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”): https://www.nps.gov/rap/archeology/ROCR_phl.htm
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: http://cdi.anacostia.si.edu/2015/12/06/the-taliaferros-of-stanton-road-se/
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: https://www.nps.gov/archeology/sites/npsites/rockCreek.htm
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you at next year’s Day of Archaeology!