The initial meeting of “Archaeology of College Hill” in Salomon was both extraordinarily exciting and a little nerve-racking. Like any first class, it was fun to meet our professor, Krysta, our TA, Jessica, and a small group of interesting students. As we went over the syllabus and expectations, it became abundantly clear that dynamic of “Archaeology of College Hill” is going to be much different than other classes. Aside from the simple fact that we excavate during “lecture,” College Hill students are more of a team than anything else. Therefore, as a team relying on each other for input and advice, we talked about our site at the John Brown House (now managed by the Rhode Island Historical Society), past excavations and finds, as well as our basic strategy for this season.
Using a geophysical survey of the JBH and the lawn as guidance, past excavators placed the majority of their units on the northwest edge of the yard near Benefit Street. As multiple maps and accounts demonstrate, the John Brown House and property have an extensive history of use and ownership. In particular, the 1875 Atlas of Providence demonstrates that at one point the property was owned by three families in business together.
Next, after gathering all the necessary tools, we went on a brief tour of the property, noting the uneven pattern of the ground (an indication of disturbance), ground artifacts such as ceramic shards, the blue tarp tips of last year’s units, as well as other areas we might be interested in. We settled on the creation of three units: one in the middle of the yard where a fountain was once photographed, one in the north end of the yard near what could be the foundation for the Hale-Ives House, and a continuation of last year’s Unit 7 (a foundation of a wall yet to be identified).
We then split into two groups in order to both lay out the coordinates for new units and begin digging Unit 7, which had been backfilled last year. As part of the Unit 7 team, I was excited to dig on the very first day. When class ended, we had almost finished clearing the backfill while the rest of the class had successfully laid out additional units. Next week, I am looking forward to breaking ground on the other units and brainstorming where we want to excavate around Unit 7. As always, new discoveries await!
After gathering tools and walking to the John Brown House, the excavation team prepared for its first full day digging. With the unfortunate news that the mysterious hole in the southeastern side of the yard is the home to a burrowing animal (thereby forbidding a dig there), we settled the names and final locations of our three sites: Unit 10 near the Robert Ives House, Unit 11 near last year’s Unit 7, and finally, Unit 12 near the possible location of a fountain in the main yard. Next, we learned some basic recording skills essential for primary excavation (see details below) and broke up into our unit groups.
As part of the unit group now nicknamed the “7-11’s,” I helped clear the remaining backfill. It was really exciting to finally lift the tarp and see the foundation wall from the dig last year! As a group, we examined the unit and, realizing that the earth on the west side of the wall had significantly more rocks and rubble, we decided to place Unit 11 on the southwest side of Unit 7 in order to try to catch the edge of the wall and to investigate the rubble. Once we laid out the unit using stakes and orange ribbon, we took elevation measurements of the four points of the unit, finding the highest elevation stake and marking it as our “datum” point. Next, we recorded the topographical features (what the ground looked like) and took initial photos of our site using a chalkboard and a north-facing trowel. Finally, we started slowly and evenly digging, finding one artifact: a rusty beer cap.
In section, we discussed the reading for both Week 1 and 2. Most students disliked the Mary Beaudry and Roger Williams Memorial readings primarily because of their style. This brought up several questions. Should archaeologists include an argument in their research or simply present what they find in a neutral context? How can archaeologists give more context (i.e. maps, etc.) to help guide readers rather than just a laundry list of artifacts? What is the role of historical documents in archaeology? Next week, I look forward to further discussion on these topics.
Putting our excavation aside for one week, we spent our class period learning more about the Rhode Island Historical Society and the John Brown House itself.
