Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Summer I Lived At A Museum

Hi! I'm Ana, the Archaeology Intern
Hi, my name is Ana - I have been the Archaeology intern this summer, but I realized that I never introduced myself! Given that I only have one more week here at SB, I'll give myself a quick introduction. I was born and raised in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation, and sometimes
that makes us forget how big the world can really be. (We always joke that if a drive is longer than 15 minutes, we'll have to pack an overnight bag.) Growing up I went to small schools and participated in several clubs, including Academic Decathlon and Environmental club, many sports, including softball, track, and field hockey, and Girl Scouts, remaining a member until I was 18 and progressed through all the ranks to Senior Scout, earning my Gold Award in my final year. After this I went to the University of Rhode Island, where I double majored in History and Anthropology and minored in Underwater Archaeology, completing these degrees in three years. In 2014, I participated in an underwater dig in Akko, Israel, and in 2015 I came to Strawbery Banke as a field student. This year, after a gap year off of school, I am back as the summer-long intern before I start at UMASS Boston for my graduate degree in Historical Archaeology.

For those of you who may not be aware, the internship program provides housing for the out-of-state interns, which means the I, along with four other interns, have spent my summer living at a museum. It's quite a bit different from the children in the book From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who run away from home and end up living secretly in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, besides a few rules, living at one of the rehabilitated houses on the museum grounds has been a great experience! Interns live in one side Hough House, which is divided into a duplex, while a few businesses occupy the offices in the other side. Although the outside looks historic, we have all the modern amenities of a current house: running water, electricity, television, WiFi, a fully equipped kitchen, and almost anything else you can think of. The one thing we are not allowed is Air conditioning or window fans, because the museum wants the facade of the house to match the historic neighborhood it represents.

Hough House
Although the house is modern from the inside, there are definitely some things I have noticed about living at a museum that differ from living in a regular neighborhood. First off, when I wake up in the morning and look out my window, I get to look over the rooftops of historic buildings, which, in itself is a great way to start the day. It's beautiful, quiet, serene, and very different from looking out into a modern neighborhood. Unfortunately, living on museum grounds means that some things are a little tougher, like hanging out outside. I spend most of my working day outdoors, but going outside to read a book, sit in the sun, or exercise becomes a little more complicated simply because our "yard" is usually full of museum visitors. Life becomes a little less private when the museum is open. Many of these visitors also try to come into our house because they think it's an exhibit. Thankfully we have gotten very good at remembering to keep the door locked.

Having so many people around, however, has also been a bit of a surprise. Besides visitors, we also see the workers in the other half of Hough House and many people who come to tend the community garden behind the house. I have seen people directly outside my windows as early as 5am and at least as as late as midnight.

Because the museum is so busy during the day, we get to interact with a lot more people than we ever would if we were not living on the museum. I have met visitors from all around the USA, not to mention several from foreign countries. We also get to hear more from interpreters and museum role players, who are not only our colleagues during the day, but also serve as stand-in neighbors for the otherwise empty houses. Although you would think that the museum is deserted and quiet after hours, it is almost entirely the opposite. Many locals come to walk their dogs through the open grounds and many events take place on Puddle Dock, including weddings, corporate dinners, fundraisers, and concerts. From our windows, we get to see all of these events from a behind-the-scenes perspective, which is pretty cool. Since we are so close to the downtown area, we also get a lot of firsthand experience with living near Prescott Park, which has events and happenings, like plays and concerts, on most evenings. 

After spending my summer here, I can reflect to say that I was most surprised how busy the neighborhood is. Hough House is not on a main road, so most of the traffic we experience is foot traffic and we don't get a lot of noise from cars. What I do see, however, is how much a part of the living community Strawbery Banke Museum has become. From my windows, I see visitors, museum personnel, interpreters, and role players all day, dog walkers, joggers, and families in the afternoons, concert-goers, tourists, restaurant staff and locals in the evenings, and on some special occasions I have seen bands and musicians, performers, wedding parties, corporate groups, vendors, donors, and tour groups. The museum is rarely deserted, and, in fact, seems equally like a part of the past while also playing a truly active role in the present. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Shell-ter From The Storm

Oyster Midden Before It Was Excavated
Within the first few days of excavation at Penhallow, our crew was finding quite a few oyster shells...And when I say quite a few, I mean a lot! At the Western end of our trench, we uncovered an oyster shell midden that spanned the area of four 1x1 meter units, and when we started digging on the street-side of the house, we discovered that the midden also extended outward into those units. Although the midden takes up space in at least six units, we only excavated two and half of these units, and that still yielded over 60 bags of shells!

