Photo 1: Excavation at the
Saugus Iron Works site, c. 1949.
Saugus Iron Works site.
Archeologist, Roland Wells Robbins, who excavated the ironworks was quoted as saying, "I scraped away earth from two great wooden beams that ran in a V-shape toward the center of the stone foundation. These timbers suddenly seemed to give shape to what had seemed a formless pile of boulders and I was now convinced that the stones had been the furnace."¹ The interlocked beams formed a base to hold two great bellows that fanned the furnace constructed of the stones shown in the background of Photo 1.
Since there were no sketches or diagrams to show how this particular ironworks looked, archeologists had to rely on their knowledge of what elements would be found at a typical ironworks. Keep in mind that the reconstruction, which was completed in 1954, was necessarily partly conjectural and that Robbin’s archeological methods were not as scientific or precise as those practiced by archeologists today.
Archeologists knew little about the ironworks before the excavation. The artifact in Photo 2 helped prove that there was a rolling and slitting mill on the site. The artifact is a partially slit flat made of wrought iron, approximately 8 to 10 inches long, about a half-inch thick and 3 inches wide. Because it was not cut all the way through, the artifact provided evidence that the slitting process took place at the site. Furthermore, the size of the artifact suggested the size of the equipment that produced it.
One of the reasons this evidence was so important was that the information it revealed was unexpected. It was a working assumption that this was an ordinary, possibly a rather primitive, furnace. This piece of physical evidence, combined with documentary evidence, changed the scholars’ ideas of what the ironworks was like and of how advanced this New England furnace was for its time.¹Roland Wells Robbins and Evan Jones, Hidden America (New York: Knopf, 1959), 44.
Questions for Photos 1 & 2
1. Examine Photo 1 and describe what you see. Can you speculate which ironworks structure this might be?
2. How might the quotation from the archeologist help you conclude how archeologists work and the role archeology played in the reconstruction of the ironworks?
3. How would students have felt if they had been Roland Wells Robbins and found this kind of clue? Would they have hypothesized that they had found the remains of an iron furnace? Why or why not?
4. Examine Photo 2, which shows an artifact found at the site of the ironworks. What is it? How was it used?
5. What can you conclude about the role artifacts can play in learning about the past?
* The photos on this screen have a resolution of 72 dots per inch (dpi), and therefore will print poorly. You can obtain a high quality version of Photo 1 and Photo 2, but be aware that each file will take as much as 30 seconds to load with a 28.8K modem.