Friday, September 26, 2014

Field Day 3

Transfer-printing, developed in Britain in the mid-18th century, provided a way for ceramic manufacturers to duplicate a single pattern on multiple pieces with accuracy and efficiency. Unlike hand-painted pottery, the new transfer-printed ceramics could be rigidly standardized and produced in mass quantities in a relatively short period of time. The process began with a metal plate, which was incised with the desired pattern. The plate was then used to print the pattern onto a piece of paper, which was used to transfer the pattern onto a ceramic object (see, for example, this photograph). In the case of a linear pattern that was made to wind around a curved object such as a bowl or teacup, you might find a slight disruption in the pattern where the beginning of the sheet of paper met the end. That's what I believe happened in the piece shown above, a sherd of transfer-printed whiteware in which the pattern is not quite continuous.

Since there were only three of us in the field today (Bruce, Gretchen, and I - Laurie helped us set up but had to leave afterward), we decided to concentrate on one unit. We backfilled Feature 6 (which you can see in this picture on the right, looking suspiciously like a fresh grave, but I swear it isn't), and staked out Feature 8, another 3' x 5' rectangle. We placed this unit to the south of Feature 6 because it seemed that the artifacts in the latter unit were concentrated in the southern half and along the southern wall, and to the east of Feature 6 because it's closer to the original unit we dug in this location (Feature 5). We're still holding out hope that we will find the rest of the Brown Betty teapot - and maybe a Boehmer bottle or two.

What we did find was fascinating in its own right. The very first find we made in Feature 8 was this cast iron toy gun, which Bruce found and identified. It has a flower- or pinwheel-like emblem just above the trigger. This artifact, along with a single metal jack found in the same unit, is one of the only pieces of explicit physical evidence pointing to the presence of children at the site, aside from children's graves. Like women, minorities, and the poor, children are one of the demographic groups that is often given short shrift by the historical record. But children and the other groups I mentioned nonetheless left an imprint beneath the ground.

After doing some internet sleuthing, I believe I have found a match for this artifact: the Stevens 1885 cast-iron cap gun: see this example. The website where this image is located, Nichols Cap Guns, refers to "Logan and Best's book, page 192" - I assume this is Cast Iron Toy Gun and Capshooters by Samuel H. Logan, published by C. W. Best in 1990, which I obviously need to order from the library. But this means that - if I am right - this toy gun may be 129 years old. I have to say it's in pretty good shape considering!

Like the rest of the units we have dug in this area, Feature 8 has consisted of mixed refuse - ceramic, glass, metal, animal bone, walnut shells (there are no walnut trees currently in the site, but presumably there were at one time), nails, and oyster and clam shells. These artifacts were concentrated in the first ten inches or so below the surface of the ground, tapering off a bit between ten and twenty inches, and disappearing into sterile soil slightly after that. This, again, is very similar to the pattern we have seen in Features 5, 6, and 7. But Feature 8 is unique in having a great deal of gravel in it - specifically, pebble-sized gravel very similar to that which we found in the walkway leading up to St. Mark's Church in our early STPs. Is this the same gravel from the walkway, mixed with artifacts of that time period? It is true that the majority of the artifacts we've found in the dump date to the period of St. Mark's Church (1851-1916), though a significant number are earlier.

Even if we are able to date an artifact to the period of St. Mark's, it's difficult if not impossible to tell whether it actually came from the church and/or its parishioners. When St. Mark's was built, there was already a Methodist church located on the other side of the stone wall (the first church was built in 1824; a second in the 1840s in the same location). In the 1860s, the Methodist church was moved down the road and the old church building was converted into a residence and later, a hotel. Meanwhile, houses occupied the plots of land adjoining the cemetery on its western side beginning in the mid-19th century. Any one of these - the churches, the houses, the hotel - could have contributed trash to the dump, but most likely they all did, at the same time. The Methodist church purchased the property that encompasses the dump in 1854 and made it into a cemetery, but this doesn't seem to have deterred people from dumping their trash along the stone wall. In fact, I would guess that the use of the dump increased during the period 1850-1900, judging by the artifacts we have found.

