Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Search for Spencer Optical

Here's a brief overview of the history of Spencer Optical Works, for those of you who may not have read my 5,000 posts on the topic over the past year. The business started in the 1850s in Connecticut and came to Kirbyville in 1874. For fourteen years, the factory thrived, powered by a force of 200 workers and the energy harnessed from the river running down from Kirby Pond. In 1888, however, the pond's owner, Judge Leonard, decided to drain the pond, cutting off the factory's power source. The Spencer brothers sued to protect their water supply but lost. The pond was drained, the Spencers established a new factory in New Jersey, and despite their effort to find a buyer for the property in Kirbyville, the three-story brick building remained silent and empty. At an unknown date, the factory and its outbuildings were torn down, and the forest has engulfed whatever was left.

That is not to say that there's nothing left to find. On this bright October day, armed with maps and old photographs, our group set out through the forest to find the place where the stream bends and starts flowing towards the town. It was at this bend that the factory was located. It didn't take us long to find evidence of a human presence, both historical and modern ... 

The picture at the top of the post shows our first major find: the stones of the former dam. But the pictures below give a sense of scale of what was really an incredible feat of engineering. We stood here for a while, looking around, contemplating how such a feat might have been achieved. Did the makers use horses or oxen to haul the stones? Where did they come from? A few, interestingly enough, had quarry marks just like the stones we've found in the dig (though these stones are much larger than anything we've found at our site). 

A part of the dam wall had tumbled out, creating a cave where the inside of the wall is visible. Smaller stones were packed between the larger ones, but it seems to have been entirely dry construction - that is, without mortar.

Here's the other side of the dam, where the water runs through the demolished wall. 

After exploring for a while, we committed the ultimate horror movie mistake of splitting up, and promptly succumbed to Optical Factory zombies. I'm joking, of course, but Bruce did cross the stream to look around on the other side while the rest of us went on a bit further and studied the map. After a while we heard Bruce yelling for us, and he came back with two bricks - our first physical evidence of the brick factory building. In fact, Bruce had come across a whole lot of bricks, which we now believe to be the factory site, but due to a number of factors (including the time, which was getting fairly late) we decided to save the exploration for another day. Rest assured we will be back, and doubtlessly there will be a lot more to see. Just in our trip to the dam we found an additional brick (stamped with JJJ) and a ceramic insulator, both of which could be contemporary with Spencer Optical. I hope you're as excited as I am to continue this adventure.

Field Day 11

Field Day 11 was quite an exciting day, full of great finds and great people! Saturdays are usually the busiest for us, and this Saturday was no exception. In additional to the regular cast of characters, we were joined by Mike, a history student whose great-great grandfather worked at Spencer Optical Works (and played in its band); Jim, a local documentary filmmaker who is friends with Harry and previously produced a documentary about the 19th-century brick industry. It's always great fun to introduce new people to the site, especially people who have such an innate and passionate love for history.

The dump site proved to be as productive as ever. Among our finds for the day was the usual assemblage of glass, ceramics, metal, bone, and shell. We expanded Feature 10 northward, heading in the direction of the first unit we dug in this area of the site, and unsurprisingly made some similar finds. One find in particular, however, was different - not only from the rest of the artifacts in the dump but from all other artifacts I've seen before! I'm sure that experienced archaeologists everywhere will shake their heads at my ignorance, but up until now I had only known about clay tobacco pipes that were made out of white ball clay or kaolin, imported from England. So imagine my surprise when Bruce pulled out this bright orange pipe bowl.

I immediately brought it to Carol, who identified the material as red earthenware - the same local clay used to make the 18th-century ceramic vessel we've been finding in pieces around the foundation stones. You can compare this pipe with the kaolin pipe we found yesterday. Same artifact type, made in the same way (in a mold), and of similar dimensions - I haven't compared them side by side but they look very similar to me overall. The major difference is the materials used. Additionally, the earthenware clay pipe, unlike the kaolin one, was burnished - that is, rubbed with a stone or some other smooth, hard surface to make it smooth and shiny - giving it a distinctive texture. Later in the day we found part of the stem, which can be fit together with the bowl.

