African-American History

“Whose Stuff Was This?”: Creating an Outreach Activity for the Day of Archaeology Festival

Last weekend was my second year participating in Washington, DC’s Day of Archaeology Festival at the Dumbarton House in Georgetown. For both years, I helped with the DC Historic Preservation Office’s outreach activity table, which is always popular with kids and adults alike. Two years ago, when I first attended, I was just learning about the types of outreach activities the HPO has created, which include “What is This?” (prehistoric and historic artifact identification), and “Mend Me” (broken ceramic mending), among others. This summer, I’ve been interning for the Office of Planning which contains the Historic Preservation Office (HPO). The City Archaeologist, Ruth Trocolli, asked me to create a new outreach activity for this year’s festival.

I was excited by the opportunity to teach non-archaeologists about archaeology and to flex my creative muscles. I knew I wanted to create an activity that featured many cool and interesting artifacts and taught people about the work that actual archaeologists do. I came up with a matching activity that I called “Whose Stuff Was This?” which asked participants to match descriptions of real people with the artifacts they once used, all of which were excavated from Washington, DC archaeological sites. Below, you can try out this activity yourself and learn more about my experience in creating it.


Try the Activity for Yourself

Do you think you can match the people to the items they once used and eventually discarded? You can find the answers at the bottom of this section. First, here are the four sets of artifacts, all of which were excavated at real archaeological sites in Washington, DC.

Now, here are the four descriptions of the people who occupied each site. Try to match the people with their belongings.

Option A: Based on the finds from this site, archaeologists have documented that African-Americans were living at this location since the Civil War. This includes Sarah Whitby and her family, who rented a two-room farmhouse on this site in the 1890s and once used the items pictured. According to the census, Sarah worked as a laundress, which means that she washed clothing for a living. Sarah had nine children, and we know from the census that Sarah was illiterate, but of all her children could read. Although the census told archaeologists some basic information, without the intact archaeological remnants from her house, Sarah would have probably never been studied and her story might have been lost. Archaeologists used the artifacts from this site to learn and teach others about Sarah Whitby and her life.

Option B: Thomas E. Dant, a tailor, and his family lived and worked here during the middle of the 19th century (1840s-60s). That is over 150 years ago! He lived with his wife, Martha, and their three children: an adult son named Thomas, who was also a tailor and was 33 years old, and twins, age 10, named Mary and George. Documents told us about this family and their ages and occupations, however many different people had also lived on this site during the 19th and early 20th century. Archaeologists used what they learned from the artifacts to determine that these objects were mostly likely from the Dant family, and not from previous or later residents of the house.

Option C: By studying the artifacts from this site, archaeologists determined that Native American people had been living at this location from at least the Late Archaic period (2500 BCE-1000 BCE) until the Late Woodland Period (900 CE-1600 CE). That means that the earliest artifacts were from over 4,500 years ago and the later objects (such as those pictured here), were from over 1000 years ago! Based on the artifacts and the location of the site near a waterway, archaeologists believe that people were using this location for as a camp or workstation to procure, prepare, and preserve seasonal resources, especially fish and shellfish. A large fire pit was probably used to dry fish for storage and to prepare other foods. While we may not ever know about specific individuals who made and used these objects, archaeologists used the artifacts to learn that people were staying in the area and using local resources such as fish, shellfish, plants, and animals, for thousands of years.

Option D: After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau created the Barry Farm/Hillsdale neighborhood, which developed into a self-sufficient and thriving African-American community. The Taliaferro family was an African-American family that moved to a house in this site in the late-19th century. Olivia and her five brothers grew up on the site, and when they were adults, their mother divided up the property and gave each one a lot on which to build a house. Olivia was given the original house where they had grown up, which was the site for this archaeological project. Based on the dates and what we know about Olivia, archaeologists believe that most of these artifacts belonged to her. She was a trained nurse and midwife, and she helped to care for many people in the community. Olivia had a foster son, Luther, and since Olivia’s nieces and nephews all lived within a few houses, they likely also came by to play.

Make your guesses! The answers are below the following pictures of the activity in action!

Site 1 = B; Site 2 = C; Site 3 = D; Site 4 = A

Did you get the answers correct? Some of them are easier than others, and many people had trouble correctly matching the tailor’s assemblage (Site 1) and the laundress’ assemblage (Site 4), which could easily be mixed up. Next, I’ll explain why I chose these sites and explain why each site could only belong to its correct match.


Real Archaeologists Do This Activity Too!