Midden After the Two Easternmost Units Were Excavated
The presence of all these shells at Penhallow leads us to many research questions, such as: do these oysters pre- or post-date the house? How old is the deposit? Where did the oysters grow? Are they local or imported? How old were the oysters when harvested? Was the aquatic environment where they grew healthy or polluted?

These are only a few of the questions that we can ask about the oyster midden, but in order to better answer all of these questions, we require a bit of background knowledge on oysters overall.

Although oysters come in many varieties, there are only 5 true species of oyster in the world. These species are the Pacific Oyster, Kumamoto Oyster, Atlantic Oyster, European Flat Oyster, and Olympia Oyster, and they are differentiated based upon where the oysters grow and their shell size and style. In general, these oysters all taste similar, but they do take on slightly different tastes based upon where they are grown. A lot of people liken it to wine, saying that each is distinctly different because of the regions and conditions in which they were grown and produced. The only oyster native to the US East coast is the Atlantic Oyster, which is defined by its teardrop shaped shell and its cream, brown, and dark green shell coloring.

A Water Tank Demonstrating How Oysters Filter Water
Oysters, as filter feeders are important to the health of an ecosystem. So important, in fact, that they are referred to as "Keystone Organisms," which means that without oysters, other organisms are unable to inhabit the area. This is because of several important roles oysters play in keeping the ecosystem healthy. Oysters filter organic and inorganic materials from the water, so they essentially clean the water by removing particles and pollutants. They are also helpful because they can remove solids from the water, purify them, and then package them as little bundles that are consumed by larger organisms. Oyster shells are also beneficial because they provide safe habitats for creatures on the bottom of the food chain. Oyster beds make a hard surface that creatures like barnacles, snails, crabs, and even baby oysters can live on. With oyster shells to attach to, these small organisms attract larger and larger organisms and help to create a complete and complex underwater ecosystem.

Growth Layers on an Oyster Shell
Because oysters are so important to the underwater environment, they can provide us with a lot of historic information. When examining a single oyster shell, there are several key things to look for that tell us about that oyster's individual life, and when we compile this data from all the oyster shells, we can learn about trends over time. One of the first things we can notice about the shell is its size. The larger the oyster, the longer it was able to live and grow, indicating a longer life in a healthy environment; smaller oysters mean just the opposite. For archaeologists, this can indicate levels of environmental health, but it can also indicate economic health. If oysters were able to grow to maturity before they were harvested, it is likely that people had other, more plentiful sources of food. If oysters are small it is likely because people harvested them before they were mature, indicating a higher demand for oysters, which could either mean a poorer economy or an increased human population. You can tell exactly how old an oyster was when it was harvested by looking at the layers on its shell. The layers on a shell grow out from the hinge area, like tree rings, so by counting these layers, we can tell the oyster's age. Similar to tree rings, these layers also indicate seasonality. Oysters grow more during warmer months, so the layers will be thicker in the summer and thinner in the winter. The layers closest to the hinge are the most recent, so you can look at these to determine in which season the oyster was harvested. Measuring the ratio between length and height also indicates whether the oysters grew in a bed, on sand, on a reef, or in a channel. If they grew in salty water, oyster shells will have holes in them that are caused by parasitic sponges feeding on the shells. Fresh water oysters, on the other hand, have no holes in their shells, and oysters that grew in brackish water have fewer, smaller holes. By noting how many oysters came from salt water versus fresh water, archaeologists can get a glimpse of changing harvesting patterns. People may change their harvesting patterns for a variety of reasons, such as if an oyster bed were completely depleted, if water was becoming too polluted, if access to the oyster beds became more difficult, or if they started intentionally growing and cultivating oysters. When people first harvest oyster beds, they are often pulling out oysters that have different sizes and styles of shell, because they are usually harvesting them for personal consumption. When oysters are being grown and harvested as a tradeable market good, however, their shells are often uniform across the oyster bed. This is because consumerism demands consistency in goods and products and it also demonstrates an knowledge of what makes a good eating oyster. Examining and studying all the excavated oyster shells and compiling data on their size, age, which season they were harvested, where they grew, and the similarity in shell shape and size can indicate quite a lot to an archaeologist in terms of environmental health, economic health, local markets and trade, what people ate, and changes to all of these over time.

So what, then, did people in the past do with all of these oysters? Besides eat them, of course. It turns out that there are quite a few uses for oyster shells, including, but not limited to:

  1. Ground up as feed for chickens to strengthen their egg shells
  2. Crushed up as pathways, much like gravel is used nowadays
  3. Restoring minerals to gardening soil by burying them in the ground
  4. Beds for future oysters to grow on
  5. Mixed into a building material called Tabby (similar to cement)
  6. Boiled into a broth, like how chicken bones are boiled in chicken stock
  7. Scattered across work yards to make muddy surfaces easier to walk upon
  8. Burned to create lime for plaster
  9. A remedy for the bite of a mad dog when burnt and crushed (According to the 1783 Virginia Gazette)
  10. Art

What do you think our oyster shells may have been used for?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Field School Session 2 Update

The second session of field school is wrapping up so here is an update on the things we have accomplished, as well as the most recent theories about the site!

