Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Recap: Native American Heritage Month Speaker Series at Strawbery Banke Museum

November is National Native American Heritage Month, and to celebrate, the Archaeology Department and the Marketing & Communications Department organized an exciting speaker series.  Thank you to all of our wonderful speakers throughout the month, and thank you to everyone who attended one or all of our events!  For those of you who missed it, here is a quick recap, and for everyone, some further reading and watching.

Our first speaker was Annawon Weeden, a Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal member who currently works as an educator with the Mashantucket Pequot Nation.  Annawon took us on a ride through the last five centuries, role playing different indigenous people of New England, including Squanto and Metacom (aka King Phillip) before ending his presentation as his own 2014 self.  If you missed Annawon here at Strawbery Banke, you can see him playing Metacom in the PBS program, "We Shall Remain."  Annawon got a few questions about Federal Recognition, Tribal enrollment, and working on the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Reservation, so if you are looking for more information on those topics, you may enjoy this book: Forgotten Tribes: Unrecognized Indians and the Federal Acknowledgement Process.

Our next speaker was Dana Benner, an educator of Micmac/Penobscot/Piqwacket descent.  Dana spoke to us about pre-contact traditions and lifestyle of the Indigenous people of the Seacoast area.  Dana mixed personal anecdotes with traditional oral histories.  He focused especially on hunting and fishing techniques and brought some interesting artifacts with him.  If you enjoyed Dana's lecture, you might like this great book by his mentor, Frederick Wiseman: The Voice of the Dawn: An Autohistory of the Abenaki Nation.

Our third speaker was Charles Doleac from the 1713-1714 Treaty of Portsmouth Tricentennial Committee.  Chuck spoke about the political climate in the Seacoast area of the early 18th century and how the decisions made then affect diplomacy even today.  He recommended Colin Calloway's recent book, Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History.  If you enjoyed Chuck's lecture, you may also enjoy the excellent book, Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law, which explores the relationship between the federal government and Native American Nations.

Paul Pouliot, Sag8mo of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki and Chief & President of COWASS North America, Inc., was our next speaker.  He and Denise Pouliot put together an extensively researched presentation for us about Abenaki foodways.  Paul explored plant, animal, and marine resources that have been used by Indigenous people of New England.  Paul also taught us many Abenaki words for foods and showed us various artifacts related to hunting, fishing, and cooking technologies over time. Paul and Denise also brought us two traditional dishes to sample: corn chowder and maple baked beans!  Paul mentioned that the book Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki by Kerry Hardy included research on some of the topics Paul discussed.

Our final event was a screening of the film We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân, directed by Anne Makepeace.  Unfortunately, Anne, who was planning to join us for a Q&A after the film, was not able to make it, but the show went on without her.  The movie, which premiered on PBS in 2011, documents the revitalization of the Wampanoag language and the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project, directed by Wampanoag Tribal member, MIT grad, & MacArthur genius Jessie Little Doe Baird.  We had a brief discussion after the film, but if you are interested in learning more about language and literacy in historic New England, you may enjoy these books: The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (also available at the Strawbery Banke Visitors' Center) by Lisa Brooks or Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England by Jean O'Brien, who appeared in the film!

Thanks again to everyone for making the series a success, and to the Roger R. and Theresa A. Thompson Endowment Fund for the grant that made the events possible.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sankofa: Look to the Past

On Chestnut Street here in Portsmouth, construction has been progressing on the African Burying Ground Memorial Park, which is scheduled to finish later this fall, with a formal dedication ceremony in the spring of 2015. 
The African Burying Ground site, with construction equipment on Chestnut Street

In 2003, excavation for the city's Court Street Reconstruction Project encountered a burial, and archaeologists from Independent Archaeological Consulting worked to recover the remains of eight individuals.  It is the only known colonial African American cemetery to have been archaeologically investigated in New England.  DNA analysis confirmed that the individuals were of African descent.  Historical research indicated that this burial ground was used in the early 18th century, when this area of Portsmouth was on the outskirts of town.  When the city expanded throughout the 19th century, the street was paved over and its exact location was forgotten.   As many as 200 enslaved Africans and African Americans are still buried, undisturbed by 21st century construction.  