Who used this medicine vial? Was it a parishioner of St. Mark's or of the Methodist church? A family member visiting the cemetery? An occupant of one of the neighboring houses? A hotel guest? All of these are possible. Determining a date may help to narrow down the possibilities, but questions will remain. Archaeology involves both "objective" scientific analysis and "subjective" interpretation. I write these in scare quotes because it might be argued that scientific methods are never completely objective, but rather shaped by the ideas and expectations of the people asking the questions; neither is interpretation, if done correctly, completely subjective in the way that opinion or intuition is. Opinions are innumerable; interpretations are restrained by physical evidence, historical context, and methodology. To put it another way, archaeologists can argue over the chronology and purpose of Stonehenge, but no archaeologist who wants to maintain his reputation in the field (and his job) is going to make a case for extraterrestrial involvement.

That being said, here's some more transfer-printed whiteware.

I'm not sure what these ceramic pieces are - earthenware maybe, with a red and yellow slip? The pieces are quite thick and heavy. In any case, I believe they're older than the previous examples.

Speaking of things that are older than other things: today we found our first blown glass bottle. This means that, rather than being formed inside a mold, as the other bottles we have found (including the Boehmer bottle) were, this bottle was hand-made by a glass blower who left the mark of his pontil rod (the instrument used to grip the bottle as it was finished) at the base of the bottle, known as a pontil mark. Because it was blown and not molded, this bottle has no seams running up the side, as the Boehmer bottle does. It's also extremely thin and delicate, much more so than the sturdy molded bottles we have found. Bruce made this amazing find about nineteen inches below the surface in the southwestern quadrant of the unit. It was one of the last things we found before the cultural layer gave way to subsoil. Though I'm not sure of the exact date, it most likely predates the Civil War.

This image gives you an idea of the basic stratigraphy of the dump. There is little vegetation in the topsoil, which is loose and dusty. The organic dirt, with its large quantity of cultural deposits, begins right at the surface and continues for about ten inches down. From ten to twenty inches below the surface, the soil shifts into a rock layer followed by a layer of mixed organic soil and subsoil, followed finally by the subsoil, where no artifacts are found. When this picture was taken, we had dug a total of 30 inches below the surface. 

I have to say I love digging in the dump, not only because of the amazing things we've found, but because it's so shady and quiet. Most archaeological fieldwork is conducted in the summer months to coincide with summer breaks, and because the ground isn't frozen and there is more sunlight. I think a lot of archaeologists - particularly those who work in 100+ degree F heat in the blazing desert - would be jealous of the conditions we've been working in. Many might also envy the richness of the site, which despite being relatively small has proven to be extremely rich in finds. We've only worked three days this season so far, and already we've made discoveries that have surprised and delighted us and changed our understanding of the site.

The first thing everyone wants to know when they hear you're doing an archaeological excavation is "What have you found?" At this point we have found pretty much anything. This site, particularly the dump, is an incredible survey of 19th-century material culture from a village that, while small, was thoroughly engaged with the developments of Industrial Revolution, having both its own local industries and connections to national and international markets. The fact that all of this material has been found in a church site of all places is a testament to the fact that the spheres of history are never quite as separate as we think they are. Economic, social, and political currents pervaded every aspect of life in the 19th century, just as they do now. For me, this excavation has suggested new ways of understanding the relationships between different scales of history. What influence did the modern world have on this modest site, which began its life as a shaky outpost of European civilization on the frontier of the New World? What influence did this site have on the development of the modern world? After all, "the world" is not a separate domain, but an aggregate of local sites just like ours, drawn together in a complex web of interactions. Each site has played a role in creating the present we inhabit today.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Field Days 1 and 2

The excavation of the St. George's/St. Mark's Church site began its 2014 season on Friday. For those of you who didn't follow this blog last year, or who would like to review what we did, you can read through my posts from 2013. To recap briefly: Our site was the location of two churches, St. George's (1762-1819) and St. Mark's (1851-1916). The former was the first public building in the town of North Castle, New York, which was settled by Quakers in the 1720s; a significant portion of the population was converted to Anglicism by missionaries in the intervening years. Though the foundation of St. George's Church marked a significant development in the settlement of this area of Westchester County, North Castle was still considered a "wilderness" by the Anglican establishment for much of its history preceding Independence. The site played a notable role in the Revolutionary War, serving as an arsenal and hospital for Washington's troops following the Battle of White Plains in October 1776 and a camp site for Count Rochambeau's army in summer 1781.