First, we walked over to the RIHS Library (near the southeast corner of campus), where we filled out the necessary paperwork to get our own library cards. After securing our belongings, we took a tour of the library. It was amazing to see such a vast wealth of primary resources all in one building. The RIHS has one of the most extensive state collections in the U.S., including plenty of letters, photographs, microfilms, short film clips, newspaper articles, wallpaper cutouts, and other interesting items. We were also introduced to the various search methods necessary to navigate the extensive card catalogues, digital databases, and other tools available at the library. For most students (including myself), research in the RIHS will be both novel and very interesting. While understanding how to search the library will take some time, it is extremely exciting to thumb through primary documents and learn all sorts of fun facts about where I currently live. For instance, in about a ten minute exposure to a copy of an early twentieth century radio broadcast, I learned that Mr. Charlesfield (as in Charlesfield St.) spent his last few decades living in Jamaica, where he died at age 46. Because I now live on Charlesfield Street, this was a quirky fact to pick up.
Next, we left the RIHS Library and received a special tour of the John Brown House. The inside of the JBH is truly inspiring. As Dan, a museum director put it, John Brown was effectively the “Donald Trump of his time,” a man with diverse interests, a true entrepreneurial spirit, and the ability to charm even the likes of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The inside of the JBH is a testimony to Brown’s exotic tastes and fruitful business ventures. John Brown was involved in the slave trade, chocolate business, ship-making, fine China trading, and even served on the U.S. Congress. The JBH contains many pieces of original furniture, family portraits, ornately-decorated rooms, and, my personal favorite, a map with most of North America marked as “Unknown Land.” Furthermore, the museum staff emphasized the JBH’s continued use after the passing of John Brown. Most of the recent renovations occurred under Marsden Perry, a later house owner.
Overall, the tour brought to life many of the things we are studying in “Archaeology of College Hill.” I now have a much better understanding of not only the JBH’s significance in Rhode Island, but the entire process of visualizing history from archaeological remains. I now look forward to increased finds just so I can excite the museum staff!
Despite what looked like worrisome weather, this week we came to the excavation site ready to make up for our absence last week. After an unexpected encounter with a skunk (still to be named) in the woodshed, we broke up into our unit groups and began where we left off on the second week. For the first half of the class period, the team at Unit 11 continued battling stringy roots and digging evenly through our first context. However, as we began to dig a little deeper, we started to find a lot of gravel in the northwest corner of the unit. This find wasn’t particularly surprising because we had already found a large pile of rocks in the same corner and the excavators last year had noticed a lot of gravel on the west side of the wall in Unit 7 (part of our decision to place Unit 11 mainly on the west side of Unit 7 had to do with this information). Nonetheless, we were excited at the prospect of potentially finding a new context.
Of course, before documenting our findings, we wanted to make sure that the new context was widespread throughout the unit. Therefore, we continued to carefully excavate, especially noting the emergence of gravel in new areas. It quickly became apparent that the gravel was indeed a new context. We spent the latter half of class trying to make our unit even and clear of roots in preparation for documentation. A few thick roots requiring the use of the root saw (also still in need of a name) significantly slowed this process. Still, before the end of class we were able to take elevation measurements, photo document, and create a new context sheet. In the process, we also found a few new artifacts! In addition to piece of a Solo cup and a few rusty bottle caps, we found multiple ceramic pieces. Not only were our pieces from different types of ceramic (porcelain, etc.), but it was extremely exciting to reach into the dirt and pull out my first artifact. I am hoping that in the classes to come, Unit 11 will continue producing interesting artifacts and context changes. As always, I am excited to get dirty again next week!
In section this week, we continued to discuss the role of historical documents in archaeology. There was some debate as to whether historical documents can serve as primary evidence or, as most of the class argued, they should be used only as a background reference for other material remains. In addition, we discussed whether a single site (for example, a single house) can be used as representation of a larger culture and vice versa. Finally, we compared various maps and photos of the John Brown property to determine different perspectives we can take when doing our own primary research. For now, however, all we can do is hope the weather holds up for a successful dig next class.
This afternoon was by far our most exciting day on Unit 11! Having missed class because of the long weekend, we were anxious to get our hands dirty once again. At the beginning of the class, the entire team assembled at each unit and listened to a project update from a member of each unit group. While the excavation is still relatively young, each unit group has made several interesting finds and has come down on at least one new context. After the brief meeting, we split up into our original unit groups for a full day of excavation. Because of some string and tape issues last class period, the first priority at Unit 11 was to remeasure our elevations for Context 67 (our most recent context). Next, we used a Munsell Color Chart to record our soil color. We then began digging through our gravel layer, also attempting to fix any damage to our side walls.
