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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

What Kids Are Reading These Days

I'm working on some course prep / book research / Inter-Library Loan requests and was caught entirely by surprise (click for contents):
Those sure look like official Library of Congress Subject Headings to me. Wow.

On a related tangent, WorldCat at is wonderful. Think world-wide union (as in, all in one place) library catalog.

Perfect for those times when you forgot to copy down the entire citation of something obscure.

WorldCat also provides information on the nearest repository for what you are looking for AND tell you how far away it is. It also pulls prices from several online retailers, if the book is available, so you can easily see if you should just buy the dang thing or OMG request it through Inter Library Loan (ILL).

But it's ok, because WorldCat gives you all the information you need to do an Inter-Library Loan Request, including the OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) number, by which ILL finds and tracks publications. Providing this info with your ILL request makes ILLibrarians happy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

T Minus By The Gods I'm Late; Where Are My Textbooks?

I start teaching an evening summer session this week. I love teaching! I don't love the fact that I put in for my textbooks MONTHS ago, received confirmation, and there are apparently no textbooks to be had. Also not forthcoming is a reply from the bookstore to my slightly panicked email.

So. I've been thinking about overhauling the course anyway. But for a summer session (marathon classes more than once a week, 13 weeks of material in 5) during the busy field season, and while I'm desperately trying to finish a book draft, would not be my first choice of timing. Eh, I work better by necessity than choice sometimes anyhow!

If I go textbookless for this course, it stays textbookless!

Edited I (Thursday): The textbooks exist! As does the bookstore manager. Though both, for different reasons, had been relatively inaccessible. I am relieved.

Edited II (Friday): The textbooks exist, but cannot be located. Emergency order: ETA soon; Quantity: not enough for the number of students in class.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Letters to Our Daughters / Lessons for Girls: Not Alone

There is a new post up over at Isis' place, in her series, Letters to Our Daughters. The topic, You're Not Alone, is one I toyed with for Historiann's Lessons for Girls, but never got around to writing.

The author of the letter, Dr. Hannah Jang-Condell, writes to her daughter:

So here's my advice: you are not alone. Whatever it is you're going through, you're almost certainly not the first. Sure, there may not be many other women in astronomy in your situation, but if you look around, maybe you'll find a woman in mathematics or physiology who has gone through or is going through the same thing....[Networking is] also about getting to know people who share your experiences, and also about simply making friends. Academia can be very isolating, especially if you're part of a minority group, like a woman or a mother.

As it is, we specialize in particular areas of our field (an anthropologist, an archaeologist, an historical archaeologist, with a thing for industrial sites, feminist archaeological theory, historiography, etc.). Toss on the pile other divisions, like being a woman, queer, not having kids, etc., and it can be pretty lonely.

Finding others with similar interests and experiences to talk to, bounce things off of, etc. is really, really awesome. And finding someone to bounce ideas off who isn't directly in your field can really shake up and challenge your thinking about something. In my book, that's a good thing.

Not being alone is powerful stuff. Thumbs-up to Isis and Dr. Jang-Condell for reminding me, when I kinda needed a reminding. Now, if I could just get over my reluctance to impose on anyone / shyness / omg what if they say no ...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Perfect Storm: Stimulus Money and Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has mobilized to address issues of historic preservation in light of both the economic downturn and the availability of stimulus money. They're calling it The Perfect Storm.

The perfect storm is created when a flood of new stimulus dollars intended for "shovel-ready" projects hits the ground at the exact same moment when state governments are responding to widespread budget deficits and dreary bottom lines by slashing (or completely turning off) funding for historic preservation programs.

We're definitely feeling it in the state I work in. Our State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) is understaffed, and reports are taking a long time to get reviewed (longer than the usual 30-day turnaround). Municipal and state projects have been put on hold. The money is available, but it can't get out. Logjam.

There is some really good information on the Perfect Storm website. Check out the State By State Storm Tracker to see how much stimulus money is heading for your state; then check out the rest of the site to see how to access a slice or two of that pie. Get the money moving to historic preservation and heritage issues (including archaeology!) before the developers convince the governments we're too much of a pain in the ass to bother with in the first place.

Hat Tip: Society for Historical Archaeology for getting the word out.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Fieldwork today; a site visit to determine a) if, b) where, and c) how many holes to dig. The answer today is yes, most of it, and I'll need a calculator, but a lot. It was a very nice day to be out and about. The theme today was dead things, though I did not snap pictures of the half-bunny on the side of the road, nor of the rather large skull perched on a stump further up the same road. I do wish I'd caught the second. There were also pretty flowers and dirt involved. Here are some quick pics.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What About The Drafts?

