17th – 21st century, focusing on the 19th – 20th century). We primarily examine material from Derbyshire (centring on Derby), but also investigate contexts within other areas in the East Midlands, and other parts of Britain. Though mostly looking at housing, we also consider other buildings, and landscapes. I sometimes investigate sites of recreation and sociability (such as pubs and parks); commerce and industry (such as shops and factories); education and religion (such as schools and meeting halls); law and order (such as courts and prisons); and care and burial (such as hospitals and cemeteries). Where it may be useful to do so, this may include looking at the homes of the family and friends of victims and perpetrators of violence, and of police officers and magistrates.

What I’ve been doing today

Much of my time is spent reading previous work, and thinking how I might develop and apply this research in socially beneficial ways; my day began by re-reading an academic article (and the notes that I made) that provides useful grounding for project work. (I use Archaeological Theories that integrate and develop approaches from other disciplines – such as Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy, and Geography – to inform my work, particularly research on archaeologies of emotion and sensory experience.)

I then returned to a presentation that I’m preparing, which briefly explains how Debra and I are developing educational and therapeutic workshops and other resources, and how community participation might enhance knowledge surrounding understandings of material culture in the past. This slideshow outlines the ideas behind the project (which began about five years ago with the recognition of common ground between archaeology and therapy: the direct involvement of material culture in managing trauma within Debra’s psychotherapeutic work provided a starting point from which we might explore other ways to integrate archaeological approaches. But we only began to implement preparations for project work at the very end of 2014). It also introduces some of our work in progress – and today I’ve been working on one slide that will demonstrate this.

This involves putting together artefacts and survey data, with texts and images that relate to domestic and sexual violence in the past. These will provide examples of how we might use archaeological and other historical sources within project workshops and other resources, to consider how the home environment may have affected the ways in which people experienced violence in the past, in comparison to more recent situations of abuse.

‘Tea and Sympathy’

PSP uses data from another community archaeology project that I direct (‘Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project’, or ‘LIP’ / ‘LIPCAP’ – which featured in posts for the 2013 Day of Archaeology, here and here). Today I went through the collection of ‘finds’ photos so far obtained during building and garden surveys, to see what might be used in workshops, and the presentation. I’m creating a MS Powerpoint slide entitled ‘Tea and Sympathy’, and have found a photo that may be suitable for this topic: of a 19th century ceramic sherd found in the garden of a terraced house in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (which is described and illustrated briefly here and here). The artefact depicted is made of refined white earthenware, decorated with a floral blue transfer print, and is probably part of a teacup. The photo’s not great quality, and I’d prefer a slightly older sherd than this, but it’s acceptable for present purposes. So I’m preparing the image in Adobe Photoshop, removing the ‘noise’ from the white background on which the sherd was placed when it was photographed.

Decorated 19th century ceramic sherd (transfer printed refined white earthenware), found in the topsoil of a terraced house garden in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (LIPCAP)

Decorated 19th century ceramic sherd (transfer printed refined white earthenware), found in the topsoil of a terraced house garden in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (LIPCAP)

Workshops will integrate a broad range of historical sources, including literature – in this instance, I’ve decided to use this artefact alongside material from Charles DickensOld Curiosity Shop. I selected an extract from an appropriate scene in the book, in which the character Betsy Quilp (whose husband, Daniel, treats her with cruelty) and her mother take tea in their home with female neighbours:

 “…it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity.”

Workshop handouts may present further extracts, and other historical information, to provide the ‘bigger picture’, and related artefacts provided for participants to ‘handle’, to stimulate discussion regarding material culture and female support networks.

Betsy Quilp, mother and neighbours at tea: Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens, 1841 (Source: www.gutenberg.org/files/700/700-h/700-h.htm)

Betsy Quilp, mother and neighbours at tea: Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens, 1841 (Source: Project Gutenberg)

‘Home, sweet home?’

I’m also preparing illustrations for a slide titled ‘Home, sweet home?’, which will show how we’re using studies of housing and neighbourhood landscapes to consider the environments (and potential causes and effects) of the abuse that appears to have taken place. Workshops will involve a case study of a family, the wife and mother of which summonsed her husband to the magistrates court in 1883, complaining of his violence towards her (information on this case can be found on the project website, here).