Other finds from the dump ... (along with a mechanism that we believe to be part of a clock, which was found on the surface):

Above, a piece of porcelain with a maker's mark; some shell, glass, and a nail; and in the bottom center, a brass escutcheon. Escutcheon was the word of the day (and a great word it is). This particular escutcheon is one of several we have found at the dump, both this year and last (you can see two more in the picture below). Where do they come from? The team members have made a number of different suggestions including doorknobs, lamps, and light switches, but the suggestion I find most convincing is that the escutcheons went around the iron poles in the fences that surround one of the family plots. Some of the family plots still have such decorative escutcheons in place; they are similar in size and material, but not identical, to the ones we found in the ground.

Above, more porcelain with stamped maker's mark; pieces of the Great Universal Bitters bottle found last year and the teapot found yesterday; some brass pieces of an oil lamp; and some hunks of molded cement.

This doorknob, found in the dump, is made out of a red ceramic overlaid with brown glaze. Even through the dirt, you can see that it is quite beautiful. Though I don't have a picture of it, the other side - which is broken, revealing the unglazed clay - is also striking, with red and white layers twisted together.

Meanwhile, work continued at the front of the cemetery, where the ongoing excavation of the foundation wall has so far yielded more questions than answers. I think that today's work may have uncovered some promising evidence. Ever since we began excavating the wall, we have struggled to determine how much (if any) of the stones were in their "original" locations - that is, the locations they assumed when they were part of a standing structure. What parts of the wall were intact and what parts might have toppled over?

This stretch of the wall, located in Feature 4C, consists of stones packed together densely with slate tiles, sand, and mortar. The latter three are important because it seems likely that they could be building materials used in the construction of the wall. Thus, this part of the wall may be relatively intact, that is, the stones here are in the places where the builders put them. There are very few artifacts in this area of the unit aside from the aforementioned tiles and a few stray nails. You also may notice that many of the rocks in this photo are sticking straight up. My guess is that there was another layer of rocks slotted into place above these, which was perhaps removed when the church came down. Laurie made the excellent suggestion that perhaps part of the foundation wall of St. George's Church (which was deconstructed in 1819) was used to build the stone wall around the cemetery (built in 1820). She made this suggestion after finding a large ashlar among the stones in the wall while surface surveying. Ordinarily stone walls would have been built with unshaped stones scavenged from the surrounding area (this part of the country is very rocky), so there is no reason for there to be an ashlar in the wall unless it was taken from something else.

Aside from the ashlar, here are some other surface finds made today: 

Restoration work continued alongside our excavation. In the process of digging for the base of a broken gravestone in one of the older sections of the cemetery, Hans, Dick, and Laurie made an interesting discovery.

This was it: a fieldstone, very similar to the ones erected as grave markers at the front of the cemetery (you can see three in the background of this photo). These fieldstones have no markings and may mark graves that are even older than the earliest inscribed gravestone, which dates to 1773. It's likely that this stone was also used as a grave marker, but toppled and became buried over time. The crew excavated it and installed it near the place where it was found. Now that I look at the photo, I see a backwards J carved in the upper right hand corner of the stone. What do you think? To borrow a fancy term from school, is the carving anthropogenic or not?

At the end of the day there was a massive amount of bagging to be done. Though Gretchen had done most of it herself up to that point, a bunch of us gathered together to help finish it up so that we could take off on our next adventure for the day, a trip to the ruin of the Spencer Optical Works. Stay tuned for that story in my next post.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Field Day 10

While a day spent at the site is always a good day, this day was especially good. We found many notable artifacts, any one of which could have been star artifacts in its own right, but the clay pipe you see above trumped them all. We've found plenty of pipe stems and bowls, and early in the day today even found three pieces of a pipe that could be fit together, but we haven't found anything as intact as this. Note that it's not completely intact - it's missing the very end (known as the lip or bite). But given that we are digging in a trash heap, we are unlikely to find any perfectly intact specimens. Part of the value of this pipe lies in the signs of use.