The memorial will include space for sculpture, reflection, and public education.  The remains of the eight individuals exhumed will be re-interred in a vault in the meditation area of the park.  The vault will be marked with a sankofa, an Andinkra symbol from the West African Akan Asante language.  Sankofa translates as "reach back and get it," and is often associated with a proverb that means "look to the past to inform the future."

Until the park opens, there is a series of signs, installed along Chestnut Street in 2012, that inform pedestrians of the African Burying Ground and the African community of colonial Portsmouth.  The signs include the sankofa symbol as well.  The signs were designed by Elisa Winter Holben, a graphic artist in Kittery.
African Burying Ground signs along Chesnut Street

Why is sankofa so significant to the African Burying Ground?  To understand its importance, we might look to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.
The African Burial Ground Monument in NYC

Like Portsmouth's African Burying Ground, the Manhattan African Burial Ground was a cemetery for free and enslaved Africans, who were buried there from the late 17th century through 1794. The 6.6 acre burial ground was forgotten due to city development, but the planned construction of a Federal building resulted in the accidental discovery of burials in 1991.  Over 400 men, women, and children of African descent were recovered from the site by archaeologists in the 1990s.  Responding to concerns from the local community, the project was taken on by Dr. Michael Blakey, then at Howard University, for study of the remains.  Dr. Blakey worked hard to make sure that African-American students and community members had a participatory role in the research direction and study of their ethnic ancestors' remains.
Dr. Michael Blakey
One of the burials was interred in a coffin decorated with tacks that had been nailed in to the wooden lid.  The decoration seemed uniquely familiar to Dr. Blakey.  The symbol was recognized as sankofa in 1995 by Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, an expert in African art at Howard University.
Sketch of in-situ Burial 101, African Burial Ground Collection, Howard University, Montague Cobb Laboratory Record Group. U.S. General Services Administration, NYC.
In a 2003 interview, Dr. Blakey remarked that that sankofa "resonates so completely with the African Burial Ground. It has to do with the idea that you need to go back and search in the past, to let the past be a guide. It has to do with the connection with past and present... I think the African Burial Ground has helped disseminate knowledge of that symbol and its message."  In 2003 the remains were re-interred and a partnership with the National Park Service resulted in a Memorial, which was dedicated in 2007.  Today, Dr. Blakey continues research of the African Burial Ground, and has developed a comparative database on the bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora at the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary.
The sankofa symbol is meaningful to many, and is relevant at the New York African Burial Ground, and at Portsmouth's African Burying Ground as well.  For African Americans and scholars of the African diaspora today, the fact that sankofa may be found in West Africa, the Caribbean, and in America is evidence that despite the dispossession of the Atlantic slave trade, Africans maintained elements of their own culture.  


Archaeological Institute of America  (2003) "Return to the African Burial Ground: An Interview with Physical Anthropologist Michael Blakey."  Archaeology Magazine November 20, 2003.

Cunningham, Valerie (2011) "Portsmouth, New Hampshire Memorializes 18th Century African Burying Ground." African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 25. 

LaRoche, Cheryl J., & Blakey, Michael L. (1997) "Seizing intellectual power: the dialogue at the New York African burial ground.Historical Archaeology31, 84-106.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Visualizing the Mikveh

The Strawbery Banke archaeology department has a great group of volunteers, many of whom were on site daily during this summer's excavation of the mikveh at the Pecunies House.  They volunteer year round in the lab, where they help clean, catalog, and analyze the artifacts we recovered.  One of our volunteers also happens to be a talented artist. Some readers may know him from his New Hampshire Archaeology Month event in 2013, in which he taught participants to draw artifacts.  After our excavation ended this summer, Kent worked on illustrating the mikveh as it might have looked 100 years ago.  

Our excavation revealed the dimensions of the floor of the mikveh (4' x 5'6"), and after consulting with Ronnie Pecunies, the mid-20th century inhabitant of the house, he confirmed that one would enter the mikveh through a door on the ground floor.  Using the Historical American Building Survey photo of the front of the house along with the HABS measurements of the foundation footprint, we calculated that the ground floor was 3' above the current ground surface.  The mikveh floor was at 2' below ground surface, which means the whole mikveh was about 5' deep.