I’ve been carrying out research into the background of family members, and into what happened to them after the court case. This has involved going through various archives to examine newspaper reports and magazine articles; trade directories and maps; census and civic records; parish and poor law records; and photographic and art archives and collections; oral histories and other recollections of local people. I’ve looked at local and other historical sources in order to consider the context in which this family lived, and examined archaeological reports (the area of the family home was excavated a few years ago) and historic environment records, to find out more about their domestic and community surroundings. I still have some sources to consult before I’m able to complete the picture of home life for this and other families in the area at the time, but what I’ve found out so far has proved useful.

1921 aerial view, showing location of the family home (circled) at the time of the court case (Source of image: Britain from Above: http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/epw005814)

1921 aerial view, showing location of the family home (circled) at the time of the court case (Source of image: Britain from Above)

The photos, maps, and descriptions of this housing within newspapers, and in the recollections of local people; and archaeological excavations and standing building surveys of similar housing; suggest how the arrangement of domestic and neighbourhood architecture and space may have affected movement (limiting opportunities to escape from violent incidents), and access to possible support networks – for both victim and perpetrator. It is also clear from this evidence that the children in the family, and neighbours, would have likely heard, and perhaps seen, violence (and yet from the newspaper reports, no witnesses appeared in court to support the claimant). This analysis suggests how surroundings may have enabled or prevented particular acts of violence, and resistance to abuse, and how such behaviour might have affected the lives of others, as well as those directly involved.

My workday shall end with continued reading of a study on domestic abuse and violence in 18th and 19th century Britain. Not, it might be thought, uplifting bedtime reading. But research on violence between the 17th and 20th centuries demonstrates that, despite those in authority not always supporting those terrorised and abused in their homes by spouse, family member, supposed friend, or neighbour, and contrary to popular belief today, many in the past saw such behaviour as unacceptable. Not only friends and family, but communities and members of wider society, often expressed disapproval at domestic and sexual violence.

So I’ll end this post with a short video (this is not of my making: thanks instead go to the ‘Marchers’ – a ‘LARP troupe’, I think – for putting this on Youtube). This demonstrates ‘rough music’ – one way that communities (most often women) in the past used material culture to demonstrate condemnation of domestic and sexual violence, when those in power could not (or would not) punish the offender.

More information on PSP is available through our website and social media, through which anyone interested can follow the project:

Website: https://pastsenseproject.wordpress.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PastSenseProject

Twitter: @P_S_Project

Cabin Fever: European Transhumance in North America

From the mid-17th century to the 1950s, many European settlers of the island of Newfoundland abandoned the sedentism of their home countries in favour of a flexible, seasonal transhumant tradition. While transhumance is a term often given by anthropologists to describe with seasonal movement of pastoral people with their lifestock between summer and winter pastures, Euro-Newfoundlands did not usually have herd animals. Instead, they migrated between exposed islands and coastal communities where they fished for cod during the summer months and for the winter traveled upwards of a 100 kilometres to their second homes in inner-bay areas and around near-shore lakes and streams. Thus. for anywhere between four to seven months, the European “permanent” seaside communities were abandoned by all except the wealthiest members of the community. Despite being practiced for 300 years by most of the island’s population and generating of what might be thousands of winter house sites, these ephemeral and seasonal cabins have only left a faint trace on the landscape usually defined by a small pile of stones surrounded by a faint scatter of artifacts sometimes located kilometers away from any modern road or community. Because of this, only seven European winter house sites are known archaeologically in Newfoundland.

One of the few known depictions of a winter house from the 1850s.

One of the few known depictions of a winter house from the 1860s (Moreton 1863).

A photograph by Eliot Curwen in 1893 of a tilt in Labrador that followed a similar winter housing tradition.

A photograph by Eliot Curwen in 1893 of a tilt in Labrador that followed a similar winter housing tradition.

Over the last two weeks, I and a few committed volunteers have trudged through to one such isolated corner of the island to document two sites that have been found by accident by a local history enthusiast. The sites date to the first half of the nineteenth century, around the same time when the first people were enumerated in the census records for the area and when this semi-migratory tradition was at its peak. Among the hundreds of artifacts recovered from the two sites there are gunflints, musketballs, and pieces of lead shot indicating the importance of hunting during the winter months while the large amount of smoking pipe fragments reveals a common winter time activity. The lack of storage vessels in particular and the small number of ceramics in general points to the reliance on hunted, rather than stored, foods during this time period. A few bones that survived Newfoundland’s acidic soils might help shed light on the winter diet of the people with future analysis.