We started out the day digging in Feature 4. It's funny how the abundance of the dump units can make a "regular" unit like Feature 4 seem unproductive! But we did in fact make some significant finds in Feature 4, most notably this stone bearing the marks of plug and feathering. You may recall that we found similarly cut rocks in Feature 1 last year. Notably, this stone is a lot bigger than the other ones we've been unearthing in the "foundation."

The artifacts found in Feature 4 (or more specifically, Feature 4C) today included nails, glass, slate, and an oddly shaped chunk of mortar. Marilyn and Gretchen did most of the bagging and sorting of artifacts ...

... while Harry did most of the digging. Sifting the soil from Feature 4 was a bit of a challenge at first because the soil was fairly moist. Though we always cover our units with tarps at the end of the field day to keep them dry, it's impossible to keep out moisture completely.

Later in the day we continued excavating Feature 10 in the dump. Here you can see the system, which Bruce helped to devise: a shaker screen propped up against a table where the artifacts are sorted. It works surprisingly well, despite the uneven ground and the inevitable shakiness of the shaker screen. This is perhaps as close as we've been to any gravestones, but to the best of our knowledge (based on historical records, maps, and our own surveys) we are not in danger of hitting any graves. We do, however, hit a lot of tree roots.

Besides the pipe, finds made in the dump site today included this beautiful teapot spout, which is very similar in materials to the Brown Betty teapot we found last year, but has some beautifully modeled designs in it. I love the way the glaze catches in the grooves.

Also found: the base of a gas lamp (left), the base of a bottle, a piece of transfer-printed ceramic, and an upholstery tack. We now have about ten of these tacks, all identical.

Here's a close-up of the tack along with a buckle we found. The buckle is a match for the object I couldn't identify in the last post. Any guesses as to what it might have been a part of?

Here's the pipe that came in three parts, all excavated individually from the same unit. As you can see it's pretty similar to the other, relatively intact pipe.

And here's another picture of the relatively intact pipe. I've done a little research on clay pipes (while I should be studying for midterms, naturally), and judging by this typology, it seems that our pipes date from the later period, i.e. the mid-19th century. I'll research it more when I have a little more time - most of my books are back at school anyway! What I do know is that these tobacco pipes were made of a white clay called kaolin, and I believe most of them were manufactured in England. The clay was shaped in a mold, which made it easy for manufacturers to add stamped marks. We've seen a few of these marks on other pipe stems we've found, but the two pipes we found today don't have any.

Lastly here's a picture of today's team (minus Marilyn and Laurie, who took the picture) at the dig site. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Field Day 9

Laurie led the dig again on Monday the 12th, which was spent digging Feature 4 - what we have been referring to as the church foundation (though it should be pointed out that that is by no means a foregone conclusion!). Having completed the excavation of Feature 4B, Laurie and Tricia strung out an additional rectangle, extending the unit four feet to the west to follow the trail of stones that we have been unearthing.

This photo shows the progress of the "foundation wall." What seemed in the original unit to be a relatively cohesive grouping of rocks has become fairly irregular and jumbled, though mixed with the same basic assemblage of architectural artifacts. Feature 4A, as you may recall, yielded one hand pestle and the gunflint, while Feature 4B produced a large number of sherds seeming to belong to a single earthenware vessel; a few pieces of worked wood (perhaps from a floor); and a large amount of slate tiles. All of the evidence seems to be pointing to the existence of a structure on this site. Was it St. George's Church? Does the irregular pattern of stones indicate some sort of structural collapse, or demolition in the process of deconstructing the building? 

Meanwhile, work also continued at the dump site, where evidence is always forthcoming. The team found some pipe bowls to match the pipe stems they found last week (I don't know if they are a literal match, but they appear to be made of the same white clay, or kaolin):

Then there is this object, which I can't identify ...