To the south of the mikveh floor, there is a cistern-like structure that we interpreted as the mikveh's bor, or the reservoir where rainwater was collected for filling the mikveh.  Since the last photo we posted of the bor back in July, we had expanded our excavation block slightly to the east, on Ronnie's urging, "that's where the stairs were!"  We didn't find the stairs - presumably they were torn down along with the walls of the mikveh when the house was demolished in the 1960s - but we did find that the bor was built all along the entire southern wall of the mikveh.  Evidently the stairs were built over the bor, and they, like the bor itself, would have been 1'6" wide, making the length and the width of the finished mikveh a square 5'6" at the top. 
Kent's drawing gives us an interpretation of the mikveh as a finished bath, that one would have entered through a doorway. He included a window that we spotted in a historic photo of the back of the house.  He added the seven steps typical of mikvehs.  A hole in the wall below these stairs would have allowed rainwater from the bor to flow into the mikveh.  It turns out that this mikveh would have held over 900 gallons of water!  It is exciting to see how the combination of research and imagination come together in a useful product like this drawing.  Thanks Kent!
Has anyone ever seen a mikveh that looked like this one?  Have you ever used artwork to visualize archaeological interpretations?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Archaeology at the Conant House

The Aaron Conant House, which sits on the corner of Washington and Jefferson Streets at Strawbery Banke Museum, is currently undergoing rehabilitation by Bedard Preservation and Restoration.  The exterior of the house is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2014.  As part of the project, Bedard Preservation plans to rebuild a late 18th century addition to the house.  In advance of this reconstruction, we excavated along the extant foundation line to determine how deep the foundation was originally dug.

The history of the house is incomplete, but based on deed research, we know that the land was bought in 1697 by Captain John Hill, who built an early saltbox house on the lot.  John Hill sold the property to George Walton, a shopkeeper, in 1736.  The present house was likely built around 1750, based on early Strawbery Banke curator and architectural historian James Garvin's observations of structural elements.  In 1778, George Walton deeded the house to his granddaughter, Temperance Walton.  It was then sold to George Ham in 1791, who likely made some changes to the house, including raising the foundation and adding on a scullery to the kitchen.  The 1 story addition is visible on Sanborn Insurance maps from the 19th and 20th centuries (see the 1898 Sanborn Map, for example, with the Conant House colored in pink).  The house is currently named for Aaron Conant, a stage coach driver who owned the house from the 1834 through 1856.

During our excavation, we determined that the late 18th century builders focused on supporting the SE corner of the scullery foundation, and used minimal stones along the south and east sides.  Surrounding the existing foundation stones there was a good layer of fill that likely dated to around the 1790s when the foundation was built, including many large chunks of plaster that likely related to George Ham's renovations to the house.  Along the south side, below the plaster fill, we reached a nice midden (trash pit) layer, full of organic material, like bone, charcoal, and shells, along with a variety of colonial artifacts.  The artifacts from this layer are exciting in that they expand our knowledge of how the lot was used before George Ham's renovations, and can help us date this period of use.

In the midden layer, we recovered 4 pipe stems. Pipe stems are useful dating artifacts.  Historical archaeologist J. C. Harrington, who spent his early years excavating at Jamestown, realized in the 1950s that the diameters of pipe stems decreased over time.  Based on the typology his work developed, we can date the Conant pipe stems.  There were 3 with a 5/64" diameter, meaning they date from 1720-1750, and 1 with a 4/64" diameter from 1750-1800 (see Deetz 2010 for a published pipe stem typology).

We also recovered a few personal artifacts, including a bone comb, an 18th or early-19th century 5 hole bone button (the center hole is a product of button production), and a metal button, with a shank style that dates it to 1760-1785 (see White 2005 for dating bone and metal buttons).

There was a variety of stoneware and redware, including this mid-18th century Staffordshire redware sherd with engine turned decoration.
We recovered a variety of creamware sherds, most of which are from 1762-1780, including a handpainted flowered creamware sherd (c. 1765-1810).  The high concentration of creamware in the ceramic assemblage of the midden layer confirms that this area of the lot was in use after 1762.

From the fill surrounding the scullery foundation, we recovered a few sherds of pearlware, including a green, scalloped edge fragment that likely dates to between 1800 and 1830, and a blue and white fragment of mochaware with rouletting which dates to the 1790s-1890s (see Sussman 1997 for more mochaware).  The presence of these later ceramics along with the plaster in this layer helps confirm that renovations were made after 1790.

Hopefully our excavation and research, and this interesting collection of artifacts will be helpful in the ongoing rehabilitation of the Conant House!


