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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 distribution

[photo] Map indicating activity ares at the Hooe dependency site.

A map summarizing three activity areas at the Hooe Dependency Site. (Reeves: 2000)

Analyzing where artifacts are found is just as important as identifying them. It is through studying artifacts' social and archeological context that archeologists learn the most about past people and how they used a site. An analysis of artifact distributions at the Hooe Dependency Site reveals three areas of potentially distinct activities: architectural (presence of a structure), food preparation, and food consumption.

Architectural activity area: The architectural debris at the Hooe Dependency Site consists of window glass and nails. The architectural debris, concentrated in the southern portion of the site, offers important clues to the location of a structure.

Machine-cut and hand-wrought nails are evenly distributed across the southern part of the site. The window glass fragment distribution is somewhat concentrated, perhaps relating to the proximity of a window in this general area. This portion of the site also contained a sparse number of brick and mortar fragments.

These artifacts represent a structure that stood at the Hooe Dependency Site at least until it was abandoned. Once abandoned, the structure as most likely dismantled and the wood used for construction elsewhere. Had the structure been left intact it would have decomposed, leaving a greater diversity and number of artifacts than the archeologists actually recovered.

Food preparation activity area: The food preparation area is defined by storage vessel debris. Storage vessels include glass bottles and utilitarian ceramic vessels, such as crocks, cooking pots and jugs. The Hooe Dependency Site occupants likely used these vessels to store water or other liquids, cook, and prepare foods. Similar to the scatter of refined earthenware and Colono Ware, the storage debris is likely part of a sheet midden. However, the storage vessel debris is centered in a different area, suggesting that these vessels were used in a different area of the site.

During the nineteenth century glass bottles were often resold to bottle merchants, used for refills at local shops, or reused for other purposes. Olive-green bottles usually stored alcoholic beverages. Aqua- tinted bottles often stored medicines or other non-alcoholic liquids. Because of their heavy use, bottles were usually discarded only due to breakage or loss.

One interesting aspect of the artifact distribution in the food preparation activity area has to do with glass type and color. The olive-green glass is concentrated in the food preparation activity area (indicated as “storage vessel debris” on the above map). This phenomenon is logical since olive-green bottles were generally used to store liquids. However, what is surprising is the complete absence of olive-green glass in the center of the food consumption activity area—an area yielding table-related materials. This absence might mean that the Hooe Dependency occupants used olive-green bottles in situations not related to food consumption, or that they were precious and were not broken and discarded.

Food consumption activity area: Food consumption debris was concentrated in the central portion of the Hooe Dependency Site. This debris consists of ceramics, oyster shells and animal bone fragments. The site's occupants probably scattered this debris across the area, creating a sheet midden. On early nineteenth-century sites, the location of sheet middens is extremely informative for locating activity areas since they are often close to the most heavily used portions of the yard.

Ceramics make up the majority of artifacts in the food consumption area. Most of the ceramics represent tableware that was produced in England and imported into America (for example, refined earthenwares such as creamware, pearlware, whiteware, and refined red-bodied earthenware). During the nineteenth century such ceramics served as vessels for food consumption. A smaller number of Colono Ware ceramics are distributed in the same area. The similarity of these two distributions suggests that the two classes of ceramics were being disposed of in the same manner, and were potentially used and broken in the same region of the yard. Therefore, the archeologists believe that the Hooe Dependency Site occupants used both their refined earthenware and Colono Ware ceramics to consume food.

Faunal materials (animal bone fragments and oyster shells) are concentrated in the same area as the ceramics, as were other table-related artifacts such as glass stemware, tumbler fragments and a fork. While the presence of these items in this portion of the yard does not necessarily mean they were used in this area, it does reflect the disposal of table-related items in this area of the site. If archeologists knew more definitely where the structure was located, they could better interpret the meaning of this cluster of artifacts.

[photo] Young 
                  boys outside the Robinson House (ca. 1900), also located in 
                  Manassas National Battlefield Park. Archeologists can compare 
                  data from the Robinson House site with that from the Hooe Dependency 
                  site to understand the lives of free and enslaved African Americans 
                  who lived in Manassas. (NPS)

Young boys outside the Robinson House (ca. 1900), also located in Manassas National Battlefield Park. Archeologists can compare data from the Robinson House site and the Hooe Dependency site to understand the lives of free and enslaved African Americans who lived in Manassas. (NPS)

What do these artifact distributions really tell us? The Hooe Dependency Site's occupants apparently discarded their garbage in a confined area. They seem to have discarded their storage vessel debris over a wider area. It is difficult to state how these distributions relate to where the occupants actually used the items. However, it is apparent that these items were disposed of from different areas of the site, perhaps representing two sets of activities.

Interpreting these two distribution patterns in light of the architectural debris provides some insight. Most of the architectural debris is located in the southern part of the site adjacent to the storage vessel debris. This would place the majority of the sheet midden on the north side of the house with food consumption debris located furthest from the structure. Since trash deposits are usually outside the yard, the site's occupants may have used the area north of the house as a trash zone. This would leave the level area to the south of the structure as the main yard area. Such an arrangement would make sense during winter when sunlight would be on the structure's south side.

When analyzed, the details of artifact distribution give archeologists a good idea of how people used a site. The artifact distribution at the Hooe Dependency Site indicated that its occupants had at least three general activity areas: one where a structure stood, one where they stored and prepared food, and another where they disposed of trash. Identifying these potential activity areas enables archeologists to better understand how the site's occupants used their living space. This data can be compared with that from other sites—whether they are other small farms, plantation homes, or structures that housed enslaved individuals—to help us define similarities and differences as we learn about how people lived and related to each other in the past.

TSM/MJB