Adventures in the Field: Week 4

Adventures in the Field: Archaeology at Historic Bath, NC is a series of posts about Lauren’s experiences as a TA at East Carolina University’s summer 2009 archaeology field school in Bath, NC.  This is post # 4.

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By Lauren McMillan

Week 4: 6/8/09 – 6/12/09

Week four was defined not by new archaeological discoveries on the site, but by new methodological and interpretive breakthroughs. We got down almost to the bottom of the stairs this week, which is very exciting.  Also, we have been informed that there are steps similar to ours in the Palmer-Marsh House, a 1750s house located on the other side of town.  The stairs leading down into the basement kitchen of the house have wide brick steps with short wooden risers, whereas, ours would have had a short brick part and a long wooden step.  The wood would have most likely been used to prevent slipping on wet brick.  The Palmer-Marsh House has one of the three known 18th century cellars in Bath, which includes ours and one that Stan South dug in the 1960s in the yard of the P-M House.  In fact, Dawn, the other TA, is comparing our cellar to South’s in an effort to determine socio-economic status of the citizens of Bath.  One of her goals is to see how connected Bath was to the rest of the world in the 18th century; if the town was on the end of the world, or was highly involved in the trade and consumerism of the colonial period.

Sue excavating the stairs. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Sue excavating the stairs. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Palmer-Marsh house. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Palmer-Marsh house. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Stan South's cellar excavated in the 1960s. Credit: Historic Bath (click to be redirected to site).

Stan South’s cellar excavated in the 1960s. Credit: Historic Bath (click to be redirected to site).

We are almost to the bottom of the cellar, and will most likely be done by next week. Now that we have a large portion of the cellar wall exposed, it appears that the foundation of the building was in Flemish bond; and as all you good preservationists know, that’s the fanciest bond.  So, one of the questions I am asking, is why would a communal warehouse be constructed in a way that would require the most bricks, or even with bricks at all?  Why not make a generic post-in ground or sill set building?  My initial thoughts on this are that because it is right on Front Street, right in front of the first port in North Carolina and that most of the visitors to Bath were merchants, this was a way of advertising to the rest of the world that Bath was a cool place to live.  Bath was a fairly new town when the building was constructed in the 1720s, and the community would have wanted to encourage immigration and one of the best ways to do that was to show that the town had the money to burn on bricks.  My second, and completely ludicrous idea, goes along with the story that Blackbeard’s men came and settled in Bath after his beheading in 1718 and brought all their money and loot with them.  They invested in the warehouse and put in a secret passage to their buried treasure in the cellar.  I hope we find it soon; my student loans are stacking up…

Our artifact density has started to pick up within the cellar, especially tobacco pipe stems and bowls.  This is particularly interesting to me, because my thesis is on pipe stem dating methods, and I’m hoping to include this site in my data.  I’ll give you a brief history and idea of how pipe stem dating works.  Basically, it all started in Colonial Williamsburg in the 1950s, as most things in historical archaeology do.  Archaeologist J. C. Harrington noted that imported English white clay tobacco pipe stem fragments change over time in a measurable manner, following the basic trend of decreasing bore (the hole where one would suck smoke through) diameter from the 17th century into the late 18th century.  He tested this idea by measuring fragments from the 17th and 18th century using drill bits in 1/64th inch steps, from 9/64th inch to 4/64th inch.  With the data he collected, Harrington came up with five time periods based on relative percentages of sizes (see Harrington Histogram).

Harrington's pipe stem periods. From Harrington 1954: “Dating Stem Fragments of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Clay Tobacco Pipes.” Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia 9(1):10-14.

Harrington’s pipe stem periods. From Harrington 1954: “Dating Stem Fragments of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Clay Tobacco Pipes.” Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia 9(1):10-14.

About ten years later in 1962 Lewis Binford expanded on Harrington’s histogram and applied a linear regression formula to the relative percentages.  The Binford regression formula, Y=1931.85-38.26X, is a fairly simple idea.  He calculated out the expected date at which the bore diameter would reach zero, 1931.85, and the interval between the means of the Harrington time periods, 38.26.  With these numbers, one would plug in X, the mean diameter for the sample being used, to calculate Y, the date trying to be determined, or the mean of the data sample.  This formula is used by all colonial archaeologists to help date their sites.  There are currently two other formula methods; Hanson’s ten linear formulas and the Heighton and Deagan curvilinear formula.  I won’t expand on these right now, other than to say that they are loosely based on Binford’s, are much more confusing and are rarely used.  The goal of my thesis is to determine which of these methods, if any, are the most accurate and reliable.  As a post-modern archaeologist, I hope to show that applying formulas and predictive models to people in different and wide geographic areas is ridiculous and useless.

Measuring pipe stems. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Measuring pipe stems. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Well, the last thing that happened this week was on Friday, when I was up at Stratford visiting UMW’s field school.  Robert, a field school and graduate student, is doing his thesis on geospatial technologies and their usefulness to archaeology.  One of the sites that he is using is the Palmer-Marsh cemetery, and he was out there most of the week setting up a grid and making a map, getting ready for his data collecting.  He is trying to locate unmarked graves in the cemetery using all sorts of fancy gadgets.  On Friday Robert brought out the laser scanner and scanned in all the grave markers and ground surface to create a 3D image of the site.  This will help in determining any subsurface remains by looking at the change in surface levels and will be combined with later surveys he will be performing, such as GPR and resistivity.

Palmer-Marsh cemetery. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Palmer-Marsh cemetery. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Well, that about wraps things up for this week. We should have the cellar completed next week and will hopefully start excavating the builder’s trench. Robert will also be bringing out other geospatial tools, so more on that later.

Me, Stan South, and Brad at South's poetry reading. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Me, Stan South, and Brad at South’s poetry reading. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

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