University Students Present Field Research at Massachusetts Archaeological Society Meeting

After excavating a Danvers backyard and an island off the coast of Maine, Katherine Otterson and Heather Froshour, university students studying archaeology, each presented their findings on New England artifacts steeped in colonial history.

The Robert S. Peabody Museum hosted the Massachusetts Archaeological Society (MAS) Northeast Chapter’s monthly meeting, where Otterson and Froshour gave their presentations.

Otterson is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern Maine (USM) and Froshour is a masters student at the University of Leicester, UK, and previously attended USM. Nathan Hamilton, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Archaeology at USM, invited both students to share their findings with MAS.

“Smoking Pipe Production in Historical New England”

Otterson gave a presentation on the excavation of Smuttynose Island, one of the Isle of Shoals, located in the Gulf of Maine. She discussed her research, which focused on the topic of smoking pipe production in historical New England.

Otterson’s research question focused primarily on the source of materials the inhabitants of Smuttynose Island used to manufacture “redware” smoking pipes.

USM worked in conjunction with Cornell University and Shoals Marine Laboratory to excavate and examine sites on the small island to determine who occupied the island at various times in history.

The excavators found a great number of artifacts, ranging from 17th century coinage to old English trading seals. Most important to Otterson’s research, they discovered over 500 “redware” smoking pipe stems.

Redware is a clay-like material that was very common in colonial America during the 17th century. It was a ubiquitous and cheap material in colonial households and was used to make bowls, plates and cups.

Lindsay Randall, a Peabody Museum Educator, who wrote a dissertation on redware, described it as “the Tupperware of the time.”

In order to determine the source of the redware smoking pipe stems, Otterson utilized X-ray fluorescence testing.

X-ray fluorescence testing is a method used by both scientists and archaeologists to find out what elements a certain material is made from. Otterson applied this technique to the redware pipe fragments to see if she could match the composition of the pipes to the soils of certain geographic areas.

Through her tests, Otterson discovered that the redware in the Smuttynose Island pipe fragments was made of material similar to those found in the Carribean. This led her to the conclusion that many of the materials used to manufacture pipes on Smuttynose Island could have come from trade with the Caribbean Islands far to the south.

In the question and answer session that followed Otterson’s presentation, she agreed with the theory that fishers from Maine may have brought low quality fish down to the Carribean to feed to slaves on tropical plantations, and in return received the redware found in the Smuttynose pipes to bring back to the Isle of Shoals, which one audience member proposed.

“The Rebecca Nurse Homestead”

Froshour’s presentation focused on the inhabitants and history of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, MA. Froshour is in the process of writing her master’s thesis on this topic.

People have constantly inhabited the homestead since 1636. Froshour’s excavations focused on the social class and overall lives of the individuals who lived in the building during the 17th and 18th century.

Rebecca Nurse, an inhabitant of the household in the early 17th century, was a victim of the famous Salem Witch Trials. She was 71 years old when she was hanged on July 19, 1692 after a group of Salem girls accused her of witchcraft. Her homestead has been a point of interest for New England archaeologists since then.

As a result of various excavations at the site, over 5,322 historic artifacts were found, including ceramics, buttons, bones and, most interestingly, bullet cases. The bullet cases were found primarily outside of the front door, which Froshour believes signifies that the past inhabitants of the house shot at animals, probably rats, from the front porch.

Froshour said that the ceramic and button evidence suggests that the social class of the homestead’s inhabitants varied greatly over time. The bone evidence also gave the archaeologists a great insight into the diet of the inhabitants of the building.

As part of a summer session archaeology class taught by Hamilton, students helped during the early excavations of the site from 2007-2008. Students helped to dig the initial holes in which professional archaeologists later found historic artifacts.