It is definitely the end of semester. All the blogs I regularly read have suddenly sprung to life en masse. As well as getting my regular fixes again, it is nice to know in a very tangible way that it's not just me who gets overwhelmingly swamped. Yes, I only teach as an adjunct, but this is also the start of fieldwork season at The Regular Gig. It has required much overtime this year (better than a pink-slip, lemme tell you what), so I've been crispy.

As part of her end-of-semester and Spring cleaning, Dr. Crazy is tossing out reams of paper. Including her dissertation drafts. Now, I'm a tosser. I don't keep drafts. But I keep hearing about people who DO keep drafts. I'd love to know why... I mean, maybe keep a first draft for nostaligia, to compare how horrendous it was compared to The Final Product. But are there other reasons I'm missing?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Commas Are My Enemy

Dr. Crazy over at Reassigned Time has declared Passive Voice and Unnecessary Wordiness as her enemies in writing.

I'll play along... commas. Commas and all their wordy, run-on-sentence wordiness, are my enemies. Look! There they are again! I have been told that I never met a comma I didn't like. To which I reply, "Shut up, that's so really, really, really true."

I am trying to be less comma co-dependent. It is hard.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization in New York State working to establish a science and technology center and museum at Wardenclyffe, the last extant lab used by Nikola Tesla. The land is currently for sale.

In 1901, Tesla purchased 200 acres on Long Island's north shore from James Warden. These 200 acres were part of an 1,800 acre potato farm along what is today Route 25A in Shoreham, NY. The site became known as Wardenclyffe, after the former owner. Here, Tesla established what would become his only remaining laboratory building.

Tesla is a pretty compelling figure. It would be a shame for his last remaining lab to disappear. In addition to his many scientific achievements, Tesla has made quite an impression in popular culture. Perhaps it was his eccentric personality, his grand vision of where science was going (which many thought was outlandish, but some of which has or will soon come to pass), his path-crossing with Edison, his FBI file... whatever the reason, he's one of those people that need only be referred to by a single name. Seriously, hands up if you knew a) Tesla wasn't his first name and b) if you knew Nikola was, and c) how to spell Nikola without looking it up. I got 2/3, so there.

Some popular culture incarnations of Tesla:

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in the 2006 film, The Prestige. With Hugh Jackman. Bowie as Tesla = pretty amazing. The rest of the film was pretty good, too.

The first film Superman cartoon short, released in 1941, has Superman fighting a Mad Scientist who, with his death ray (which Tesla was working on) is set on destroying those who laughed at him. AC current makes a cameo appearance when the Mad Scientist turns up the juice! According to Wiki, the scientist is referred to as Tesla. I didn't catch the reference when I watched it, and it's not in the transcription, either. But, it sure does appear to be a caricature of Tesla, 2 years before he died, even.

He appears in a popular cartoon by Kate Beaton, who is rocking the world with her history cartoons. She can draw, she's articulate, and damn funny, too.

I'm sure there is something in all of this about preservation, public history, history of science, what's important, mass media, the relevance of history, why place is important, etc., but I am not articulating it particularly well. Still, there it is.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tips for Reading Like An Academic

I firmly believe that reading influences writing. Reading good writing can lead to better writing. So can reading bad writing, in the category of Stuff To Try To Avoid.

Reading as a writer is not necessarily the same as reading for pleasure, or reading through the 500 pages of material for this weeks' classes. But, tips for high-powered academic reading sure can be helpful when doing academic writing! (Signposts? These are new to me!)

I have tons more to post on writing, but I'm tired, so for tonight, just two links on academic reading.

First, is How to Read in College posted by Timothy Burke over at Easily Distracted. This is some really good, concise advice on power reading in academic settings. Skimming arguments, signposts (aha!), questions to ask while you read, picking out sequence in arguments, when to hit the dictionary (hint: it's not for every word you don't understand), and more importantly, when to hit the footnotes (I'm an inveterate footnote-reader. I love me some good footnotes. But sometimes, they're not so good; this post gives tips for sussing out the important ones). To top it all off, there is a section here on preparing for in-class discussion. Oh, and just go ahead and ditch your hi-lighter.

Next up, Reading (Law) Like A Graduate Student over at Feminist Law Professors. The first lesson here is about reconsidering stone-throwing in glass houses. The second lesson is don't just focus on what you don't like about someone elses' stuff. Critical reading isn't necessarily CRITICAL. Make the effort to consider and voice what you like about a particular work.

