The Revelatory Power of an Artifact in Context

Part of: Society for Historical Archaeology 2014

During the course of archeological investigations sometimes single artifacts can be touchstones for larger, deeply cultural stories about the artifacts, the sites where they were found, and the people that used them. We are not proponents of focusing analysis on single artifacts at the expense of the 99% of the material culture that we recover, but many of us have come to accept that archeology is a balancing act between creating generalized understanding of our sites using quantitative summaries of artifact classes and their distributions and the qualitative interpretations of individual artifacts. However, on rare occasions, a single artifact (or a relatively small number of a particular class of artifacts) can hold incredible explanatory power because of their particular context. This session explores some examples of this phenomenon’artifacts which, because of what they are and where, when, and how they were found, unlock powerful interpretive information about the site, past actors and their relationships.

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-20 of 20)

  • Documents (20)

  • ‘Allah the Divider’ was Lost in the Public House: A Pocketknife with Arabic Inscriptions from Colonial Brunswick Town (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jennifer Gabriel-Powell. Thomas Beaman.

    Located on the Cape Fear River, Brunswick Town was one of the most active trans-Atlantic ports in eighteenth century North Carolina, particularly in the export of naval stores. Sometime between 1726-1776, a small brass pocketknife was lost by someone in the Public House. While the majority of artifacts recovered by archaeologists may be a result of loss, what makes this pocketknife significant is the Arabic script embossed on each side of the knife, with quotes from the Quran reading ‘Allah...

  • Donning Identity: Traditional Chinese Buttons from a Historic Railroad Town in Northern Idaho (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Molly Swords.

    Overseas Chinese played an important role in the shaping of the American West. Overemphasis of material stereotypes and public fascination with opium and gambling can leave a shallow interpretation of this important group. In this paper, I will examine traditional Chinese clothing fasteners, buttons, in the context of a male residence and business located in late 19th century Sandpoint, Idaho. Through this analysis, I view the importance of Chinese Identity through the lens of self expression...

  • Grave markers as Artifact and Document: Using a Family Cemetery to Teach Archaeology (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Katharine W. Fernstrom.

    The Community College of Baltimore County, Essex Campus occupies the former Mace family farm. One of the extant parts of the farm is the cemetery containing 22 headstones and footstones. These stones provide information about cardinal orientations; life dates; pictorial symbols; and semi-religious inscriptions. Students in an Introductory Archaeology class used the cemetery information to connect historic photos and survey maps to the evidence on the landscape; to practice inductive and...

  • A group of late 16th century Chinese porcelains with datable English mounts (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Linda Pomper.

    Besides learning from sherds of Chinese porcelain that have turned up in terrestrial and underwater sites, we can learn from porcelain with datable mounts in European collections. Five pieces of blue and white Chinese porcelain from the late 16th century now in the collection of The Metropolitan Musuem of Art in New York, came originally from Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire, and they may have come through trade between England and Turkey. The mounts are datable to 1575-1585, and the...

  • Hold Your Horses: Systematic metal detection survey as a methodology to reveal horseshoe and animal shoe typologies across 18th and 19th Century cultural landscapes in Georgia including battlefield sites of the American Revolution (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only P.T. Ashlock II. Daniel Elliott.

    Using 21st Century remote sensing technology and a systematic approach, recent archaeological investigations in Georgia have revealed a remarkable collection of animal shoes from the 18th and 19th Century. Among the cultural landscapes of farmsteads and battlefields, lay in context the material culture of the farrier and animal husbandry. This paper seeks to examine the stylistic variations and produce an overview of typological and chronological data through comprehensive material analysis of...

  • Japanese porcelain cups from a Hawaiian ranch cabin: alcohol, tea, and the socialization of immigrants (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Benjamin Barna.

    In 2007, five small porcelain. Cups were recovered from a rubbish deposit behind a cabin on a livestock ranch on the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano. At first glance, they simply confirm the presence of Japanese workers known to be on the ranch beginning in the 1890s. When considered in the context of racial and national prejudices that shaped labor relations during the 19th and early 20th century, however, they help tell a more complex story linking Hawaiian tradition, euro-american capitalists,...

  • Later, they sailed out and eastward from there along the shore...: New evidence for Norse voyaging from L’Anse aux Meadows (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Kevin Smith.

    Among the most enduring questions historical archaeologists face are how to disentangle relationships between written and archaeological records, especially in the complex narratives and material records of first contact situations. The Norse discoveries and explorations in North America surely rank among the most contentious of these. While excavations at L’’Anse aux Meadows firmly documented a Norse exploration base in Newfoundland, questions remain about the nature and extent of that...

  • A Millennium Platter for the Old Block House: The Potential Interplay of Faith and Material Culture (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Katherine Cleek.

    Portions of a Ralph Stevenson and Sons Millennium pattern platter were recently identified in archaeological collections from the home of the Jewish mercantile family of Abraham and Fanny Block (3HE236-19) in Washington, Arkansas. This platter illustrates and cites the Old Testament, Isaiah Chapter 11, verse 6, showing predators and prey dwelling peacefully together, but also has a vignette of a man kneeling in prayer, and a quote from the Christian prayer, the Our Father. While it is unknown...

  • NMV: A Number of Marked Vessels from Colonial Harvard College (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Christina Hodge.

    Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts homogenized its colonial students in many ways, but opportunities for self-determination were endemic to the institution’’s system of control. Scholars ate at ‘commons,’ where attendance was mandatory. In the midst of this strongly communal material experience, however, young men were required to provide their own drinking cups and spoons. Some students scratched initials into their redware cups and bowls, distinguishing their possessions and...