After the Revolution, St. George's became part of the Episcopal church (i.e., it separated from the Church of England, along with all other Anglican churches in the United States). However, the building wasn't used for services after the war, and it was ultimately disassembled. Thirty years passed between the removal of old St. George's and the construction of St. Mark's, its replacement. This church then stood until 1916, when it was replaced by a stone building in a different location.

The churchyard contains burials dating back to 1773 (some burials may be earlier, but they are not dated). Today the property belongs to the town, having been relinquished by the Episcopal church and by the Methodist church (which purchased the adjoining land in 1854 for its own cemetery, which was used until 1940). In the summer of 2013, our group, the Lower Hudson Chapter NYSAA, obtained permission from the town to conduct an archaeological excavation of the site with the goal of learning more about the use of the two churches and how they related to one another, both spatially and conceptually. For instance, how might the cultural memory of St. George's Church, projected across thirty years' absence, have affected the placement, design, and identity of St. Mark's Church in the early 1850s?

The key to answering this question lies in uncovering the location of the two churches in the site as well as relative to one another. While St. Mark's Church can be located with relative accuracy from photographs, no illustration of St. George's Church exists, and the descriptions and maps we have locate it only very generally within the site. You can imagine our delight, therefore, when we discovered what appears to be an 18th-century foundation wall in our excavation last year. Embedded in and around the wall were square nails, earthenware pottery sherds, slate tiles, and a few stand-out artifacts including a French gunflint and a stone pestle.

One of our goals in resuming the excavation this fall was to continue our excavation of this foundation wall. Last winter, we covered the unit (known in its early incarnation as STP 3 and later as Feature 4) with heavy plastic before backfilling it and marking the area with stones. Field Season 2014 began with the arduous task of removing the dirt and plastic. While the stones seemed like a good idea at the time, we quickly discovered that they make this process more difficult, as the grass had grown up over them over the past year, rendering them invisible. Still, the team managed to remove the dirt and reestablish the unit quickly and efficiently.

With the unit uncovered, we decided to go ahead and double the area that was exposed. That is, we matched the four-by-eight foot unit excavated last year with another four-by-eight foot unit directly to the west of it. We hoped by doing so to uncover more of the foundation wall, and sure enough, within about six inches from the surface, we started to find more stones, arranged in the same manner, and with the same type of inclusions, as the wall excavated last year. These inclusions included architectural debris (mostly slate tiles and nails; interestingly, one of the slate tiles had a square hole drilled in it, the first such example we have found) and more "fancy glass" (i.e. the stencil-painted glass we found last year and have since associated with St. Mark's Church).

The most exciting find we made in this unit (which I have named Feature 4B, as opposed to Feature 4A excavated last year) is a large amount of earthenware pottery, concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the unit where the foundation wall extends from 4A into 4B. This pottery has a reddish tint to it and is decorated with grooves and circles. I believe we found a small piece of it in Feature 4A last year, but a more formal comparison awaits. Some of the pieces seem to have a shiny reddish slip on them, while others show traces of an unidentified white substance. The pieces are large enough and numerous enough to make identification relatively easy. We should be able to determine what type of vessel it was, how it was used, and when it was created. This find is particularly exciting given the fact that we have found relatively little ceramic material in this area of the site, where the two churches were; in contrast, we have found a large amount of ceramic sherds in the back portion of the cemetery.

At the same time as this work on the foundation wall was going on, overseen by Laurie, we were also exploring this back area that we identified last year as "the dump." Why the dump? Because the nature, arrangement, and sheer volume of artifacts we have found in that location makes that the most reasonable interpretation (initially, we thought it was a privy, but the diffusion of artifacts - they were spread out evenly over a wide area rather than being concentrated in a feature with discernible walls - makes that less likely). The majority of the artifacts we uncovered last year came from the dump, despite the fact that we only excavated it for three days out of the 24 we spent on the site last season.