Melissa holding forth a complete nineteenth century pipe bowl she found.

Melissa holding forth a complete nineteenth century pipe bowl she found (photograph by the author).

All of the rocks pulled out during a four-day excavation of one of the sites.

All of the rocks pulled out during a four-day excavation of one of the sites (photograph by the author).

Additionally, the positions of most artifacts was recorded with a total station and by mapping this data the distribution of nails and other artifacts might shed light to the structure and spatial arrangement of these buildings. In the meantime, the partial excavation of the stone collapses identified them as stone backing behind open-pit hearths of the cabins. The presence of a thin black, organic layer with lots of charcoal suggests extensive fuel consumption at these sites. From the few oral and documentary accounts on the tradition, it is known that the surrounding trees were extensively harvested during these months as a constant supply of lumber was needed for fuel and the construction of boats, barrels, staves, furniture, and other items. Finally, the excavations revealed the significant amount of time invested into their construction. At one site, a stone base for a wall was identified for what might be an auxiliary storage room, while at the other site, we found evidence for the ground being artificially leveled with 10 to 20 cm cobbles to create a suitable surface for the house.

The rain flooded the streams, making some a bit perilous to cross.

The rain flooded the streams, making some a bit perilous to cross (photograph by the author).

Rocky fill used to level the area for the house with a remains of the stone hearth back behind it.

Rocky fill used to level the area for the house with a remains of the stone hearth back behind it (photograph by the author).

Through the excavations, the crew endured through a long drive, a several kilometer walk, dense roots, heavy rocks, and the glories of Newfoundland summer weather that consisted of rain, fog, wind, bugs, and a sun that gave everyone sunburn in the brief hours that it was out. Despite this, morale was high and the team uncovered some rare, precious data about a widely practiced tradition that challenges our underlying assumptions about European adaptation to the North American environment but is not often acknowledged as a part of the modern Newfoundland identity.

Check out a video of this week’s excavation compiled by one of my volunteers, Melissa Wilkie:


Moreton, J. 1863 Life and work in Newfoundland Reminiscences of thirteen years spent there. London: Rivingtons.

Melancholy mud

This is what an archaeologist looks like at the bottom of a canal!

This day of archaeology found me near the bottom of Trebanos Lower Lock on the long-disused Swansea Canal. Abandoned in 1931, only five miles of this 16-mile-long industrial archaeology site still resemble a waterway, the remainder being culverted or infilled. But the Swansea Canal Society is trying to breathe life into what remains, and I’ve just led 15 volunteers on a week-long Canal Camp organised by the Waterway Recovery Group (I’m writing this in our temporary accommodation, a scout hut).

For me as an archaeologist the canal is hugely interesting: its construction, its evolution over its 150 years of operation, its place in the historic environment and the material culture of those who used it, lived near it or have since utilised it as a place to deposit rubbish. Excavating an approx. 0.5m thick deposit of garbage at the bottom of the canal has revealed everything from C19th ceramics to C21st crisp packets.

The difference between this and most ‘normal’ archaeological sites is that at the end of the excavation our pointing trowels are used for…pointing. I’ve spent the last couple of days repointing the lock sides with lime mortar.

I find this mixture of discarded stuff, industrial monument, fading memory and economic neglect rather melancholy. The Swansea Canal Society are hugely friendly, enthusiastic people full of hope that one day the canal will be more than an overgrown ditch with short lengths of placid waterway, but they face what seems an almost impossible task. And the never-ending jumble of beer cans, supermarket trolleys, old tyres, Victorian pottery, plastic bags, bottles, bicycles and the like at the bottom of the canal is depressing evidence of changes in local fortune and attitudes. 150 years ago the canal was crowded with barges filled with the products of this Welsh valley, and it wound amongst huge factories and lively communities. Now only dragonflies hawk up and down its waters, and only joggers and dog walkers use its towpath.

Yet perhaps I should not be too melancholy. We are still learning more about the canal and its times even as we fill the joints between its stones with lime mortar, and the restoration efforts gradually remind us of its value to the present and future. As I pore over the assortment of ceramic fragments we’ve dredged up, I feel proud and privileged to be associated with this project. And it is good to use my trowel for both uncovering the past and creating something for the future.