Sunday, May 31, 2009

Read This: The Value of Sheet Middens on 19th Century Sites

This is the first post in what I anticipate will be a series of "Read This" posts. This series will include summaries of articles or books that offer what I think are good, new approaches to something; super syntheses of a particular topic; or that simply rocked my socks.* Definitions of assorted terms flagged with asterisks are jammed down at the bottom of the post.

Decoding the Message in the Midden: What Can Nineteenth-Century Sheet Refuse Tell Us? by Nina M. Versaggi.

Published in "Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Domestic Site Archaeology in New York State" (2000), edited by John P. Hart and Charles L. Fisher, New York State Museum bulletin 495. University of the State of New York, New York State Education Department, Albany, New York.

Click here for Worldcat Bibliographic Information

Click here for the full volume in pdf format (and KUDOS to the New York State Museum for making their publications available free, online).

Historical archaeologists run into sheet middens** all the time. Even on sites with pit middens, we often find areas of sheet midden deposits. One place these turn up is outside doorways, where household sweepings are pushed out the door, rather than picked up and deposited elsewhere.

Versaggi argues that many sheet middens have high analytical potential. Most often, sheet midden deposits are dismissed by archaeologists as random, temporally mixed***, secondary deposits**** of stuff with no or minimal analytical value -- i.e. nothing beyond "yup, someone at this site, at some point in time, used this thingy, broke it, and threw it out. Can't tell you who or exactly when though."

So who cares? Well, she argues, if you're on a site with no subsurface features (like wells, cisterns, foundations) or excavating a site where the project boundaries do not encompass such features, a sheet midden may be all you get to assess the significance of the site.***** Versaggi also argues that, in prehistoric contexts, "artifact scatters are accepted as a source of information on community organization, refuse disposal patterns, technology, and household activities" (p. 46). Why not in historical archaeology?

Why not, indeed. She argues that structural and other shaft features are nice, and can provide tons of good information, but that the behavior that produces them are unique events, and do not necessarily tell us about everyday lives. Sheet middens, however, created during the relatively mundane disposal of daily trash, can:

As anthropologically-trained archaeologists, a good part of our research mission is to learn about the everyday aspects of cultures, and sheet midden is an essential part of this. (p. 46)

She is clear that sheet middens don't trump other site features; rather, that

all modifications to a domestic landscape need to be assessed as important analytical components of a behavioral and ideological system (p. 46; emphasis mine).

Versaggi goes on to describe the attributes of sheet middens that contribute to their research value: spatial (artifact density and dispersion); temporal (age, and controlling for accumulation over time); composition (what's in it); context (intra- and inter-site). Although all of these inter-relate and play off one another in practice, breaking them out for discussion in the article is very helpful. In each case, examples of the type of information available (and how to get at it) are given. What struck me was the amount of information about site use, ideology, and changing activity areas across a site that can be teased out of close-interval shovel test pits (i.e. 15 foot interval), with a little planning, even at the Phase I level******. This includes identifying sheet middens used to dispose of different things (domestic vs. food vs. architectural materials) in different areas of the site; of changing ideals regarding refuse disposal (front yard vs. side yard; sheet midden vs. pit); of different class ideals regarding refuse disposal; etc.

The article finishes with a case study, and then a comparative study between the site in the case study and several other sites in New York state. The comparison, based only on information from sheet middens, spanned several types of sites: rural landowner elite, rural landowner middle class, urban landowner elite, urban renter middle class, and rural lower class farm labor. The discussions of the similarities and differences between and among these sites is compelling. The table used to present the data is straightforward, and its organization and categories can easily be adapted/implemented for use with other sheet middens.

Overall, I find Versaggi's argument persuasive. The examples she provides are of middens where the "message" is worth decoding. I'm convinced that some sheet middens can have real potential to get at significant information about a site. The problem, which she identifies, is how do we know when to spend the time to tease out the message? Phase I budges are often extremely tight; creating distribution maps and vessel analysis is expensive. But if the information is there, particularly if it's all you've got for a site, then it becomes important to tease it out to determine if further work is necessary. Also, if the potential isn't there, it's important to know that too!

I think the article has value in thinking about the results of Phase I shovel test pits and assessing "yard scatter." It also has value in considering testing strategies and placement/intervals of Phase I shovel test pits. I think that the real value of this approach, though, is at later stages of more intensive excavation. Versaggi provides a cost-effective methodology and framework for excavating, assessing, and analyzing sheet middens. It is also at these later stages of analysis that comparisons with other sites become important.

I have a site in mind that I think this approach could be gangbusters. It's a rural, late 18th century farmstead that appears to have been relatively un-messed with for the last 200 years or so. Fingers crossed, I get to take a run at it! If not this site, another. I'm curious to put this into practice.

(One pet-peeve about the article, directed at the editors/publisher: I hate bibliographies that only give authors' initials, instead of full first names.)

* I was going to limit it to archaeological works, but knowing me, I'd violate that in the very next post. So, there is no subject limitation.

** Middens = accumulations of garbage/refuse. Sheet middens are scatters of trash, often in very thin layers, found across sites. Before there was municipal garbage collection, trash had to be disposed of in other ways. Some folks dug holes (pits) to dump their trash in; others scattered it on the ground surface (sheet middens); others used animals, like pigs (into the twentieth century, even!). If you were lucky, you had a hole previously used for another purpose (like a well or privy) that you could fill in.

*** Temporally mixed = things from different time periods. Deposits that include artifacts from several different time periods are problematic, because they do not (easily) give us information about a particular occupation of a site. It is also an indication that the deposit may be disturbed (i.e., may have had a groundhog dig willy-nilly through it), and so can no longer provide good information.

**** Secondary deposit = something that was initially left in one place, then moved. When it gets moved, it loses the contextual information from its initial deposit. It's why bodies that have been moved from where they were murdered are such a pain for investigators.

***** Site significance has to do with its potential to provide information of value. It is assessed using criteria set out for listing sites in the National Register of Historic Places. Archaeological sites generally fall under Criteria D.

****** Phase I investigations include documentary research and limited excavations to determine if a site is present in a particular area. Excavations usually are limited to shovel test pits; in my part of the world, these are dug with a garden spade. They are generally 1 foot in diameter, and are excavated until natural, undisturbed soils are encountered.

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