Deetz, J. (2010). In small things forgotten: an archaeology of early American life. Random House LLC.

Sussman, L. (1997). Mocha, banded, cat's eye, and other factory-made slipware (p. 102). Boston: Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology.

White, C. L. (2005). American artifacts of personal adornment, 1680-1820: a guide to identification and interpretation. Rowman Altamira.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

History beneath Portsmouth Middle School

Last year, I got a call in my office from Detective Timothy Cashman, the Resource Officer at the Portsmouth Middle School.  During construction on the historic Portsmouth Middle School, various glass bottles were recovered by interested teachers and staff.  Before the original Middle School building was built in 1930, this area of Portsmouth next to South Mill Pond was used as a bottle dump by locals.  

These unbroken bottles are a useful resource for future archaeological comparison, as their shape, size, and makers' marks are all known.  When we find smaller pieces or shards of broken bottles in archaeological excavations, we may be able to identify those fragments by just a few visible letters upon comparison with these unbroken bottles.  

Some of the bottles had pretty interesting histories.  Interns and volunteers have done research on the bottles found at the middle school and their histories will be on display in a new case in the main hallway.  Next time you get called to the principal's office, be sure to take a look.  Here are just a couple!

A Burr's ad from 1868
This Burr’s Patent Nursing Bottle dates to the 1870s. Archaeologists have recovered pottery vessels for feeding infants that date to around 1500 BC.  Glass nursing bottles became common in the United States by the late 1700s. By the 19th century, Americans' interest in infant health had generated an increase in bottle feeding infants and the first nursing bottle patent was issued in 1841.  A glass bottle like this one would have been accompanied with a mouthpiece attached to a tube within the bottle.

A Curtice Brothers ad from 1925
These are two ketchup bottles from the early 20th century.  The Curtice Brothers Preservers Company bottle on the left would have contained Simeon and Edgar Curtice's Blue Label Tomato Ketchup.   

A Heinz bottle is on the right.  This is an early Heinz Ketchup bottle from between 1911 and 1919, looking fairly similar to the octagonal bottles you can still buy today.  

Heinz Ketchup was first sold in 1876 and has consistently been packaged in clear bottles, in an effort to showcase the quality and purity of the ketchup.  This was an early focus of the Heinz Company, as they generated debate over the use of benzoates in ketchup.  The benzoate debate led to decline in the popularity of other ketchups, allowing Heinz Ketchup sales to rise.

A Heinz ad from 1909

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Urban Renewal Fill

We found quite a variety of artifacts in the 1960s fill that we excavated above the mikveh.  We weren't sure whether the artifacts are associated with the Pecunies household or whether they were brought in with the fill.  As we've begun processing material culture, though, we've learned about a couple items in particular that were probably part of life for the Pecunies.

For example, there was a large pipe we recovered from the eastern side of the foundation.  It turned out that this piece of pipe (based on material, size, and color) would have been from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.  Local history tells us that shipyard employees sometimes brought home scrap material for various uses.  John Pecunies (Ronnie and Kay's father) worked at the shipyard, so it is more than likely that this pipe was in the household prior to filling.

Another interesting artifact that was recovered from the western side of the excavation block was this light fixture.  A little research revealed that it is a lamp from a 1941 Singer model 128-8 sewing machine.  Below is a graphic of the sewing machine from a historic Singer catalog which lists parts, and a photo of the back of the sewing machine, showing where the lamp would have been connected.  Knowing that this is from a household sewing machine and being able to date it to the 1940s, shortly after the Pecunies family moved into the house, makes it likely that this is part of Emma Pecunies' sewing machine!  It looks like the team who tore down the house in the 1960s used clean sand and gravel to backfill the foundation, just as we did when we backfilled the excavation!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Backfilling the mikveh site

With our main objective of locating and confirming the existence of an early 20th century mikveh at 90 Jefferson Street accomplished, it was time to backfill.  We had gotten a lot of questions from visitors about whether the site would remain open so that the mikveh would be visible to future museum guests.  Ultimately, though, the best way to protect and conserve an archaeological resource is usually to backfill, or rebury the site.  In some cases, backfilling is even a required condition of permitting excavation.

Backfilling reestablishes a stable environment for archaeological resources, including exposed features (like our mikveh) and unexcavated artifacts.  It also helps to maintain the integrity of the stratigraphy (or layers of dirt) in areas that we didn't excavate.

