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Archeology for Interpreters > 9. Use What You Know: Highlighted Case Study

What do broken dishes, rusty nails and oyster shells really tell us about the people who lived at this site?

Artifact types

One way archeologists analyzed the assemblage was by artifact type. Artifact types are idealized categories that archeologists create to organize and make sense of material culture. By organizing artifacts by type archeologists can compare the numbers of artifacts in each type and draw conclusions about the artifacts past people had access to, used, and discarded.

Archeologists classified artifacts from the Hooe Dependency Site into five main types: ceramics, glass, metals, faunal (animal remains), and lithic (stone, usually prehistoric tools).

[photo] Polychrome pearlware-ceramic sherd, with handpainted leaf pattern.

This dirty, broken tableware sherd helped archeologists date the Hooe Dependency Site. It is pearlware, a common English ceramic. Green and brown hand-painted designs were popular from 1795 to 1835. (NoŽl Hume 1969: 128-129). (Heather Hembrey, University of Maryland)

What the ceramics reveal: There were 319 ceramic sherds recovered from the Hooe Dependency Site. These fall into two categories: tableware and utilitarian ceramics. Tableware sherds come from vessels used to serve food-plates, bowls, platters and mugs, for example. While most of the tableware sherds were too small to allow archeologists to identify the vessel's original form, some of those identified came from bowls and plates. The mean ceramic date (MCD) derived from these sherds is 1814. Mean ceramic dating is a technique used in historical archeology to date sites based on the average age of recovered ceramics. The actual amount of time that this site was occupied spans a longer period before and after 1814.

Archeologists excavated twenty-two sherds of Colono Ware. Colono Ware can reflect Native American or African pottery making traditions. These ceramics consist of shallow, wide-mouthed bowls, apparently made for food consumption. These bowls were manufactured locally, possibly by an enslaved or free African American or a Native American potter.

Cooking pots, jugs, and crocks are examples of utilitarian ceramics used to prepare or store food and other household items. Only one vessel form was identifiable among the utilitarian vessel fragments—the shoulder of a jug.

What the glass reveals: Sixty-nine glass artifacts were excavated from the Hooe Dependency Site. Most are fragments from bottle containers and drinking vessels. The bottles probably stored water and other liquids. The largest category of glass fragments is window glass. Based on its association with nails, this flat glass is probably from windowpanes of a structure that once stood on the site.

[photo] Hand-wrought nail, with rose head.

Just another boring, rusty nail? NO! This hand-wrought nail along with other artifacts enabled archeologists to date the structure that once stood at the Hooe Dependency Site. (Heather Hembrey, University of Maryland)

What the metals reveal: Archeologists recovered eighty-eight nails from the site. Fifty-one of these were machine-cut and twenty-five were hand wrought-these nail type frequencies helped the archeologists date the site prior to 1830. Because the soil at the site is acidic, many of the metal artifacts were too badly corroded to identify. Among those that could be identified are personal items including a button shank, wire, a brass straight pin, and a fork.

The high number of nails and the identifiable personal items reveal that this was a domestic site containing some type of structure. No military artifacts were recovered from the center of the Hooe Dependency Site (that's not to say that full data recovery would not expose some). However, metal detecting identified two scatters of Civil War related artifacts to the north and south of the site. These artifacts include 3-ring conical bullets, .69 caliber roundballs, shell fragments, a knapsack hook, and an U.S. issue candleholder. These artifacts recall the military events that took place on the site during the Civil War.

[photo] Oyster shell.

Oyster shell.

What the faunal remains reveal: Most of the faunal (animal) remains excavated are oyster and mussel shells (70%). Excavated bones are very fragmented and difficult to identify by species, but most likely came from mammals such as pigs or cattle. Typically, bones at nineteenth-century African American sites are fragmented and shattered. Bones were often shattered before being placed in stews so the marrow was released into the broth for both flavor and nutrition. Animals that roamed the yard further damaged discarded bones.

Based on the numbers of shell versus bone, one might conclude that the Hooe Dependency Site occupants ate mostly shellfish. However, this may not be true. Certain organic materials, including shell, survive better in acidic soils than others. Many bone fragments may have deteriorated in the soil after the site was abandoned. Further research on local enslaved African Americans' diets may enable archeologists to better interpret the faunal artifacts excavated from the Hooe Dependency Site.

What the lithics reveal: Recovered lithic (stone) artifacts indicate that prehistoric people somehow used this piece of land. Archeologists excavated a Late Archaic Halifax point that dates to ca. 3,500 BC and a Late Archaic Perkiomen point that dates to ca. 1,200 BC. Native Americans living in the Manassas area camped near rivers and made some tools—like the Halifax point—from local lithic materials such as quartz and quartzite. The Perkiomen point is made of banded rhyolite, a non-local material that Native Americans may have obtained by trading with groups living in North Carolina.

Other lithic materials recovered from the Hooe Dependency Site include quartz flakes, quartz chunks and other debitage, indicating perhaps that Native Americans made or modified stone tools at the site. Although Native Americans continued to camp in and travel through and live in the Manassas area, archeologists found no direct evidence of their occupation at the Hooe Dependency Site.

TSM/MJB