 One of the main goals of an archaeological project is to learn about past people through their artifacts. Sometimes, as with the case of Site 2, archaeologists may have little or no information about the people who used these objects beyond the objects themselves. Many archaeologists work in places or periods without written records, and use tools such as artifact typology, comparisons with other excavated sites, and interviews with descendant populations to help them learn more about the people associated with the site. In the case of Site 2, archaeologists found a collection of fire-cracked rock and ceramics, indicating a large fire pit or hearth. The archaeologists working on this project also used the site’s location near a waterway together with the artifacts to determine that people were likely spending part of the year here to access fish, shellfish, and other resources found in this area. They believed the fire pit was used, in part, to dry and preserve fish for storage. Some of the most unusual artifacts on this site were from a burial, but I chose not to use these artifacts. You can find more information about this site and see pictures of the grave-context artifacts here (the burial was found at “Ramp 3”):

Historic Archaeologists, who study sites like Sites 1, 3, and 4, often have documents that can help them learn about the people who lived in a particular place. However, the documentary record is often fragmentary and incomplete, so archaeologists still need to analyze the artifacts to determine to whom they belonged. For example, Site 1 was located on a lot that had seen numerous residents over the course of the 19th century. Without a way to closely date the site, it would have been impossible for archaeologists to know whether the objects belonged to one family or another, who both may have lived in the house within a 10-year period. In this case, archaeologists knew the occupations of various residents from the census, as well as the ages of their family members. Archaeologists determined these artifacts were most likely from the Dant family because two of the family members were working as tailors and many of the artifacts were sewing tools or tailor’s tools. The toys also made sense given that two 10-year-old children were living on the site at this time.

Site 3 presented a similar issue. Although members of the same family had been living on this site for many years, the medicine bottles and equipment pictured in the activity most likely belonged to Olivia Taliaferro, who was a trained nurse and midwife. While medicine bottles are found at many different sites, the quantity of bottles and types of medicines helped archaeologists determine that these objects belonged to Olivia, rather than her mother, Annie, or her siblings. More about the Taliaferro family can be found in this blog post written by one of the archaeologists who worked on the site:

Of all the historical people featured in the activity, Sarah Whitby and her family, who lived at Site 4, are the least well-recorded in the documentary record. Unlike the other two families, the Whitbys were tenant farmers and rented rather than owned their home. Archaeologists don’t know much about the other individuals living in the nearby homes, nor is there much information about who lived in the home prior to Sarah and her children. Based on the location, time period, and types of artifacts, archaeologists believe the ones pictured were owned by Sarah. The mismatched buttons may have fallen off some of the items of clothing she washed, which explains why there are so many different types. Also found here was a penny from 1883, which helps to date the site. Archaeologists analyze artifacts together with the context in which the were found; the coin was found in the same soil layer (or stratigraphic layer) as other objects, so archaeologists determined it was deposited at the same time as these other objects. You might imagine the coin means the site dates to 1883, but actually it means that it dates from anytime afterwards. If you looked in your wallet today, in 2017, you might have a coin from 1993 or even earlier, but you certainly couldn’t have a coin from 2023. This is another clue in the activity that this collection of buttons couldn’t have belonged to the Dant family who lived on their site from 1840-60. Learn more about Sarah Whitby and the archaeological excavation that uncovered her belongings here:

I chose these four sites because I wanted to showcase the diversity of Washington’s past and the many different types of archaeological sites that have been excavated. I also wanted to pick sites that had interesting artifacts and associated people and would be familiar to most people so that non-archaeologists could match them correctly. Eventually, I’d like to expand the game to include more sites and to use real or replica artifacts instead of pictures. This was my first attempt at creating an outreach activity, and I really enjoyed putting it together. People at the festival seemed to enjoy it too.


What do you think? If you have any suggestions or ideas, you can e-mail me at Thanks for reading and I hope to see you at next year’s Day of Archaeology!

Archaeology Stories and Discovery

Students Natalie and Shaun. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

In the 1995 film Pulp Fiction, the characters chase after a briefcase, the contents of which are never shown on screen. Instead, when the characters open the case to peer inside, the camera captures their awed faces from the case’s perspective, bathed in an otherworldly glow (a very similar effect to how we photographed our field school students on our last day in the field). The audience never discovers what is inside, but it is understood to be so important that it drives the plot and momentum of the story. Director Quentin Tarintino has said that anything could be in the case, whatever the viewer can imagine. For every audience member, it will be different. In story-telling, the use of the briefcase in the film is a device is called a MacGuffin, and it stands for an object that motivates the characters to move the plot along its trajectory. To use a more archaeologically-themed fiction, the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.

Students Sabrina and Aleks. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

I explain all of that in order to ask this: When we tell our stories in archaeology, especially to the public, how do we use the artifacts?

The artifacts are our discoveries, and that is what drives us as archaeologists. It is what sells our stories to the public. It’s hard to ignore that the sense of discovery provides the attraction and romance to archaeology, particularly in popular media (see Shanks and Tilley 1992). Even the publicity poster for the Day of Archaeology 2013 invites others to “discover the past.” As I sit in the Archaeology in Annapolis lab today, working on the site report for our field work, my main concern has been how to present our discoveries without reducing them to a plot device.

