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.