What is this stuff?

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

[Continued from Uncovering the truth]

There are two questions that a historian asks at this point: What is the material I’m looking at and what does it mean? In other words, what does this material tell me about the world of the past? How does it help me to understand how people lived their lives? By retrieving and analyzing this material, we can learn how people lived, what they ate, the kinds of materials they made and used, the kind of work they did and how they played. Science finds the material and history tells us what it means. And you would be surprised at what we’ve found over the years.

Bone fragments tagged and bagged.

What we find generally falls into five different categories: faunal, glass, ceramic, metal and (what I call) “everything else.” Faunal material consists of various animal bones, teeth, snails, mussels, egg shells, seeds and anything else organic. This material helps us understand what people ate nearly two centuries ago. Diet might not seem very important, but by analyzing what people ate, we can determine part of the general state of their health.

The second grouping is glass material (see slideshow below) and we usually find a lot of it! People must have broken a lot of glass in the 19th century, because we frequently find hundreds of pieces of broken glass within a single field sample. Usually it’s broken window panes, or what’s called flat glass. But more important is when we find curved or “container” glass. This is an important distinction because window glass, though important in itself, is just window glass. Container glass is more varied and tells us more about the material life of people. Container glass can represent several different types of vessels, such as bottles, jars, candy dishes, lamp globes or other items. Once I’ve separated these two sub-categories, then I split the container glass into groups of rims, pieces with symbols or writing, mirror fragments and colored pieces (which indicate impurities in the sand, not any intentional coloring).

The next group is ceramics (see slideshow below) and is the most complex group to sort because there are literally thousands of different types. As with glass, you want to minimize the number of containers so you look for rim pieces, ridged pieces or pieces with writing on them. Those you separate out. Next, you look for pieces that fit together or have the same glaze or pattern on them. Each of the above mentioned separated pieces, as with glass, will get its own identifying number. But we’re still not finished with ceramics because we have to figure out what subgroup each piece belongs to. The difference from one subgroup to another is a higher firing temperature. There are four main subgroups to the ceramic category: earthenware (redware or yellowware), refined earthenware (creamware, pearlware, whiteware, ironstone or semivitreous), stoneware (heavier, gray colored and glazed) and porcelain (hardpaste, softpaste or bisque). The fact that we would find these varieties at a site like New Harmony tells us about the varied uses of ceramics and something about the trade and transportation systems that brought the items to the wilderness. We also have to consider the fact that some of these ceramics were made on site and that also tells us something about what New Harmony’s residents were doing, especially when the original settlers were there, between 1814 and 1824.

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The fourth category of items is metals, and just as many metal pieces turn up as glass pieces. The majority of metal artifacts are nails and they always get separated out from any other metals. Nails can be cut from sheets, hand wrought or round. A representative sampling of these will be saved; the rest will be sorted, counted, weighed and then discarded. Other metal objects we find include door latches, watch rims, utensils, rings, necklaces, rust clumps and more.

The last and probably most interesting category of artifacts we find is “everything else” because it includes, well … everything else! This means coins, combs, toys, marbles, buttons, textile fragments, leather, pins, door knobs, decorative metal, slate pencils, watches, scissors, electrical components and the list goes on and on.

So figuring out what this stuff is, is just half the equation. The other half is the question: What does it all mean? Or what does it tell us about people who lived in the past?

Look for that answer in my next post.

One Response

  1. […] from What is this stuff?] Digging at New Harmony's Dormitory […]

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