Almost immediately we were excavating pure gravel in the majority of the site. We began to find larger and larger rocks (always seemingly coupled with roots), until finally a new soil color began to emerge. Towards the middle of the unit, we began to find small splotches of orange, chalky earth. Near this area, we also found large pieces of red brick, our first indication of additional structural components. In order to investigate the possible emergence of a new context, we focused our attention on digging evenly throughout the site. While we were scraping to even out our unit, we discovered a few very large rocks running through the center of unit. As our excitement mounted, we realized that we had uncovered yet another foundation wall running parallel to the wall in last year’s Unit 7. The wall is made of the same type of slate with the addition of a few red bricks.
After discovering the wall, we spent the majority of the class period trying to define its edges. During this process, we found large pieces of concrete towards the northwest corner of the unit. In addition, we found many small tiles, four rusty nails, a small piece of blue and white ceramic, glass, and a few pieces of charcoal. Thus, by the end of the class period, no one wanted to leave. Still, even with all these interesting developments, the orange chalk layer we identified does not yet constitute a new context, as it only seems to exist between the two walls. Therefore, we suspect that this layer may have been a filler used during the construction of the foundations. Nonetheless, Week 5 proved to be a major turning point in the excavation of Unit 11. We look forward to greater finds this Saturday, hopefully in front of the inspired eyes of the public.
Because it was Parents Weekend, we decided to showcase all the work we have been doing this semester by continuing an optional excavation on Saturday afternoon. We dug for a few hours, stopping every so often to answer questions about our findings. Luckily, it was a gorgeous day and most of the Unit 11 team was present. Our first order of business was to do some basic maintenance on our unit. Due to the excitement of Week 5 (the uncovering of a new wall among other things), our unit was fairly uneven. In addition, we still needed to define the extent of our wall and investigate the possible emergence of a new orange sandy context. Therefore, we temporarily traded our shovels for trowels and began to carefully excavate.
We soon realized that while the orange sandy context did appear in patches throughout the unit, we could not consider it a new context. Still, we began to see a disparity between the soil on the outside of the new wall in the southwest corner and the soil between the two walls. The soil in the southwest corner contains much less gravel and is much darker in color. We also continued to find small pieces of white tile, mortar, and brick. In the southeast corner of the unit, we finally uncovered the continuation of the wall in last year’s Unit 7, although it does seem to be at a slightly lower elevation than the rest of the wall.
By far the most exciting finds of the day came from the southern end of the unit between the two walls. We found multiple tiles still stuck together in two rectangular blocks about 4 cm by 4 cm. While prior to this discovery we had already found tile, we certainly were not expecting to find such large pieces still intact. The tiles also seem to line up with the eastern wall, though we have not yet determined whether they were cut to fit the wall. As a result, however, we think that we have either found the remains of a bathroom or that the tiles were simply used as filler between the two walls. Regardless, Unit 11 continues to yield plenty of surprising results. In this case, it was lucky that those results came in front of so many interested visitors!
Fresh from the dig on Saturday, today we were especially excited to get our hands dirty. We began the class with a brief meeting to discuss our final projects and critical response papers. Realizing that Daylight Savings Time is soon upon us, Krysta and Jessica decided to skip section and extend our excavation an extra hour. However, before settling in for a particularly long day of excavation, the entire class received an update of each unit. So far, every unit team has found multiple interesting artifacts including a tobacco pipe with a preserved maker’s mark, large chunks of marble (presumably from a fountain), and pieces of green ceramic. Unit 11 still remains the only unit with significant features; however, we are hopeful that a foundation will appear soon in the Hale-Ives Unit.
