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
bone.

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!