For example, I'm doing some reading now, where the author seems to be making an awfully big argument (i.e. a book) out of a very short, isolated document, with much speculation on interpersonal relationships and their role in the production of said document. Speculation, because the folks who wrote the document just don't turn up in the documentary record. With the caveat that I haven't finished the book yet, I do believe there is a big difference between spinning a yarn and historical narrative. I also believe that playing "what if" is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would help me, as a reader, run with you (the author) if there were more "what was" than "what if." All that said, this author is a hella good writer. I wish I could write so well. Engaging. Expansive. Like the author is having an actual conversation with me, without being chatty and informal. There is a lot here to learn about writing, despite my reservations about the content.

No, I'm not telling what book it is. Maybe when I'm done, and not popping off about something I haven't finished yet! Maybe I'll post book reviews... maybe I'll go get some shut-eye...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lessons for Girls

Following on Isis' Letters to Our Daughters Project (see previous post), Historiann is compiling a series of Lessons for Girls. Lessons for Girls is a collection of variously-authored blog entries that addresses lessons we're taught, and lessons we learn ourselves. And what it's like to implement those lessons in the real world. It's ok to be angry! You don't have to please everyone, all the time. You can Opt Out! Don't apologize! Etc.

The different voices in all of these pieces are remarkable. This is some good, soul-soothing, not-alone-out-there, Eureka-moment stuff.

I'm not filing this under memes. This is more than a meme.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Letters to our Daughters Project

I have to post something good, and life-affirming, and supportive. I have to do this even before I buckle down and submit final grades (what Registrar's Office on Earth requires grades to be submitted on a WEEKEND? At least one. Mine.).

The Letters to Our Daughters Project presented by Isis The Scientist is a series of letters written by successful women scientists (not all academics) to their daughters, and to those of us who are their intellectual daughters, just starting out and muddling our way through. Letters so far include embracing your inner bitch, non-traditional career paths, and getting taken seriously. Hats off to Isis and the contributors.

More about Johanna's Murder

Historiann has a post up about the murder discussing the shift in focus from the tragedy of Johanna's death to fixation on the murderer, and analyzing what's wrong with this picture.

I'm just pissed off about the whole thing; the rationalizations, the fact that she'll likely get dragged through the mud, and somehow he'll be "misguided" and she'll be at fault (you know, for not pressing charges in '07, or "dating" him in the first place), and the lawyers will make a fortune, and she's still dead.

Did you know in CT, if you're abused by someone who doesn't live in your house, is not a family member, and whom you haven't dated (by whatever definition they have of dating), you are NOT eligible for for a restraining order? Did you know in CT that victims of stalking are not eligible for restraining orders? Did you know that in CT, emotional and mental abuse doesn't (necessarily) rate as abuse worthy of a restraining order? Did you know that restraining orders are state-specific, and enforcement across state lines is not guaranteed?

Link to page on Restraining Orders.

I will say, this makes me less fearful and more angry. Which is a much more useful emotion.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fear and Damnation

More about the shooting at Wesleyan (damn, damn, damn):

From University Diaries, here.

From Feminist Law Professors, here (about harassment by her murderer 2 years ago).

From Tenured Radical, more info here as well as here, which also includes the prediction that "we find out through an attorney, or through a deranged group of documents, that this man "had" to kill Johanna because he "loved" her."

It is easy to feel safe when someone in particular is targeted for violence, when it isn't random. Don't fool yourselves; the "someone in particular" is very, very often a woman, and could be ANY of us. Somehow, it is safe when men kill/beat/maim their wives/girlfriends/daughters because domestic violence is separate violence. Talk about "separate spheres." TR is rightfully furious that "each of these things [is treated] like an isolated incident of individual pathology. " Historiann has posted about this also (see link in previous post).

I'm angry and scared. What makes someone snap and kill? One of Johanna's passions has been listed as women's issues, another as writing. Did these have anything to do with her murderer's calculus? Perhaps we will know more in time. I cannot let this threat of violence silence me.

Finally, in her response to those who would argue that more guns on campus = safety, TR spells it out: "And I just want to tell you in advance: you are completely and totally insane."

What she said.

Updated: He's turned himself in. For consistency, TR's post here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Just Damn.

A student at Wesleyan U., Johanna Justin-Jinich, has been shot and killed, in the bookstore, on campus.

Tenured Radical, an instructor at Wesleyan, has posted about the shooting, and what its like when it happens so close to home that it IS at home.

University Diaries also posted about the shooting. Also here.

Just horrible. And scary. Especially with recent discussions about permitting concealed-carry guns on campus (more here at Historiann). I feel helpless in the face of this. And very sad.