We started the third week of field school by digging through the sandy/clay layer. We discovered that the layer was more mottled and mixed up, similar to a patchwork quilt, rather than a straight layer of sand with a layer of clay underneath. 

Digging through the mottled sandy clay layer

We dug through this layer until we hit an unexpected layer of rocks! 

The emergence of the rock layer

We weren't sure if this layer of rock was a continuation of the builders' trench, but the rocks are more rounded, similar to river rocks, than the larger and sharper-edged rocks of the foundation. They also go to the edge of the northern wall of the trench which is probably larger than the builders' trench would have been.

Catcat, the neighborhood cat

We even had a visit from the neighborhood cat, whose nametag says Catcat. She has been visiting us for a few weeks on the other side of the fence, but this field school is much smaller than the first session so there aren't enough people to work on both sides of the fence.

The uncovered cobblestones

After removing all of the mottled sandy/clay layer we photographed the cobblestone layer and talked more about what it could be. There is a layer of smaller rocks that are very orderly along the northern edge and a second layer of larger, more loosely placed rocks on top of them. It is possible that this upper layer exists because the stones were displaced when the foundation was built. 

Most people who see the stones for the first time think of a road, but there was never a road according to the historic maps. One theory that has persisted throughout the excavation of the stones is that the stones were used to fill in some of the tidal inlet to make more usable land for the neighborhood. Several of the historic maps show a more straight, unnatural looking part of the tidal inlet near Washington Street and it is possible that the tidal inlet was shaped to suit the needs of the neighborhood. Another theory is that these stones were used to provide drainage to the area, but more research needs to be done to figure out what is under the stones. We ended the day with mapping the stones before we remove a section near the shell midden to understand more about the cobblestone layer.

Do you have any ideas on what these cobblestones were used for? Stay tuned for an update after Ana and Alix continue the excavation after the field school ends tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

It's Raining, It's Pouring

Ok, well, technically it's not pouring, but it its raining; and rain means that we can't be out in the field working on the Penhallow site. So what do archaeologists do when they aren't digging? The straight answer is: lots of different things. Just like how the movie business has lots of behind-the-scenes editing time to turn all of the footage into a Hollywood blockbuster, archaeology has a lot of behind-the-scenes lab work, cataloging, and research that has to be done in order to interpret our findings and artifacts into a finished, comprehensive report. This work takes so much time that archaeologists often say that one hour of excavation turns into at least twelve hours of post-digging work. For our Penhallow site, then, that means that the four weeks of field school, at 35 hours per week, turns into (at least) 1,680 hours of lab time!

When we collect our artifacts in the field, we put them into plastic bags that are labelled with the provenience number, which tells us when and where we found the artifact. Since the artifacts go straight into the bags, they are often quite dirty. So, our first step in the lab is to clean them up. We use simple fairly simple tools to do this: a basin of water, a strainer or colander, toothbrushes, and dental picks. After filling the basin with water, we pour the artifacts into the strainer, and lower it into the water to start rinsing off the dirt. Then we use the toothbrushes and dental picks to gently scrub off the remaining dirt and grime.

An Archaeologist's Tools

At some sites, not all artifacts are washed in water. Some artifacts, like those made of metal, are brushed off when they are dry to prevent further degradation. Since Strawbery Banke is historically situated on a tidal inlet and is still very close to the Piscataqua River, the ground water is so high that all of our artifacts have already been exposed to water, so we are able to wash them all in water.

Washing In The Lab

As we clean the artifacts, we begin preliminary sorting. That is, as we place the artifacts into the drying racks, we try to sort like with like. At SBM, our most commonly found artifacts are ceramics/pottery, bone, glass, and metal, so we separate by those general categories. As you can see below, this washer has begun to separate her artifacts into piles of pottery, metal nails, shell, and

Sorting Artifacts By Type

We then place the drying screens into a rack so that the artifacts can fully dry before we re-bag them. Some artifacts, like ceramics, which are impervious to liquid, dry very quickly, whereas artifacts like bones, which are porous, take much longer to dry. We have to make sure that the artifacts are fully dry before we bag them, so that the moisture does not cause damage or mold.

One of the reasons that we sort the artifacts this way is to prepare ourselves for cataloging. As the artifacts dry, we package the different types into different bags, and then put all of the smaller bags back into the original bag that has the context and provenience information on it. Keeping artifacts with their proper provenience number is very important because it tells us which unit they came from, how deep they were, which other artifacts were nearby, and what type of soil they were in. Without this information, the artifacts become almost useless because they lose their context. 

