Klondike Gold Rush
National Historical Park Alaska
August 13, 2013
I was afraid, at the beginning of the week that my portion of this week’s archaeology update would have to be geared toward the value of not finding an artifact that could be described as interesting, unusual, or instructive. I was reminded though by our “honorary archaeological inspector” Interpretive Ranger Kira, that “Zero is also a datum point”. Her statement is certainly true because often the absence of certain artifacts can tell a great deal about an area or the people that moved through or inhabited a place. Absence can also raise pertinent questions centering on possible reasons why certain things are missing from the archeological scenario before us. For instance, while we have found a veritable mountain of construction and demolition debris/fill, we have not located any cans, and very few personal items in our excavation area compared to artifacts found just several meters away at the Moore Lot and in Father Turnell’s privy. Were the cans and household detritus types of things discarded elsewhere, did the presence of large buildings on Lot 9 & 10 prevent the deposition of certain items, or did people (single men during the Gold Rush) just not drop or throw away the same types of things that the Moore or Kirmse families did? Additionally, to better answer those questions that arise from what might be missing from the record, and in order to better understand what is there, archaeologists must carefully and methodically scrutinize the extant information about an area or particular artifact. To illustrate the point for this “Parkeology” Newsletter, my artifact of the week consists of almost 50+ fragments of what could be a Gold Rush era liquor or tonic bottle that were found in a single layer of a test unit.
First, what is there (what physical characteristics do the objects or fragments have, and might any of those suggest a use, or help identify or date the whole artifact)?
Second, if information (pieces) is missing, what if anything, can overcome the lack of data?
Since the fragments were found in a relatively small area and in association with each other, we might assume that they are from the same object. They are all brown/amber, and we do know that brown or amber glass was and still is the most common color for beer bottles as it provides the best light protection from the light wavelengths that are responsible for most photochemical reactions. Amber was also used for whiskey, tonic or bitters bottles. The majority of the pieces have a dimpled texture that runs horizontally across the surface of the glass.
The most notable piece of the puzzle that is missing is the base of the bottle because manufacturers’ or makers’ marks found on the bottom of a container can be securely identified and dated. There was however, one tiny base fragment with one letter. Also missing was the lip or mouth of the bottle, although almost half of the neck section (which is squatty, and has a groove at the bottom where it would have connected to the body of the bottle) remained. On closer inspection, a fine seam can be seen at one side of the neck piece. This fine seam is from a mold mark and indicates that the bottle was probably a machine made molded container rather than mouth-blown into a mold because the side mold seams on most machine-made bottles tend to be finer (narrower and lower), and many mouth-blown bottles can have very thick and distinct seams due to less precise mold construction or fitting. Also, side seams from automatic bottle making machines (1903-1950) go up the side and over the lip. Another indication that the bottle was machine made is that there are no visible bubbles in the body sherds, a strong but not exclusionary characteristic in machine made bottles. With this discovery, the proposal that the bottle was from the Gold Rush is rapidly losing support, but all is not lost ….yet.
OK, what else can be seen on the fragments …after a discovery that several of the pieces fit together, some embossed or raised lettering within a square frame could be seen. The square frame is a tip-off that the embossing was probably done in a “plate mold”. The term plate is used to describe an interchangeable, typically iron or brass engraved plate which was used in a bottle mold to produce different embossing patterns for bottles blown in the same mold. By simply taking out one engraved plate and replacing it with another, differently engraved plate, the same mold could produce many different uniquely embossed bottles of the same shape and design. Commonly called a "slug plate" by collectors, the square plate style for Western cylinder liquor bottles was a fairly common occurrence in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Because the lettering contained a “C” and an “O” at the very least, it follows that they could be part of the word “Tonic”. Hunting for more clues that I may have overlooked, I decided to take another look at the tiny fragment of base. This time I clearly saw stippling or texturing on what would have been the bottom of the bottle….bummer….why? Because the bases of mid to late 20th century, machine-made bottles very commonly have a textured effect covering all or a portion of the base. There were several practical reasons for this feature: the bottles would have a reduced base surface contact decreasing drag on the conveyor belts moving them within the glass factory and by purchasers/users; to hide product related sediment; to hide the suction scar (primarily on Owens Automatic Bottle Machine products). Sooooooo….. if one has a machine-made bottle with a stippled base, one can be quite certain that it dates from 1940 or later (SHA Historic Bottle website). Darn! Well, maybe not Gold Rush, but perhaps at least 50 years old.
A disappointment to be sure, but hopefully from all this you can get a better understanding of the archaeological process, and see that the obstacle of missing information is not insurmountable. Perhaps I’ll find more pieces in the next layer which I started on Friday. From the picture you can already see that the layer will be very exciting as it looks like it might contain part of the chimney from St. Mark’s Rectory…tune in next time for further details!
Excavations began last week on Test Unit 6 to define the corner of a concrete slab located in the Frye Bruhn relocation project area. The original purpose of the slab is unknown and has no documentation recording its construction. There have been a few proposed original uses for the slab. These uses include as a foundation for a boiler or a bell tower both of which would have been associated with the St Mark's Catholic Church that was demolished in 1959. The main questions that we hope to answer with the excavation of the concrete slab are is it associated with the church and if so when and why was it constructed and are there any intact cultural layers beneath the slab that could be associated with the historic occupation of Skagway. So far, excavations on the unit are partially complete and, when last left off, it appears the slab was poured on top of a base of large cobblestones. Artifacts collected from the excavation along with evidence of damage to the slab indicate the possibility of a failed attempt at removing the large slab at one time. Further excavation and analysis should allow us a better picture on the history of the slab.
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