On field day 1, we opened a small (2 by 2 foot) unit adjacent to the STP (shovel test pit) we dug last season. The next day, we decided to open up a larger (3 by 5 foot) unit directly southwest of this unit, in order to gain access to a larger section of this area. We would continue to dig the smaller unit (Feature 6) in order to observe the stratigraphy in a more controlled manner, while the larger unit (Feature 7) would allow us to uncover a greater number of artifacts and to view their distribution across a wider area.

In excavating Feature 6, we used a small, hand-held screen to sieve for artifacts. Margaret is shown above doing this patient and painstaking work, in which she uncovered bottle glass, nails, and ceramic sherds with little noticeable change in the soil texture, consistency, or color. The soil in this area of the site is uniformly dry and powdery, very different from the rich, grass-covered soil in the front of the site. 

When dealing with a larger volume of artifacts, as we have in Feature 4B and Feature 7, a shaker screen comes in handy. This beautiful new screen was donated to the group by Tricia and is being used for the first time this season. These are some of the artifacts uncovered in the screen in Feature 7: nails, ceramic sherds, glass, oyster and clam shells, animal bones, and brick. Not pictured: a 1975 penny, the base of a gas lamp, two clay pipe stems, and a clay pipe bowl.

As you can see in this profile view of the southwestern corner of Feature 7, the dark soil - in which we found the majority of artifacts - extends about 10-12 inches below the datum. After that point, as the soil starts to change to a lighter color, the number of artifacts begins to diminish, and eventually disappear altogether. This is similar to what we have seen in the units in the front portion of the site, although those units tend to show a much more stratified stratigraphy - that is, there is more noticeable variation in soil color and texture between the turf layer and the sterile soil. This suggests a difference in the way the two areas were used, which was what we would expect if the front half of the site was occupied by the churches - with all the activities, construction, and deconstruction that entailed - and the back half was simply a dump where people threw their refuse indiscriminately.

Next week, we will continue to dig Features 4 and 6 and possibly open up additional units in the dump site. Bruce, who did most of the digging of Feature 7, stated that he thought the most artifacts were coming from the southern portion of the unit. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues. Ultimately, using our data from the individual units, we should be able to map out the distribution of artifacts across the dump site to see if there are any other patterns in the number or type of artifacts. So far, it seems that earlier artifacts and newer ones are jumbled together, with no recognizable chronological pattern from layer to layer. This may change as we open new units, which could be more noticeably stratified. This stratification could potentially help us determine how long this area has been used as a dump and how its use has changed over that time.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

St. George's Processing Days 1-3

This blog may have slipped into a somewhat dormant state over the last month, but the excavation team has not! Over the past few weeks, about a dozen members of the dig team (and some who have recently joined us) have gathered together at the Croton Point Park Nature Center to do some serious artifact processing. Though it is often overshadowed by the drama and excitement of digging, processing can be just as rewarding an experience and is just as important a part of archaeology. It is in processing that we begin to make the pieces that we uncovered all those months ago fit together into a larger picture, like putting together a puzzle.

Processing begins with washing - a lot of washing. Several people have asked the very legitimate question of what all this washing is for, especially when it comes to material that will likely be discarded. The fact is that washing facilitates counting, which is when we identify all of the materials that came out of each level of each test unit and enumerate them - so, for example, twenty pieces of aqua colored bottle glass, or thirty square nails. It's easier to see the color, shape, and any identifying features of an artifact when the dirt has been removed from it. We may even see details that we didn't see before, turning an artifact that would be thrown away into one that we decide to keep.

Of course the question is then, why do we throw certain artifacts away and how do we decide on which ones? The answer to the first part question is that an archaeological excavation typically unearths more material than we could or would want to keep. Whether or not we keep an artifact depends on its relevance to our research questions and questions that archaeologists might ask in the future. For instance, part of our investigation is aimed at locating St. George's Church, which stood in the graveyard from 1761 to 1819, and distinguishing it from the location of St. Mark's Church, which stood from 1852 to 1916. Because they can be assigned to specific time periods, nails can provide a way for us to address these questions. However, only certain nails have diagnostic value in their own right. If the head of the nail has not been preserved, it can be very difficult to determine the technique with which it was made and, accordingly, when it was made. It's still important to enumerate headless nails so that we can tell which areas of the site are likely to have contained a structure - an area where 1,000 nails were found is more likely than an area where three nails were found. But on an individual basis a headless nail is of little value to our research.

