Studying artifacts from the Pierce-Hichborn House
In the course "AR 410: Archaeological Research Design and Materials Analysis," taught by Professor Catherine West and Teaching Fellow Kathleen Forste, eleven BU students spent the semester analyzing artifacts spanning the 17th- 19th centuries, such as ceramics, animal bones, smoking pipes, toys, buttons, and coins. The goal was to understand the identity, social and economic class, and everyday activities of inhabitants of the Pierce-Hichborn House.
As part of their work, they were asked to write blog posts below to reflect on their analysis and interpretations of these objects that were once used by historic Bostonians. To see some of the artifacts and their interpretations, visit the Boston City Archaeologist Instagram page and search for hashtags #digPHH and #BUArchTakeOver.
The importance of settings
It's a rainy day in the mid-18th century. You're hosting your neighbors for tea time to show off the new tea set you just purchased. It’s a complete Chinese porcelain set and it cost you a pretty penny. You’ve just discarded your old Staffordshire slipware set into the privy in the back, and all of your neighbors are trying to hide their jealousy…
Ceramic tea wares and tablewares were a way to express status and affluence in historic New England. Upper middle-class families took great pride in their service wares. There was significant importance in the material and completeness of tea sets, as it portrayed one’s family as refined and sophisticated, showing the family’s social standing.
The Pierce-Hichborn House, located in the North End of Boston, was occupied by a number of varying income families from the 17th through the early 20th century. During an excavation in spring 2018, the Boston City Archaeologist discovered many sherds — or broken pieces — of ceramics similar to the ones described in the scene above. Some of the ceramics found included Chinese and English porcelain, stoneware, creamware, and many other types.
This may seem strange, but in today’s society we do the exact same thing, only we express it in different ways. Cell phones, for instance, are a sign of wealth — and are even disposable. People purchase the newest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy because it is a significant status symbol. It is not uncommon for wealthier people to invest their money in the newest most expensive phone, and yet there are still people that buy flip phones. What do you think archaeologists will study in 500 years as a sign of status and prestige?
When you accidentally drop a pen cap on the ground and can’t be bothered to pick it up, you might not realize that in the future this very pen cap could end up in an archaeological lab, analyzed for its purpose, and for your identity. Mundane things such as a pen cap, coins, or buttons are valuable clues for archaeologists who seek to understand broader cultural factors like economics, aesthetics, and identity.
During research on artifacts found in the privy of the Pierce-Hichborn House in the North End, we developed a better understanding of who the inhabitants were and of the fascinating stories that make up their lives, such as how a soccer-ball sized piece of Caribbean coral ended up in a Boston privy. Although our modern day material culture differs from that of the past, one truth persists: we represent ourselves through the objects we collect and own, whether consciously or unconsciously.
This research has led us to think deeply about what we own and how it reflects our identity. Look around you and take note of all the things you have come to call your own, even things like that well-used plastic water bottle you take everywhere with you, or that little gold earring you’ve owned for years. In 200 years, how will archaeologists interpret your stories through the things you leave behind?
Children or just sentimental adults?
Feature 7 from the Pierce-Hichborn House in Boston’s North End was made up of artifacts that were as fragmented and difficult to interpret as the stratigraphy of the feature itself. In looking at the artifacts from the feature, which ranged from the 17th to the 20th centuries, we were interested in those that specifically related to children, whose presence is sometimes invisible in the archaeological record.
During our analysis, we found objects that are often associated with kids: toys, marbles, miniature tea sets, and slate pencils. But are these always just children’s toys, or could it be that adults were using or saving them too?
Historically, marbles are known to have been used by children and adults for gaming. Like some adults and children today, some people may have also collected marbles for decorative objects.
Miniature vessels, such as those found in doll tea sets, can also be connected to both children and adults. Often linked with girls and young women, the miniature tea-set lid and saucer could either be evidence of a young girl who threw “tea-parties” for her friends, or a woman holding on to a favorite childhood toy.
Slate fragments and pencils are directly tied to learning, but whether that learning was being done by a child or an adult has most likely been lost to the archaeological record.
Furthermore, these artifacts could either tell us that some of the residents at the Pierce-Hichborn House were children, that the toys found here were owned by adults as mementos or keepsakes, or both. Ultimately, the mysteries of this feature may never be resolved because of the confusing stratigraphy, weak association between the artifacts and the residents of Pierce-Hichborn House, and the fact that no one kept records of who was using these artifacts to begin with.
The content for this blog post was written by BU students Maggie Evans, Grady Gillett, Megan Gowen, Samantha Kelley, Estill Loyd, Cait Parker, Linda Seminario, Shannon Sutton, Yiyi Tang, Yarden Tsfoni, and Elisha Valleley.