Friday, May 15, 2009

Day Ten: Document, Back Fill, Clean Up...

Today we finished up our units, documented everything we could, and filled them back in with soil. Two weeks of slow excavation returned to normal in about three hours. Now begins the work of analyzing and cataloguing all the artifacts we recovered. Stay tuned for updates on the analysis and identification of artifacts from the Magruder House, as well as some history lessons and maps to prepare us for the next excavation, the Market Master's Square and House. Here is a narrative from Benjamin Stewart on the importance of our last duties on the site:
"Today we are profiling and backfilling the units. When we profile we make a map of the strata of the test units. When the report is being written, these maps can be used to tie together units in different locations and determine which strata are oldest, the deeper being earlier. They are a very important part of recording the test units that we have finished.
We also have to go over our paper work and make sure we recorded everything properly. As archaeologists, we are the last people to see the cultural material before destroying its context. What we record and the artifacts that we collect are the only things that future historians and archaeologists have of the work done here."
And Lisa Kraus, looking back at the excavation:
"Doing urban archaeology is fun, because as you excavate, you can slowly assemble an image of the past landscape, despite all the changes that have occurred over the hundreds of years that the city has existed. It sounds pretty cheesy to describe our square test units as “windows into the past”, but in a very real sense, that is precisely what they are. At Magruder House, we’ve opened up several windows, and we can see a lot from here.

We’ve talked about several of our individual discoveries – we’ve got British half pennies, prehistoric projectile points, the remains of childrens’ toys (dolls, marbles, etc), and of course the usual complement of ceramics, architectural debris, faunal bone, personal items like buttons, pins and thimbles, and a host of other interesting items. It seems appropriate, for the last day of fieldwork, to talk about what it all means. I took a little poll around the site to get a variety of perspectives.

Nichole Sorenson-Mutchie, SHA’s lab director, thinks one of the most interesting outcomes of our excavations is the discovery that people lived here thousands of years ago. The prehistoric site is located near the crest of the hill where the Magruder House is situated. The discovery has led to a detailed understanding of the past landscape. One or two thousand years ago, this sandy little hill was located along the banks of the Anacostia River, and it appears that there may have been a small seasonal camp here, where people hunted with rhyolite projectile points and cooked their food in large ceramic jars.

Nowadays, people can head to the other side of the hill and get spicy fries at the Checkers.

Architectural Historian Melissa Blair finds the Magruder House excavations encouraging from a preservation perspective. She points out that when the State Roads Commission purchased the property in the 1950s, the plan was to demolish the house. Many people who lived in Bladensburg objected, and managed to stop the destruction. Now, 50 years later, the site is being excavated by Maryland State Highways – so this project tells us a lot about the ways big state agencies’ priorities have changed – now we’re working with various community groups to interpret the history of the house, Bladensburg, and the town’s role in the War of 1812. That’s a dramatic shift in perspective!

Archaeologist Susan Peltier enjoyed doing urban archaeology for the first time, and was impressed by the quality and quantity of 18th century artifacts we recovered – especially the gorgeous smorgasbord of 18th century ceramics. We found everything from fancy Chinese teawares to robust European stoneware. We literally had a little bit of everything: scratch blue stoneware, Staffordshire slipware, Chinese porcelain, salt-glazed stonewares, creamware, pearlware – a veritable checklist of diagnostic ceramics from the colonial to the modern.

Many of the other crew members cited the long and complex history of occupation, the exciting and beautiful ceramics, the surprise of finding intact archaeological deposits at all in the middle of such a developed urban landscape, and the challenge of understanding the complex clues to the site’s past as highlights of the experience.

My favorite thing about the Magruder House is the way our various sources of information converge. I tagged along on a tour of the standing house the other day, and got to learn about the ways the residents modified the structure through time in response to shifts in fashion and taste. I see echoes of the same kinds of changes in the artifacts. For example, at one point, the front of the house, which was originally built using hewn fieldstones, was plastered over with stucco to present a smooth, even, and symmetrical fa├žade – very de rigeur in the late 1800s.

In the ground, we found remnants of the most fashionable ceramics from the Georgian era as well – so we know that the residents of the house not only created a dwelling that was positively a la mode, but followed through with the most desirable dishes. These were people who were dressed, housed, and ready to serve guests in style. I like to see these little psychological clues in the archaeological record, and it was very gratifying to see the stamp of a demanding and fashion-savvy personality in the very design of the dwelling.

We even managed to garner a few small clues about the house’s relationship to the Battle of Bladensburg- the British coins, a fragment of a small glass medicine vial – could these items represent a link to the house’s role as a field hospital during the War of 1812? This is another wonderful result of our two weeks of fieldwork – more questions. Hopefully we’ll have as much success in the upcoming fieldwork at the Market Master’s House…"

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