Students Norma, Katie, and Isobel. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

The past three years, Archaeology in Annapolis at the University of Maryland, College Park, has been excavating at the Wye House Plantation on the Eastern Shore. In 2010, fellow PhD student Benjamin Skolnik discovered the locations of two slave quarters that would have housed a portion of the hundreds of enslaved on the property before Emancipation and the buildings’ destruction in the early twentieth century. We discovered them again, in the form of their remains when we excavated that summer, defining the boundaries of the structures as best we could. We returned from our third field season earlier this month, and our jobs are currently in the lab, processing the discoveries.

I mean processing in a few different ways. As I sit here in the lab today, a volunteer student Lisa is washing and rebagging the artifacts from Wye House. She carefully scrubs the glass, ceramics, bones, and nails with a toothbrush and separates them into categories. Each bag of artifacts corresponds to a context from the field, its location in vertical and horizontal space. She’s learning to identify the type or style of ceramics—which helps us determine the date of each deposit—but only occasionally needs confirmation of her identification skills. Lisa is processing the artifacts and the information that is going to aid in our research. She’s discovering that right now.

Students Audrey, Ian, and Angie. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

While Lisa works, I’ve been sitting at one of the lab computers, digitizing a drawing of our most thought-provoking discovery this year. When we opened up our units this summer, and instructed our field school students in how to excavate them, we told them what we expected to find. Still, the unopened unit is a source of untapped potential; like the briefcase, anything could be under the dirt, whatever the archaeologist can imagine. For every excavator, it will be different. We chose to place two side-by-side 5 x 5 ft. units in front of where we suspected the doorway of one living quarter to be. We hoped to find continuing evidence of West African spiritual practices.

Outside the doorway to a slave quarter attached to the Greenhouse on the same property, there was what is known as a spirit bundle or cache. They consist of assemblages of found and re-purposed objects that are part of a tradition that can be traced back to religious practices in West Africa. Material culturalists have found themes in African art such as motion, containment, and flash manifesting in wheels, bottles, mirrors, and boundaries (see Thompson 1984). In caches, they often include white objects, blue glass bottles, iron nails or other forms of metal. These objects are the vessels of sympathetic magic, which understands certain materials to possess power over the spiritual and natural worlds. What we found went beyond what we imagined, and we’re still unsure of what we’ve discovered. We still need to process.

The exposed surface of the assemblage. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis

Several round, flat artifacts lay on a horizontal axis in the two units, just inside where the quarter would have been and underneath the raised floor. There were the bases of blue bottles, one crushed, but many still intact. There was a spoked iron wheel and flattened metal cans. One area contained white objects. When we saw these things together, knowing why we were digging under the doorway in the first place, we stopped. Two field school students, Norma and Katie, measured and mapped the assemblage and we sent photographs to experts. Dr. Robin Poynor at the University of Florida advised us over e-mail, and we tucked our discovery away until next year, when we’ll hopefully better know how to proceed. Combined with deposits of iron farming implements we uncovered last year, these objects may be a shrine or alter to Ogun, a deity of iron and the forge. One piece of a bottle is molded in a way that divides it into four quarters, possibly invoking a crossroads or cosmogram. Now I’m tracing the drawing on the computer so that we can clean the image, highlight particular aspects, and make sense of what we’ve found.

An in-progress digital illustration of the assemblage. Drawn by Norma and Kate, digitized by Beth Pruitt

When did we discover the cache? Was it when we first noticed a number of round objects lying flat? Am I discovering it while I digitize my students’ drawing? Until we learn more, I don’t know that we have discovered it yet. The powerful sense of discovery that thrives in archaeology runs the risk of turning the artifacts into MacGuffins, the driving reason in the plot of our story. Discoveries draw in public attention and media, but they don’t tell much about archaeology and the process of learning what the artifacts mean after we leave the field. Like any other trope, the MacGuffin is a device that can be used to great effect, and as a graduate student with an interest in public archaeology, I’m still uneasily struggling with how to do it.

The discovery is not the artifact. Discovering is not a moment of finding the artifact. Discovery is an ongoing process of conversations and interactions that take the artifact from an object to a symbol. We could have easily seen bottle bases, pieces of iron, white ceramics, and taken them as unrelated scatter. By seeing if they fit together, we’re chasing a story where these artifacts are representative of a resistive religion that proliferated in the African Diaspora during slavery and beyond. That is the discovery, not the objects.

We might have discovered the two slave quarters three years ago, but we have rediscovered them every year since, and we continue to do so.

Archaeology in Annapolis maintains a blog, where you can learn more about Wye House and our excavations. If you can help us with our discovery and understanding of this assemblage, please let us know!


Shanks, Michael, and Christopher Y Tilley
1992   Re-constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London; New York: Routledge.

Thompson, Robert Farris
1984   Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books.