Learning from Archeology

What Can We Learn from Archeology?

In the eighteenth century the area that is currently called Independence Mall was on the outskirts of the growing city. As population spread eastward and westward from the early settlements along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, homes and workshops sprung up in what is now the center of the city of Philadelphia. Early residents of the project area ranged from the humble to the celebrated and powerful. The area was home to wealthy merchants and professional men, government functionaries and important politicians, as well as shoemakers and tavern keepers and all of their families. Two incumbent American Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, resided, albeit temporarily, in the area that is now called Independence Mall. But resident here too were William Crews, a potter, and several African American women who made and sold fruit tarts and whose names history has not recorded.

The homes and businesses of these people and others like them, both humble and celebrated, may lie preserved in part beneath the project area. It is generally not possible to link the artifacts and features that archeologists recover to specific individuals. But we can sometimes tie them to specific households and we can use them to uncover patterns of change in a specific neighborhood.

In an urban setting excavations typically uncover the foundations of earlier structures, both houses and workplaces. Where subsequent construction has not obliterated the evidence, the backyards behind these earlier buildings may still survive. Prior to the development of modern sanitary systems each household had to arrange for a supply of fresh water and for the disposal of waste. Before piped-in water and sewer systems were introduced into the urban landscape, each home or business was equipped with cisterns or wells to supply water and with privies to meet sanitary needs.

From the seventeenth century, these utilitarian structures dotted the backyards of the lots throughout the town. Generally built as circular shafts dug into the ground and lined with brick or stone, wells and privies often extended 15 or 20 feet deep. Once abandoned, these shafts were frequently filled with trash discarded by the lots' residents. Uncovered today, these shaft features can serve as time capsules preserving evidence of the activities that took place long ago.

When excavated and their contents are carefully screened by archeologists these shaft features frequently yield an abundant collection of artifacts. The remains of meals long past (in the form of bones, shells, and pits and seeds) are recovered along with the tableware on which the meals were served. Frequently, buttons, pins, buckles and other items from clothing find their way into these archeology deposits. Perhaps discarded with a dustpan full of ashes, these artifacts may represent the tangible evidence of long forgotten housecleaning.

The lower depths of a well provide an environment well suited to preserving objects that rarely survive more than a few decades of burial under less ideal conditions. When perishable objects are discarded in a waterlogged environment the natural processes of decay are held at bay and these normally fragile items can survive burial for long periods of time. The archeologist may be surprised by the discovery of a pointed-toe shoe of a style popular in the eighteenth century. Removed from a well, the waterlogged leather may still be supple with the hand stitching still visible. Perhaps a carved wooden child's toy in the shape of a boat, a complete pewter spoon, or a nearly whole eggshell will also be recovered from these muddy depths.

S the archeologist recovers more than meets the eye. Special processing of samples of soil or mud removed from a well, privy, or perhaps a small pit can reveal microscopic pollen grains and the fragmentary remains of insects and parasites. Even chemical tests of the soil itself can provide important clues about the past.

All of this information is then combined with the historical research conducted during the earliest stages of the project and a larger picture begins to emerge. Through this process, archeology sheds light on the everyday life of people who may otherwise have left little or no record of how they lived. We can learn, for instance, what kind of foods they ate, and even how they prepared them. The kind of animal bones found in household trash deposits tell us, for example, how often members of a family dined on chicken or pork. The evidence of butchering (revealed by the study of how bones were cut and prepared for cooking) can tell us whether stews or roasts were the preferred method of cookery. The presence of the bones of wild game, such as deer or turkey, alongside those of domestic farm animals like cattle and pigs helps us to understand what food sources people drew-on to supply their needs. Seeds, pits and other plant remains tell us what fruits and vegetables were commonly eaten.

Because we often recover deposits from different households or from different time periods, it is also possible to study how the lives of different groups of people varied and how these distinctive life-ways changed through time. Did the meals served in the home of a tailor who came from Germany to live in eighteenth century Philadelphia differ from the foods eaten by his neighbor who was, perhaps, an African-American coachman? Did eighteenth century Philadelphians, unlike later nineteenth century residents, rely on wild game as a substantial part of their diet? The careful study of historical documents alongside archeological evidence and artifacts can help us answer questions such as these.

But these examples, focusing on food and diet, only scratch the surface. Archeologists also study how the lives of women changed after the American Revolution, or they may consider what the state of health and sanitation was like for an early nineteenth century city dweller, or, perhaps, they will examine what childhood was like for a colonial girl or boy. Archeology offers a unique opportunity to study aspects of our nation's past. The physical remains left by our forebearers, which make up the archeological record, can help us understand who we are, where we came from, and how our way of life came to take the form that it does today.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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