The same rules apply to glass. We found an incredible amount and variety of glass, including one whole and some nearly whole vessels. The color and type (bottle or window glass) is important to our study because it can tell us about the activities that took place on the site and how the site was spatially organized. For instance, though we found a copious amount of bottle glass in Feature 5 - in fact all of the glass pictured here is from that unit - we found only a handful of shards in other features (aside from Feature 1, where we found a striking amount of painted window glass). As with nails, it's important to know if there were 1,000 pieces of glass found in one area and three found in another, but a piece of bottle glass that gives no clue as to its date of manufacture or where it came from is of little value on its own. To be relevant to our study, a shard of glass must preserve a part of the bottle that might enable its identification, such as a part of the lip or the base, a seam, or lettering or designs of any kind. Again, all of the shards of glass, whether or not we plan on keeping them, are washed and enumerated by type and color. Only then are certain shards discarded.

It is important to note that the discarded items are not simply thrown out, but kept in a plastic bag for the duration of the processing, until they can be returned to the site. At some point when the processing is finished, we'll dig a hole at the site and bury the discarded material, along with several 2014 pennies to let future archaeologists know that we got there first. We'll also keep a note of what we buried in the records of the dig.

Some items, such as the hundreds of tiny metal pieces we found, will be weighed prior to being discarded. Unlike glass and pottery, we don't wash metal in water, but rather brush each piece lightly with a dry toothbrush before setting them out to dry in the sun. Many of the pieces of metal we found, as well as the nails, are badly corroded. 

We also found a number of bones, but despite the fact that we were digging in a cemetery, none of them are human. Instead they appear to be cow and possibly sheep or goat bones, all with straight cuts indicative of butchering. And naturally, we cleaned the sheep teeth with a toothbrush. 

I took this picture of a cow bone because I was intrigued by the mark on it. I don't know much about bones, so I can't tell if this is a) an injury that was healing, i.e. premortem? or b) a cut that occurred in the butchering process. Luckily I have a connection to a pathologist, who took a look at one of the "bones" we found in the dig earlier this year (it turned out to be a root, not a bone) and may be willing to help us out again.

On the third day of processing we nearly completed the washing of the artifacts from Feature 5. Now all that remains is to wash the remainder of the artifacts and count them, before we can move on to analysis. During analysis we will make a more detailed study of the artifacts, with the goal of determining what they are and when they were made. How we make these determinations will depend on the type of artifact. For example -

-Bottle glass that retains some sort of identifying feature (e.g. lip, base, seam, or embossed lettering or marks) can be assigned to different time periods based on the type of manufacture. The earliest glass bottles were blown by hand, then held by a pontil rod while it was finished, leaving a pontil mark or scar on the base of the bottle. Later bottles were produced by molds that became steadily more streamlined. The earliest molds only created the body of the bottle; the rim was added later, so that the seam of the bottle ends before the rim. Later molds (after 1903) created the entire bottle except for the base, which was added at the end.

-Window glass can be dated based on a formula that correlates time periods to the average thickness of the pane. Much of our window glass is decorated with stencil-painted designs; in addition to providing us with an alternate, easier means of dating, these designs give us an idea of the appearance of St. Mark's Church and the budgetary restraints that may have led to the choice of stencil-painted windows over more expensive stained glass ones.

-Clay tobacco pipes, if found in significant quantities, can be used to date the occupation of a site based on a formula that assigns certain dates to the average bore (or hole) size of the pipes. Individual pipes can be dated and assigned to certain manufacturers based on their form. We weren't lucky enough to find any pipe bowls, which were sometimes lavishly decorated, but we did find one pipe stem that was printed with the name of its manufacturer.