Here at the Pecunies House site, the soil used to fill the foundation after the house was torn down in the 1960s was full of gravel, larger stones, and bricks.  The particle size or grain size of that 1960s fill was therefore rather large and this resulted in some fairly unstable sidewalls.  There were many voids throughout the fill, and rainwater from summer storms was seeping below the tarps we used to cover the site at night, meaning that the walls were deteriorating further.  Wall fall could compromise stratigraphy in the unexcavated units surrounding our excavation block.  We left portions of the site unexcavated (for example, we only excavated the late 18th century midden within one 1x1 meter unit) that we wanted to protect for possible future research.  We also wanted to protect the mikveh itself from the elements.  So, it was time to rebury our site.  However, we wanted to do so carefully.

Filter fabric covering the mikveh.
With the help of Atlantic Stone & Landscape, we began by wrapping the mikveh with filter fabric, a geosynthetic fabric which allows for normal water flow while containing soil particles.  The excavation block was then filled with new sand (clean of rocks and debris).  We tamped it down, added another layer of filter fabric, and topped the site with the topsoil we had saved from the beginning of our excavation.  It was pretty remarkable to see how quickly heavy machinery could do the job of filling in the block that had taken weeks to empty with our trowels and buckets!
New sand is distributed over the excavation block - thanks Jesse!
The site today!
Although the site has been backfilled, the project is far from over.  We have thousands of artifacts that we have begun to catalog here in the lab.  We also now have many photos, drawings, maps, and other materials -- even mikveh bricks! -- that will ensure the mikveh and its place within the early Jewish immigrant community is remembered.  Keep checking the blog for more updates as our research progresses!  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Memory versus Technology

By now, you've seen many photos of our excavation and are well aware of the huge volume of dirt that the archaeology team had to move this summer. And this was a relatively small-scale dig! So it goes without saying that archaeologists don’t generally undertake an excavation without spending a considerable amount of time deciding where to dig.

Historical archaeologists sometimes have a bit of a leg up when it comes to making those decisions. Often times, we have knowledge that a site is there before we ever break ground thanks to documents like maps, probate records, and even photos or oral histories if a site is recent enough.

Lucky for us, we had a few resources at our disposal. In addition to having the footprint of the house foundation still outlined in stones, we had the help of photographs of the house as well as oral histories about Jewish life in Puddle Dock collected as part of the museum’s research for the opening of the Shapiro house. These oral histories were useful in that they confirmed the existence of the mikveh at the Pecunies house, but they couldn't tell us exactly where in the house it was. Ronnie Pecunies, a member of the last family to occupy the house before it was demolished, still lives in Portsmouth and visited the site several times to relate his memories of the house and the neighborhood. He remembered the mikveh being in the eastern half of the basement.

Frontal view of the Pecunies house from Jefferson Street.

The memories and stories attached to a place are invaluable to archaeologists, but thanks to the leaps and bounds made every day when it comes to technology, there are more objective methods available to augment our knowledge. Peter Sablock, a professor of geological sciences at Salem State University, brought his equipment to Strawbery Banke and performed a survey on the site using a method of shallow geophysics called electro-magnetometry (EM). Most minerals possess a certain level of magnetism and an object's thermal history can affect those levels as well. In the case of our mikveh bricks, the minerals in the clay used to make them had magnetic signatures different from the soil around them and when the bricks were fired this increased their conductivity. So when we look at the readout from the EM survey, the location of the mikveh is incredibly clear.

EM reading showing magnetic conductivity.
Anomalies show up clearly in blue and red.
When we align the EM results with current aerial photos of the site and a 1910 Sanborn map detailing the house’s location, it becomes apparent that the mikveh was actually located in the western half of the basement and not the eastern half. In response to the geophysical survey, the archaeology crew opened another unit in the western part of the basement and, sure enough, that’s where we located the mikveh.

It was interesting to see how memory can be so accurate on some counts (Ronnie Pecunies remembered the white tiles inside the mikveh) and so unreliable in other ways. 

Aerial photo of the block with 1910 Sanborn map and the EM results overlaid.

Since the mikveh was not documented in any records, its rediscovery was solely the result of the memories of former Puddle Dock inhabitants. Using technology to augment what we knew from the oral histories, we were able to pinpoint the mikveh’s location. This partnership of human memory and technology is an important one for archaeologists and the example of the Pecunies house mikveh illustrates the potential for the combined usage of both when it comes to scientific research. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

How does the mikveh measure up?