After all the artifacts from a site are washed, the cataloging begins. Sometimes washing takes a very long time, so cataloging and site interpretation come a long time after the actual excavation itself. For instance, the artifacts from our excavation at Yeaton-Walsh, which occurred in 2015, took a whole year to wash! This is why keeping artifacts properly labeled is so important - we would never remember where all of the artifacts came from after all this time! 

Cataloging involves sorting the pre-sorted artifacts into more specific categories and trying to match broken pieces and fragments back together. This means sorting things like ceramics into different types, like creamware, pearlware, whiteware, stoneware, porcelain, or many others. Doing this helps us to determine how many separate objects these fragments represent.

Sorting Metal Artifacts

It also means taking a lot of notes to keep track of all of the artifacts, their context numbers, and what types of categories they fall into. All of this information eventually helps us to interpret the site by showing us how many different types of artifacts there are, indicating what objects they represent (i.e. does a ceramic sherd come from a bowl or a plate?), where they were in relation to other artifacts, and when they were deposited into the archaeological record. 

Taking Cataloging Notes About Glass Artifacts 
All of this behind-the-scenes work takes a lot of time and patience, but without it the artifacts we extract from the ground would be meaningless and insignificant for furthering our understanding of history and answering our research questions.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Penhallow Field School: Session I Recap!

The theme of the first session of field school this year can undoubtedly be summed up in one word: gravel. The site, located in an alleyway between Penhallow House and the Carter Collections Center, was covered with a thick layer of gravel that continued to plague and pester us by rolling back into the trench we were excavating. No matter how much of it we seemed to cart away by wheelbarrow, there was always a huge amount of gravel surrounding the site. It became such a nuisance that the students quickly coined the term "gravelanche," to refer to the constant avalanche of pebbles that were always falling on our heads.
Excavation: Day 1
Despite the constant uphill battle against the gravel, we did manage to accomplish quite a lot in our two weeks of digging. We began by excavating a thick layer that we called the "Brick-y Layer" because we seemed to unearth more brick rubble than actual soil. Underneath this layer, we discovered an oyster shell midden that covers area in at least eight of the westernmost units of the site. We excavated only half, in the interest of saving some for future archaeologists and also in the interest of having enough space and materials to curate so many shells.
Shell Midden after Two Units had Been Excavated

A later discovery of the builders' trench running along the stone foundation of the building was also a great find! We can eventually use the artifacts found in this deposit to help date Penhallow's foundation and determine if or when the "saltbox" addition off the back of the house was added after the house was erected in its current position. The fact that the builders' trench was deeper than the shell midden indicated that the shells were deposited there after the house and its foundation were built, and that they postdate the house. (Another mystery!) Some of our other interesting finds included an 1864 Civil War Token, possibly used for gambling, and an 1862 Indian Head Penny that was found inside the foundation itself.
1862 Indian Head Penny
Let's Hope that the next two weeks of Field School unearth as many interesting finds as the first session! Thanks for all your hard work, everyone!
Field School Session I Crew

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

First Week of the 2016 Field School!

This summer our field school students are working at the museum’s Penhallow House, which faces Washington Street and is currently the home of our Properties Staff offices.
Penhallow House today
The most famous resident of this house, for whom the house is named, is Samuel Penhallow. In 1748, Penhallow acquired the land this house was originally built on, on the corner of Pleasant and Court Streets (now part of the Langdon House Property, managed by Historic New England). Penhallow and his wife Prudence lived there until his death in 1810. Penhallow was a Deacon at North Church (in downtown Portsmouth) and was a Justice of the Peace.

The house was moved in 1862 to its current location. Here the house was owned by Leonard Cotton, who owned and rented many houses in this neighborhood (including the two Cotton Tenant Houses on Atkinson Street). 
Penhallow House in the 1860s, after its move
The Penhallow House was turned into a duplex in the late 1800s and rented to multiple families through the late 19th and the 20th century.  Can you spot any differences in these photos that indicate it became a multiple family residence?
Penhallow House in the 1960s
We are working in advance of projects that will be carried out around this house during its rehabilitation through the museum’s Heritage House Program, a program designed to provide both rental space and revenue to support museum operations. We are digging to recover and identify artifacts and features left behind by former occupants of this area. We hope to find evidence of what was here before Penhallow House was moved, along with items that can tell us about the daily life of the 19th and 20th century residents.

Come visit us at the site, weekdays 10-12 and 1-3:30!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

2016 Field School announcement

A reminder to all that our field school for summer 2016 is now accepting registrations!  You can learn more about the details of this summer's excavation and our new! scholarship opportunities here, on the Strawbery Banke website.