With the discovery of tile on Saturday, there are plenty of interesting things happening in Unit 11. Although we are fairly sure the orange sandy layer is not another context, as we were tidying up our unit we realized that we had two separate contexts on the outside of the west wall and in between the two walls. The soil on the outside of the wall is very dark and contains only a little gravel. In contrast, the soil between the two walls is much lighter and contains a lot of gravel and sand. Thus, we prepared to document our three new contexts (the west wall counts as both a context and a feature) by evening out our unit walls, exposing the edges of the west wall, clearing all footprints and debris from the unit, and setting up our chalk board and north-facing trowel. Also, in order to completely fill out the sheet for Context 68 and our new contexts, we took closing elevations around the whole unit as well as special elevations for the other contexts. While the paperwork was somewhat complicated, we were eventually able document Context 70 (the darker context in the southwest corner), Context 71 (the west wall, also called Feature 4), and Context 72 (the gravel soil between the walls).
Finally, we were ready to excavate. Moving at a fairly brisk pace, we battled an enormous root that ran all the way through the west wall from the south corner of the unit. Artifacts recovered include small pieces of brick, mortar, blue and white ceramic, and tiles. We also discovered that the two conglomerates of tiles are held together by mortar. However, perhaps the most unexpected event of the day occurred when Krysta came to help excavate Context 72. In the course of digging, she discovered a large hole near the tiles (probably about 6 inches deep) that emitted a foul smell when uncovered. We are still unsure about this hole, but we have theorized that it may have been part of a bathroom sewage system. As always, only further digging can clarify this issue.
Once again, at the beginning of class this week we decided to skip section in pursuit of more daylight and more artifacts. Prior to breaking into our unit groups, as a class we went to each unit for a brief summary of findings and to strategize the most effective method for maximizing our depth in the last few weeks of the semester (it has gone so quickly!). At the start of this week, Unit 10 was continuing to show evidence for a house foundation. While the Unit 10 team had not yet found a solid foundation for the house, it was looking very likely. The Unit 12 team has found a large amount of artifacts including multiple colored ceramics, glass, and even a jawbone. Unfortunately, towards the end of the class last week, members of the Unit 12 team were devastated by the emergence of a modern sprinkler pipe cutting through the south end of the unit (thereby rendering this area off-limits for digging). Nonetheless, conversation was relatively short as everyone was extremely keen to keep working.
Having already filled out paperwork regarding our three new contexts, the major goal at Unit 11 was to quickly (and of course, carefully) move a lot of earth. Continuing our excavation at a relatively brisk pace, we continued to find large stones and pieces of brick in Context 72 (between the two walls). By far our most frequent find this week was nails, both within the west wall and towards the edges of the unit. In addition, we found small pieces of ceramics in both Context 70 and 72, even though Context 70 contains significantly less gravel or brick pieces.
The most exciting event of the day was the emergence of intact tiles on mortar in the northern portion of Context 72. Previously, we had found tiles in the southeastern side of the unit, near the east wall. Therefore, we were able to confirm the existence of tiles throughout Context 72. That being said, we noticed that the two tile types were very different. Most of the tiles in the southern half of the unit are white and chalky, while the tiles in the north end are grayer and have a smoother, marble-like finish. Also, we discovered that the mysterious hole Krysta discovered last week is just one of a series of large holes that run under the east wall and throughout the southeast portion of the unit. Thus, our goal for next week is no longer just to find more artifacts, but to safely excavate without falling into a never-ending chasm of doom!
With big fat rain drops, Mother Nature showed her disapproval at this week being our last time to excavate as a class. Nonetheless, knowing that we had one less hour (thanks to Daylight Savings Time), we decided to get to the John Brown House site a little early to finish off the digging season with as much progress as possible. After putting on plenty of warm layers and catching up on a little paperwork, we split up into our unit teams and began to excavate.
As always, Unit 11 seemed to only get more confusing the deeper we dug. Context 70 (dark dirt on the outside of the west wall) yielded very few finds or rocks. As a result, we chose to excavate that particular context using a shovel to move as much dirt as possible. The goal within Context 72, however, was very different. Having uncovered what we think might be a flat layer of rocks, we decided to spend the first half of the class period exposing the extent of the rocks and trying to move them. With the help of Krysta, Jessica, and the entire Unit 11 team, we were able to move some very large rocks from between the two walls. Upon exposing a new surface, we began to find many pieces of brick, mortar, and some loose tiles. The relative order of these materials from top to bottom seems to be 1) Flat stones 2) Mortar 3) Brick 4) Mortar (naturally, this order is just a general occurrence and doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual stratigraphy of the unit).