Diagram of bor al gabai bor configuration (Lescher 2001:55)
As we conclude a successful excavation at the Pecunies house site, we find ourselves facing many new questions. How did people access the mikveh for ritual immersion? How much water did it contain? How did they fill and drain it? How was the naturally flowing water required to make the mikveh valid collected and how was it added to the rest of the water in the immersion pool? It’s important for us to try and answer these logistical questions in order to understand how the Jewish inhabitants of Puddle Dock constructed the mikveh inside an existing house and what the experience of using it was like.

Hashakah configuration with the opening
 between pools circled in red (Horowitz 2005:70)
 Just in case you don’t recall from previous blog  posts, there are certain requirements that must be  met before the mikveh is considered valid. A few  millennia of debate on the subject have resulted in  several interpretations of the specific requirements,  but a few are generally agreed upon.  The  water in   the immersion pool has to be “kissed” with  naturally flowing water before it’s ready to be used  in purification rituals. Particularly in urban settings,  rainwater is used to accomplish this and it is  collected in a reservoir called a bor. There are  three standard configurations for the location of the  bor.

 The first is called bor al gabai bor or “pit above pit,” wherein the floor of the immersion pool is also the ceiling of the bor and openings in this divider allow for the intermingling of the waters. The second is hashakah or “kissing,” in which the bor is built directly beside the immersion pool and an opening beneath the water line connects the two chambers. The last is zriah or “sowing,” where the opening between the pool and the bor is above the water line and the water used to fill the immersion pool runs through the bor and down into the pool.

Zriah configuration
 (Horowitz 2005:70)
There are also requirements for the volume of water and the ratio of natural flowing water to drawn water. The immersion pool must contain at least 40 se’ahs  of water. A se’ah is a biblical measurement equivalent to 1.93 gallons, so 40 se’ahs equals 77.2 gallons. Additionally, if the immersion pool contains between 66.4 and 264.2 gallons, it can’t have more than 3 log of drawn water (equivalent of .52 gallons), so the remainder must be natural flowing water. If the immersion pool holds more than 264.2 gallons, it can never be invalid no matter how much drawn water is added, as long as it is kissed by natural flowing water.

That’s a whole lot of rules! But now that we know the requirements, we can see how the mikveh at Strawbery Banke measures up (literally). During excavation we managed to uncover the whole floor of the mikveh so we know that it is 5’6” long by 4’ wide and, thanks to the four bricks in course we found along with the lip of one edge of the pool, we know that the side walls of the mikveh were at least 1’6” high. Going by these dimensions, our mikveh held at least 246.51 gallons. It’s very possible that the mikveh had higher walls, but if not, this means that the immersion pool could not have contained more than half a gallon of drawn water.

A close-up plan view of the possible bor adjacent to the
 southern wall of the mikveh with the house foundation visible
An overhead view of the mikveh floor with the
 cistern-like structure to the right
So where was the natural water coming from? While we can’t give a definite answer, there is a small cistern-like structure which we uncovered adjacent to the mikveh’s southern wall. It is likely that this is the bor. Unfortunately, its walls were destroyed along with those of the mikveh, so if this was the reservoir used to collect rainwater, we can no longer see where the opening would have been that allowed for the intermingling of the waters. However, the floor of this structure is made of cement, a common practice in bor construction. The cement was built into the ground and therefore was also considered part of the earth. If rainwater was used, it had to run over a length of earth before it could be considered naturally flowing, so this is a promising find indeed!

More investigation is necessary before we can determine the logistics of mikveh use at the Pecunies house. We will post more findings as research progresses.

 Do you have any theories or ideas about the mikveh or the bor? Feel free to post them below in the comments!


Horowitz, Naomi
2005    A Gathering of Water. Master’s thesis, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/30231#files-area

Lesches, Rabbi S.Z.
2001     Understanding Mikvah: An overview of Mikvah construction. http://www.kollelmenachem.org/media/pdf/433/juNS4330495.pdf

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My First Field School

Hi everyone! My name is Christina Errico, and I am a rising senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania earning my B. A. in archaeology.  You may have already seen my picture on the blog digging or holding up the Foss’ Liquid Fruit Flavor Bottle.  I grew up going on field trips and visits to Strawbery Banke, and when I realized they had an archaeological field school, I knew it was the right place for me to fulfill my degree requirement. 

