More artifacts


Creative, meaningful repurposing?  A soapstone nugget with a clear groove all the way around it.

We’ve been back in the field since Saturday with the goal of exploring the areas around two promising shovel test pits.  From the artifacts we’ve already found, it’s pretty clear people have used this island for a very long time.  They’ve had fires, created and sharpened stone tools, used clay pots and even held something together with iron nails.  That doesn’t even get us up to the US Civil War.  Post-war and 20th century (and 21st century) artifacts are present too.


I’m most interested in figuring out what was going on here during the 17th to 19th centuries.  We know from Dan Sayers’ work in the southern Dismal that the maroons and others found, reused and repurposed artifacts left behind by earlier inhabitants.  The artifacts from this week’s trenches suggest the same thing was happening way up here in Virginia.  One clear example is the little grooved soapstone nugget shown at the top of this post.  It appears to be a fragment of a large soapstone vessel that was repurposed- into what might be a pendant or charm.*  Based on a quick search of Virginia geology, one of the nearest sources of soapstone is about 75 miles away.  Who brought it here?  When?  Why?  How long did it take to make that perfect groove?  Who was the person who last held this object?  What did it mean to them?

Meanwhile, we’ve also started finding a different type of ceramic.  It’s more red than it looks in this photo.


Pottery Fragment

And, huge thanks to fellow AU PhD candidate Justin Uehlein for braving the Swamp’s biting flies for a few days of excavation.



It was a brisk 85 degrees today so Justin wore his hoodie (as armor against the flies).

*It could be something else, too.  If you have any ideas or have seen something similar, email me!



What’s beneath the surface?



After mapping the microtopography of the island’s surface, we’re finally looking beneath leaf litter into the soil.  Coring, poking ~3cm diameter holes into the island along

Wmnson North Cores

Soil Profiles

transects, gives us a quick peak into what the soils look like.  We carefully record the small variations in the soil color (using the legendary Munsell color chart*) and texture (sandy? silty? loamy? clay-y?).  These profiles can help us figure out where the edge of island really is, how much above the water table the island rises and, along with other data,  they can help us determine which spots would be best to open an excavation unit.


Here in the Swamp, we also screen the soil.  It’s rare to find an artifact in a core.  Seriously:  what are the chances of bringing up an artifact when you randomly pop a 3cm hole into a 42 square mile area?  Out here, with the thousands of years of human interaction with the changing landscape, it happens often enough to be worth the effort.

We have found bigger artifacts (not in the cores) as well on the islands like the fire cracked rock and stone tools in the photo.


*punk archaeologist Andrew Reinhard riffs on the joys of the Munsell in that article

Rabbit Hole of Catsup


“B Pride of Long Island Brand Tomato Catsup,” may contain coal-tar based dye

I fell down a rabbit hole while I was downloading photos from the expedition camera.  It started as a brief quest to date a surface find, the complete (!) ketchup bottle in the photo.  Society for Historical Archaeology hosts Lindsey, Lockhart and co.’s fabulous Bottle Identification site here.  Unfortunately, the maker’s mark on the  bottle base is not very clear, but it is clearly embossed: “B// Pride of Long Island//Brand// Tomato Catsup.”  Yep, ‘catsup,’ not ‘ketchup.’

Catsup was a thing in the 19th and early 20th century.  Tomato catsup, mushroom catsup, walnut catsup: ads and recipes for these products are all over period newspapers.  But so are stories about adulterated foods.  In 1901, the State of Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station tested this brand of tomato sauce and found a 16 fl oz. bottle costing 15 cents contained the dye Eosin and the preservative Salicylic acid .

Here’s what Connecticut had to say about it (emphasis added):

“Among the colors used are eosin, ponceau, tropeolin, magenta and others of coal-tar origin. They impart to the sauces a brilliant red color which those who are unaware that the uncolored products have a dull red or brown color, believe is the natural color of the fruit. The objections to their use are: first, they deceive the purchasers while they in no way improve the quality of the sauce; second, they may serve to hide inferior material used in their manufacture; third, they are possibly injurious to health; and fourth, they put genuine uncolored goods to a disadvantage in the market.”


This problem of icky stuff in tomato-based condiments persists through at least 1917 when the Eastern District Court of New York wins a case against the manufacturer of this brand for trying to sell 270 cases of adulterated catsup.  Pennsylvania, New York and other states conducted testing similar to CT’s and found similar results over more 15 years.  Chemicals they found in other processed foods and milk are equally icky.

As for the bottle itself, it probably dates between the 19-teens and 1930s.  Its mix of characteristics- round body instead of paneled typical of early 20th century ketchup bottles, embossed brand name but not bottle capacity, it does NOT have screw cap, the maker’s mark on the base is mushed- and the fact that I haven’t figured out when the company stopped making catsup (they started in 1893) make a more precise date hard to say.  If you’ve got any info or ideas, let me know!   I’ll just be over here eating my french fries.  🙂

1902  Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station for the Year Ending October 31 1901.  State of Connecticut Public Document No. 24.  Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor Co, New Haven, CT. (accessed 21 May 2016)

1996 Smith, Andrew S.  Pure Ketchup: A history of America’s national condiment, with recipes.  University of South Carolina Press, Charleson, SC.