The following objects were all surface finds. Laurie researched the crock base with the name W. P. Hartley on it and dated it to about 1900.

This piece of porcelain, also a surface find, may date to the late 19th century.

The next time the team meets I will actually be able to participate. Though I've loved reading about and seeing the team's progress from afar, there's nothing like actually taking part in an excavation, getting down in the dirt, and unearthing artifacts that haven't been touched by human hands in 100 or 200 years. I am hoping that by the end of the season we'll have a better idea of what our pile of jumbled stones (aka the foundation wall) represents and how it came to be in its present state. There are definitely some mysteries here that are waiting to be unraveled.

Hans's Finds

While we have been working on the dig, Hans, the cemetery's de facto groundskeeper, has been keeping up the maintenance of the site, as well as repairing gravestones (on his own as well as with certain members of the dig team). Hans's work has led to some unexpected (in the sense that he wasn't looking for them; they're not particularly surprising given the site) archaeological finds. The artifacts in these photos were found during the restoration of the Yerks gravestones (which I will feature in a future post - it's really amazing to see them back in place). Above, you can see a sherd of salt-glazed stoneware (upper left), the tines of what looks like a hoe or a rake, and some transfer-printed porcelain. I am not sure what the blue and gray striped ceramic sherd is, but it looks similar in style (if not color) to this sherd found under the gravestone of Derinda Yerks.

Also discovered at the base of Derinda's gravestone: this coffin handle, possibly dating to the year of her death in 1856 (assuming it belonged to her coffin). We have no intention of excavating any mortuary artifacts, and thus the coffin handle will be reburied where it was found. However, it's still an interesting artifact, as well as a poignant reminder of the role that the site played for 170 years as an active cemetery.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Field Days 7 & 8

While I've been at school, the dig team led by Laurie has been hard at work at the site. She gave me the following photos and information to report from the field days on Monday the 6th and Sunday the 12th. The 6th was Bruce's birthday (and also my dad's - weird), so he had the honor of choosing the location for the next test unit. The team dug a small STP in this location to see what would emerge, and immediately found this padlock:

Thinking that this could very well be a productive location, the team drew out a larger unit here - between two trees and up against the southern wall of the cemetery.

As the team dug and screened for artifacts, Gretchen bagged their finds. Having bagged a lot of artifacts myself - most of them in this portion of the cemetery - I can say that it can be a challenge to keep up with the volume of artifacts being produced from the ground. In addition to documenting the provenance of the artifacts on every bag, we make a preliminary attempt to sort the artifacts as they are bagged - i.e., creating a bag for ceramics, one for glass, one for metal, etc.

Below is some of the glass the team found in this location. The glass bottles pictured at the top of this post, with the exception of the perfume bottle, were found here as well. The C. N. West Disinfectant bottle (second from the right) is actually identical to one that I found in my backyard a few years ago and dates from the early to mid-20th century. Laurie found the heart-shaped perfume bottle while poking around in the wall behind the excavation unit.

After the Saturday dig date was canceled due to rain, Laurie and Bruce went back to the site on Sunday to dig another spot in the dump, a short distance from our original STP last year. Here is a selection of their finds ...

A mason jar lid (made with printed "milk glass"), a pipe stem, and some nails (one of which looks hand-wrought though it's hard to tell from the picture and with all of the corrosion):

A medicine bottle, two more pipe stems, and the base of a glass bottle ... also what looks to be either a hook or a trammel (the metal object).

This "button" that turned out to be the label clip for a bottle of rum:

An actual button, and this strange arrow-shaped glass object that Laurie suggested could have been part of a chandelier. Any ideas?

Also, more shoe parts:

Again, the team observed the same pattern of artifact distribution, with most of the artifacts concentrated between 6 and 12 inches below the surface. For the most part, older artifacts seem to occupy the same layers as newer ones, and the majority of artifacts seem to be domestic.