Saturday, December 19, 2009

Warming the Soul with Suds

I was sorting through some artifact photographs from the 2009 excavations and found this one (left). This is a piece of Rhenish stoneware and, more specifically, a shoulder fragment from a bulbous drinking mug.

Archaeologists recover fragments from these vessels on sites throughout the region in contexts dating from the middle of the 17th century through the first quarter of the 18th century.

Rhenish stoneware mugs (named for the region in which they were made) were relatively inexpensive, sturdy enough to survive the trip from Dutch ports to English ports to the Chesapeake, and ideally met demand for individual servings of beer.

These mugs appear on house sites as well as tavern sites. I find it interesting that the colonists saw these vessels as a necessary part of their equipage. Did they regard them the same way present-day Pilsner lovers treasure their special glasses? Were they used for drinking locally-made small beers and ciders? Imbibing minds want to know.


Friday, December 18, 2009

No News

The GAC team has been busy with other projects and preparing for the impending winter storm. Sorry, nothing to report.
The Archeological Society of Maryland board meeting has been postponed until an as yet undetermined date in January. We'll keep you apprised.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Upcoming Events

This Saturday the Archeological Society of Maryland holds its last quarterly meeting of the year. It will be held at the Odenton branch of the Anne Arundel County Library, 1325 Annapolis Road, Odenton. The meeting will run from 9 AM to 12:30 AM. We expect to announce the location of the annual field session, which had been held at Port Tobacco for the past two years.

The Society for Historical Archaeology annual conference will be held on Amelia Island, Florida, during the first full week of January. April will present her paper and I'll present a joint paper with April and Kelley. Both papers concern recent research at Port Tobacco.

On February 2, at 9:30 AM, I'll present an illustrated lecture to the Charles County Antique & Arts Association.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009


No, conferetizing probably isn't a legitimate word, but it is descriptive: members of the PTAP team will appear at two venues after the first of the new year. April and I both will attend the Society for Historical Archaeology conference on Amelia Island, Florida. We'll both talk about aspects of our work at Port Tobacco. Hopefully, we'll get those papers on the Internet.

My paper at the conference will be a joint effort with April and Kelley. We'll explore that gap between what long-time residents and local historians have figured out about the community's past and our findings over the past three years.

As I noted in an earlier blog, Pete, Anne and Kelley will collaborate on three papers at the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference in Ocean City, Maryland. Those papers will address some work we have been doing on aboriginal sites in the region as well as the work at Port Tobacco. Again, I expect we will post those papers eventually on my website (

Our technical reports, which are posted on the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco's website (, document what we have done and found. The conference papers will explore some of the ideas in those reports and analyze the data in greater depth. Eventually, we will use both sources to publish works in both scholarly and general venues. As I told a client today while driving between sites, science is a slow, methodical process. Earth-shaking news after a few weeks in the field, and with no analysis or reporting, should be suspect, even if it appears in reputable newspapers. If scientifically generated knowledge came quickly, we would have cured cancer years ago.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Laurie Doesn't Lie

Laurie is this week's winner with her guess of an oyster shell button!

So, how does one make a button out of shell? I can't say much about shell button-making in the 18th and 19th centuries...I haven't yet looked into the matter...but I have researched 20th-century shell button-making in Delaware.

Delaware, particularly south of Milford, had a 'cottage industry' in shell button-making that started at least in the 1920s and ended around 1990. The image above is one of the small factories that I visited. It had been abandoned for years and all of the machinery and materials remain inside. I also visited a household operation in a nearby barn.

South Sea bivalves (essentially clams) were imported and shipped to locals. They would drill blanks out of the shell in different sizes. Some were finished in those same factories, others were sent to Connecticut for finishing. Workers used hollow bits to drill as many blanks as possible from a shell, minimizing waste while maximizing production. The shell to the right, picked off the top of a "shell midden," is a pretty good example of the skill required of the operator. Button makers probably used a brace and bit to cut blanks prior to the advent of electrical tools, although water and steam driven mills could have supplied the power in the 19th century.

The results of all that button blank cutting were innumerable shell buttons that appear in archaeological deposits throughout the United States and small piles of shell waste around the sites of these former factories. The waste pile pictured to the right is only one of several surrounding this factory.

There is a great deal of research that can be conducted in this area, starting with detailed interviews with former button makers and distributors of materials and equipment. Then we need to document the sites, starting with the most recent, before they are destroyed, and then looking for and excavating those for which archaeological materials are all that survive.

There is a published archaeological study of shell button-making along the Mississippi River. Manufacturers used indigenous freshwater mussels. That publication, however, is not readily available and it does address late historic button making.

Now, here is Anne's choice of mystery artifact for next week.

Above is this week's Mystery Artifact. This stoneware is also sometimes glazed with a rich purple color. Good Luck.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Report Complete

Yep, another in the PTAP team's series of reports on our work at Port Tobacco has just been completed by Pete, Anne, and Kelley. We will probably add a few bits here and there, but I expect we will post it on the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco's website ( by the middle of January.

This is the first substantive analysis and report writing by the guys and I hope all of our readers will enjoy what they have prepared. Hopefully, they will collaborate on an interpretive piece for the journal Maryland Archeology in the next few months. They are collaborating on three papers that will be presented at the annual meeting of the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference in Ocean City later this winter.

In the meantime, the entire team will continue to provide nearly daily updates on our work and related topics. Work on the Preserve America grant-funded work continues apace and we hope to return to the Swann House site as soon as the weather permits. We will focus on the interior excavation units, seeking preserved deposits on the cellar floor.