Aside from just getting deeper in the unit, we did make a number of interesting finds. In the north end of the unit between the two walls, we found a large piece of mortar with a small pocket of tiles still attached (roughly 6 by 6 tiles). These tiles were found face down in the dirt. Also, in the very south end of the unit, we found another, very thick piece of mortar with tiles attached. We have come up with a variety of hypothesis, but the general consensus seems to be that because the mortar is so thick and heavy, these tiles most likely came from a floor rather than a wall. Thus, we are probably excavating the remains of a collapsed building with wall and floor pieces all mixed together. Still, because of the narrow space between the two walls, it is still very difficult to imagine such a building. Also, on the south end between the two walls, we discovered yet another extensive hole. Uncovering more pieces of brick, green mold, and what appears to be a new type of earth, we decided to take multiple soil samples for later lab testing. Just as we began running out of light, we realized that this hole is extremely deep and is partially filled with brick and other remains. Therefore, we are still very excited about Unit 11 and have hopefully arranged a time before class next week to conduct a very quick excavation to try to get a little more sense of what is happening. Either way, it is clear that next year’s excavation team will absolutely want to place another unit somewhere around Unit 11.
Having spent last week finishing our excavation on Unit 11, this week we focused on the final documentation and closing of the unit. Our first order of business was to clean up our unit so we could take some last pictures showing our two stone walls and the extent of the hole in the southern end of the unit (Context 72). After clearing out roots and leaves with our shovels (and obviously complaining about the lack of a rake), we snapped the pictures and learned about different methods of documentation. I volunteered to draw the stratigraphy of both the western and southern wall. Basically, this meant that I first had to organize all the Unit 11 paperwork before figuring out the altitudes of the different context changes for each wall (West: Context 66, 67, 70 and South: Context 66, 67, 71 (feature), 72). Then, using a level point as a guide, I measured the distances down into the dirt and made a mark with a trowel. Finally, using grid-paper, I drew a basic stratigraphy of each wall using these measurements (the grid-paper ensures scale). This process took longer than originally expected, and by the time I was done, the sun had gone down.
Even though we had no light, because of Daylight Savings Time, we still had an hour left of class. Therefore, the entire class joined forces to backfill Unit 12 (perhaps the only activity easily done in the dark). Obviously, it was a somewhat surreal experience watching all the work being undone, but I took pride in knowing that the Unit 12 team had uncovered many artifacts that could lead to valuable information. The backfilling was a surprisingly rapid process as we divided duties between shovelers, bucket-carriers, and packers (people who walk over the loose dirt once it is in the actual unit). With one less unit than we started with, we decided to load up our equipment and end class early.
With the semester winding down, this week was dedicated completely to maintenance and cleaning. As the Unit 11 team cringed, both the east and west wall along with the entire site, disappeared among a pile of backfill. After all the dirt from the surface was cleared, we made our way to the lab where we continued cleaning and cataloguing our artifacts. Working until 6:30, we also made our final selections for our object biographies and prepared to photograph them for the final report.
This was our last official week in the lab. First, we learned a little bit about how to identify and date ceramic pieces (a very helpful instruction for many object biographies). I found it really interesting that even with a tiny sherd, it is possible to use the curves on the rim or base along with the colors to place it in as narrow a time range as ten years. After the lesson, we continued to clean and catalogue all of our objects. Final photos were taken and all the objects were placed in marked bags and put into a storage box. There is no doubt that these artifacts have gone through quite a transformation in the last few weeks. Aside from a few brief meetings, a presentation, and a large essay, "Archaeology of College Hill" is over. It now seems that the semester, like the objects in our excavation units, is now a thing of the past! (Always good to end with an awful joke)