As a first-time field school student, I really didn't know what to expect.  I was book smart about archaeology, but I had never really taken my knowledge to the field.  The most I can claim to have done before Strawbery Banke is a little mapping in Dickinson’s lab and a bit of pedestrian survey at an old CCC/POW camp in Pennsylvania called Camp Michaux as part of our mandatory Archaeological Methods and Theory class.  Completing a field school is one of the requirements to earn a degree in archaeology and this was my last summer to fulfill it.  Naturally, I was a little nervous about doing it right and making it count.

My first day was pretty interesting, and I soon realized there were only myself and one other field school student who was a senior in high school.  I wondered how we would dig out an entire mikveh with just four of us, but then a hoard of the archaeology department’s fabulous volunteers rolled in ready for action.  We got a tour of the grounds by Alix from an archaeological standpoint and then again by Strawbery Banke’s curator, Elizabeth, to talk about historical architecture.  We took an extra-long lunch and then the digging began.  To be fair, we didn't actually get that much digging done the first day, as we had to sort out the situation of the strawberry patch that had conveniently been planted directly atop our site.  The irony…

I went home feeling less nervous than I had the night before my first day (and a lot more tired), but I still felt like I didn't really know what I was doing.  I didn't want to screw up my first field school by making a wall cave in or breaking one of the most important artifacts or anything unthinkable like that. 

My fears quickly disappeared by the end of day 2 as I realized how welcoming, helpful, and fun everyone at Strawbery Banke is, especially Alix, Nadia, and my fellow field school student, Alex (or Alex the Younger, as we like to distinguish her as).  There was never a dull moment when the volunteers were there, and I can honestly say that this has been one of the most rewarding experiences.  Archaeology in and of itself is a gratifying field, and I think this field school really proved that for me. 

Besides the countless hours of physical labor in the summer heat and hauling dog-sized boulders and small mountains of rocks out of units, my favorite part of this experience was that that I got to interact with the public and explain to them what we were doing.  I also felt prepared to do so even though I had only been there a few days, which is a great feeling.  I think it’s really important to educate the public about what archaeology is and why we are destroying a site just to gain knowledge. I feel like I helped discover something that will help shape our knowledge about the Jewish community in Portsmouth and Jewish women’s lives in particular that we could not have gotten by simply reading a textbook.  And even if you can just read about something, it’s a lot more fun and enlightening to go out there and find it for yourself.  

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What else did we find?

Locating and confirming the existence of our early 20th century mikveh was probably the highlight of our archaeological field school.  We also, as I had hoped, learned a little more about how the property had been used before the 20th century.  In our excavation block within the eastern side of the house foundation, we were able to dig through the basement floor, uncovering contexts associated with a late 19th century barn, and below that, a midden, or trash pit, that seems to date to the turn of the 18th/19th century.  The midden contained a large variety of artifacts, including pipestems, animal bones, oyster shells, wine bottle glass, shell-edged and hand painted pearlware, and other ceramics.

We knew there was a barn on the property thanks to historic maps of the area, however, we're not sure when it was built.  There is no barn on the property in the 1813 Hales map, during which time George Ham, a clock and watch maker owned the property.

On the earliest Sanborn map from 1878, while Augustus K. Brown owns the property, there is an outbuilding that expands to be a full barn by the time the next Sanborn map is drawn in 1887.  The Pecunies House takes the place of the barn on the property by 1904.  Perhaps we'll have more information on the dates of the midden and barn when we begin processing our artifacts.

In the photo of the wall profile below, you can see the thick layer of destruction fill related to the demolition of the Pecunies House in the 1960s, full of bricks and stones, above much thinner layers of ash and dark loam.

Upon reaching the midden layer, we opened an excavation block to the east.  In the photo to the right, you can see the top of the Pecunies House basement floor, which had a thin layer of green and white linoleum sitting on a gritty, compact surface.  This photo also demonstrates the extent of the destruction of the mikveh walls, as mikveh bricks have become part of the fill up to two meters from the mikveh itself.

We also exposed more of the concrete slab (that the sign board is sitting on in the wall profile photo above) and confirmed that it was a basement stair, thanks to the intact stair tread.