-Ceramics can be readily dated and cataloged according to their form, material, and decoration. The ceramic sherds we found include many pieces with printed or hand-painted decoration, as well as a few maker's marks. Ceramics can provide insights into the domestic practices, diet, and social class of the people who owned them, as well as the networks of trade that connected them with ceramic manufacturers.

-For lithics (stone artifacts) we want to know what kind of tool it was or, in the case of the one chert flake we found, what kind of flake (there are multiple types of flakes, produced by various preparatory techniques). Stone artifacts are notoriously difficult to date but it may be possible to assign them to a broad time period based on their form or through their stratigraphic level or association with other artifacts.

-For bones, we may ask what animal it was, what part of the anatomy is represented, how it was butchered, and the age of the animal at the time of its death. The answers may provide insights into the diet and animal husbandry practices of the local population.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Cemetery's Lost Corner: New Photos

Months ago, I posted this photo from the October 6, 1960 issue of News of Northern Westchester. It shows (left to right) Rocco and Sam Amuso of Amuso Mason Contractors, Inc., holding coffin handles they unearthed in the southeast corner of the St. George's/St. Mark's Cemetery. Standing next to them is Oliver Knapp, father of the future village historian. I added the arrows in the photo to point out the Haines monument (red) and the Williamson monument (green).

Here are some excerpts from the article, written by Jim C. Barden, which accompanied the photo:
"Should the dead be disturbed to protect the living? 
That question was answered by village and church officials here who decided to take off the corner of historic St. Mark's Cemetery on East Main Street to eliminate a dangerous curve ... 
But a grave was disturbed yesterday in the process of taking off the corner and some church officials who had favored the move are wondering if they did the right thing ... 
The contractor, Rocco A. Amuso Jr., pointed out that the coffin parts and bones were found just beyond where the stone fence is being realigned and 'were not in the way of my work.' His men have been digging for the last two days with hand tools. 
All the corner had been taken away and a shallow ditch dug for the stone fence when the coffin pieces were discovered about 8:30 am. Amuso poured concrete yesterday afternoon which will be behind the stone fence. In the concrete wall, workmen built a small wooden recession for the end of the grave. The stone fence will be replaced by hand within the next day or so."
This weekend, Rocco Amuso's daughter Agnes gave the following photos to Laurie to scan. They were taken by the Amuso brothers (that is, Amuso Mason Contractors, owned by Rocco and Salvatore Amuso) to document their work at the cemetery and clearly show the removal and reconstruction of the corner, as well as the large tree that stood there. It's really spectacular to see these photos - not simply because they show the work that was done, but because we have so few historical photos of the cemetery.

The photo below appears to show the cemetery before the work was done. It's hard to tell because of the way the photo is framed, but the corner of the cemetery is just out of view to the right of the photo. This is looking north; Route 117 is to the right, parallel with the line of trees (which must have been very old, given their size. I don't believe any of these big trees are standing today. You can see what were probably these trees during the time when St. Mark's was still standing in this photo.)

This photo appears to show the deconstruction of the wall - after the tree was cut down but before the stump was removed.

Here, the wall has been fully removed and the workers have cut back the corner as far as they could. On the road to the left is a backhoe, on its way to remove the stump.

Next: removal of the stump with the backhoe. Here you can see just how close this work came to the gravestones. What would the town have done if the work had necessitated moving marked graves?

I am guessing this photo shows the discovery of the grave.

This, then, would be the grave? The article isn't clear about which parts of the coffin were found, other than the handles. Is this the coffin? Or is it the "wooden recession" that the workers built to contain the grave?

I am guessing, based on the way that the wall has been rebuilt over it in this photo, that this is the "wooden recession." But is this in front of or behind the wall? Is the grave beneath the sidewalk today?

Here is the pouring of the concrete, as mentioned in the article, behind the stone wall.

I am not sure what this photo shows, but I'm assuming that this is the wall after the concrete was laid. It appears that cinderblocks were put in place behind the unshaped stones.

Finally, the stone wall is rebuilt over the cinderblocks. I am assuming that the workers used the original stones. Note the string that has been tied across to make sure that the wall is straight. They certainly did beautiful work on the cemetery. Without the documentary evidence, I would have never guessed that the corner had been removed.