  • Out of the Woodwork: The Graffiti of the Pershing Launch Site at Green River, Utah (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rachel Feit. Drew Sitters. William Godby.

    Between 1962 and 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense tested long range Athena and Pershing Missiles from a test site in Green River, Utah. Part of the White Sands Missile Range, the facility consisted of the launch sites themselves, as well as control centers, weather stations, camps and other infrastructure to support the operations. In 2013, Archaeologists documenting the missile testing facilities came across an impressive earthen and wood blockhouse at the Pershing missile launch site. ...

  • Performing a Rapid and Certain Cure: A Patent Medicine Bottle from the American Cotton Frontier (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Carl Drexler.

    Recent excavations at Dooley’s Ferry (3HE12), on the Red River in Hempstead County, Arkansas, recovered fragments of a bottle of Edward Wilder’s ‘Mother’s Worm Syrup,’ a patent medicine advertised as an effective vermifuge. In context, this bottle and other patent medicines may have served other roles, which may have helped the residents of the area cope with the American Civil War and its aftermath.

  • The Revelatory Power of a Button: Families Divided, Families Reunited (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jodi Barnes.

    A VMI Cadet button was recovered in the shed kitchen of an African American tenant family in the Blue Ridge Mountain of Virginia. The button provides powerful interpretive information about the genealogies of slavery and the fission and fusion of families (both Black and White) before and after the Civil War.

  • The Revoloutionary War «USA» Button: A Study in Qualitative Archaeology (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only David Orr.

    After many seasons of archaeology in the camp sites of Valley Forge , Pennsylvania, several types of buttons were discovered with just the intertwined letters «USA» depicted on their surfaces. Several years ago a very particular type of «USA» button was found which also had the date «1777» under the «USA» letters. What does this mean? This design was radical and innovative at the time in comparison to all military buttons of its type.Other questions were also suggested: is it referencing the...

  • Sarah’s Slate: a Child’s Image of Home (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Leslie Stewart-Abernathy.

    It is rare to find images of architecture by non-professional hands produced before the popularization of photography. More rare are representations by children except for the occasional sampler. In 1981, during the annual Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program at Washington Historic State Park, such a picture was found in an archeological context. Incised on a fragment of a school slate tablet is the image of a house, along with the name ‘»Sarah»’ and three sets of the paired numbers...

  • Sets and Sensibility: Tea Service and the Excavation of Ideology and Desire (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Kyle Somerville. Christopher Barton.

    In the nineteenth century, the growth of consumer culture altered the ways in which people saw themselves and the intersection of identities constructed through material culture. This paper examines a matching tea cup and saucer recovered from the Spring House, a former commercial farmstead and hotel located in southeastern Monroe County, New York. The tea set is decorated with transferprint depictions of ‘Faith, Hope, and Charity,’ the Three Virtues forming the basis of Christianity, and a...

  • A Shoe: Soul of the Salubria Attic in Culpeper County, Virginia (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Kerri S. Barile. Kerry S. Gonzalez.

    It was a strange request indeed. Is it possible to do an archaeological dig in an attic? An August 2011 earthquake caused extensive damage to Salubria, a circa 1757 Georgian mansion, requiring rebuilding chimneys and roof repair. To help prepare the space for construction, the owners requested that the attic be cleaned of the ‘detritus’ that had accumulated on the attic floor during the building’s 250-year occupation. Over 10,000 items were found during the ‘dig’ spanning the eighteenth through...

  • Strawberry (Battle) Fields and Gender: A Woman’s Cloisonné Pendant from a Bombarded Encampment of the American Civil War (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Hannah Smith. Thomas Beaman.

    Located in southeastern North Carolina, Fort Anderson was a Confederate Civil War fortification comprised primarily of defensive earthen mounds. Though garrisoned only by a small company of soldiers, its population swelled in January 1865 as other regional forts were abandoned as Federal forces advanced towards Wilmington. Shortly after this increase, a three-day bombardment by Federal forces left the encampment areas in ruins and Fort Anderson abandoned. During the 2011 excavation in the area...

  • Symbolism, Nationality, Identity and Gender as Interpreted from an Eighteenth Century Ring from French Colonial Context (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Misty Jackson.

    Excavations in the 1970’s recovered a possible signet ring from plowzone context at Fort Ouiatanon, an 18th century fort constructed by the French in Indiana and later taken over by the British. The unusual symbolism exhibited by the ring, that of a man astride a fish or dolphin, invite a close study to determine its meaning. Research suggests that it represented the Dauphin of France, Louis XV, and by extension it likely belonged to a high-ranking male of the post.

  • Two Atlantic Worlds Collide in Arkansas: Spanish Coins from the 1830s Mercantile District in Historic Washington, Arkansas (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jamie Brandon.

    Traditionally, the Atlantic World concept has been used to frame analyses of places on the eastern seaboard of the United States, as the ties with Europe were strongest during the colonial period and clearest along coastline. However, these economic spheres extended their reach well beyond the coastlines and ports. Surprisingly, the interface between two of these Atlantic worlds’the British and Spanish Atlantics’can be found in southwestern Arkansas in the 1830s. During 2011 and 2012...

  • Union Occupation of the Frazer Farmstead (15Hr42) during the American Civil War (2014)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Brian Mabelitini.

    Constructed in ca. 1817, the Frazer farmstead (15Hr42) in Cynthiana, Kentucky, was burned on July 17, 1862, by Confederate forces during John Hunt Morgan’s first Cynthiana raid. During the American Civil War, the house was incorporated into Camp Frazer, and was used as a hospital and for storage by Union troops. Archaeological excavations uncovered numerous military items in situ within the destruction debris, as well as a sutler’s token belonging to the 45th Ohio Volunteer Infantry beneath a...