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.

Lesches, Rabbi S.Z.
2001     Understanding Mikvah: An overview of Mikvah construction.

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.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Investigating the Mikveh Bricks

Finding the bottom of the mikveh last week was exciting in and of itself, but this week’s expansion of the excavation to find the edges of the mikveh have provided some crucial information. As we uncovered the parts of the mikveh damaged by the house’s demolition, the brick maker’s marks were revealed, allowing us to further research the origin of the white enameled bricks lining it.

The floor of the mikveh with its white enameled brick lining on display.
Note the drain at its southern edge and the water valve to the west.

The bricks were made by Sayre & Fisher Co., a brick making firm founded in 1850 by James J. Sayre and Peter Fisher in Sayreville, New Jersey. The Raritan River along which the Sayre & Fisher factory was located was home to eight other brickyards, though none as large as Sayre & Fisher. By 1913 (the year after the building housing the mikveh was sold to the Hebrew Ladies’ Society), they were producing 178,000,000 bricks per year. The company continued growing until it finally closed in the early 1970s.

The maker's mark of Sayre & Fisher Co. displayed on one of the bricks from the mikveh.

The back side of one of the mikveh bricks with the factory location of Sayreville stamped onto it.

An 1895 catalog of their front, enameled, and common building bricks contains an example of the buff-bodied, white enameled bricks that line the mikveh at Strawbery Banke, though the maker’s mark is slightly different. This is not surprising, as the design of these marks often changed over time, sometimes providing an excellent way of dating components of archaeological sites.

Considering the popularity and number of bricks produced by Sayre & Fisher Co. in the early 20th century, it is not surprising that the people who built the mikveh chose them as their brick supplier. Their company catalog is peppered with the testimonies of dozens of satisfied customers. Judging from the way our mikveh bricks look after surviving a demolition and about half a century underground, it seems like those reviews from 120 years ago were pretty accurate!