Friday, July 16, 2010

Visiting a Bone Detective

If you recall, we worked on a cemetery up in Aberdeen a few months back and recovered some remains. As part of the project, the remains were being sent to Dr. Doug Owsley at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

(image from

Doug Owsley is the forensic anthropologist at the museum. In his work he has been called in to help with some of the country’s most notorious crime scenes and tragedies—Branch Davidians, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Pentagon after 9/11. At Jamestown, VA, and St. Mary’s City, Md, Doug has been working to uncover the lost stories of the men and women who settled in these early colonial outposts. His exhibit, "Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake" details some of this work.

On Wednesday, the GAC crew visited the museum to transfer the remains found at the cemetery in Aberdeen to Dr. Owsley and were treated to a tour of the facilities of the Anthropology Department.

Our tour started with Dr. Owsley's assistant, Kari Bruwelheide, showing us some of the forensic files they are working on and explaining some of the tools and procedures used in identifying human remains as well as how they ended up in their laboratory.

On our way into the museum we ran into one of our volunteers, Phil Angle. What a surprise! For those who don't know, Phil worked at the museum for over 30 years in the Division of Birds. After our visit with Kari, Phil took us on a tour of the bird collection. There we were introduced to some of the museum's finest bird specimens including a very large ostrich, ivory bill woodpeckers, emperor penquins, birds of paradise and many others!

Once we were done there, Dr. Owsley took us further into the depths of the museum to the mummy room! I must say, this was my favorite part of our tour. There we got a first hand, up close and personal look at a few Egyptian and Peruvian mummies along with some shrunken heads from South America.

We also got a look at some cast-iron coffins which weigh in at around 300 pounds when they are empty! Jim had mentioned these to us when we were excavating the cemetery and we were all relieved that we didn't encounter them!

After we were done with the behind the scenes tour Doug took us through the Written in Bone exhibit and pointed out some of his favorite parts and then left us on our own to explore it.

Written in Bone examines history through 17th-century bone biographies, including those of colonists teetering on the edge of survival at Jamestown, Virginia, and those living in the wealthy and well-established settlement of St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Some of the highlights include sections on bone disease, a forensic anthropology lab, facial reconstruction, medical instruments of the 17th century, lead coffins, forensic cases, and lots and lots of bones! The exhibit runs through January 6, 2013 at the Museum of Natural History and is an absolute must see for everyone!

It was a great opportunity for all of us and we all had a great time. A big thank you goes out to our hosts, Doug Owsley, Kari Bruwelheide, and Phil Angle!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Burch House Update!

Hi all!

So as not to make this rainy day more dreary, I thought it best to avoid doing another post on coffin hardware immediately-we'll save that for a sunny day! Instead, seeing as we are supposed to be in the field tomorrow (if the rain lets up!) I wanted to give you all an update on our Burch House activities.

The weather has not been super cooperative over the past couple of weeks, so a great deal of our Burch House work has been in the lab. We finished washing and cataloging the artifacts we have excavated so far, and Anne has made great headway on drafting some of the unit profiles to help us get a better grasp of what is going on with the stratigraphy. Pete has been super helpful keeping our paperwork in order and restocking our supplies.

While my attention has been turned to other projects this week, during the last few days in the field Elsie and I have been a post hole/mold digging duo! The crew has identified at least two post molds and a possible third, and all of them require careful excavation and mapping. Elsie is getting to be quite used to the procedure, even when it comes to holding a plumb bob to aid in mapping a mold that is 3 ft below grade!

These molds are quite an exciting find as they suggest there was an earlier earthfast structure on this site-possibly dating to the 18th century. We have not been disappointed in the artifact department either, as each shovelful of soil seems to contain a few sherds of Rhenish Stoneware, White Salt-Glazed Stoneware, and Tin-Glazed Earthenware-just what we expect to find when dealing with 18th century material. We cannot say for definite what type of structure this was, but it sure is exciting!

One of the artifacts excavated from one of the post molds is this Westerwald Stoneware stein handle with Manganese coloring. The handle has three holes in it-can you figure out why? One of my guesses was that they helped to hold a lid in place. These lids were not for decorative purposes, but for sanitary reasons, like keeping pesky insects out of your brew!

I hope to see some of you folks in the field tomorrow-let's hope the sun shows its face to dry out those units a bit! For now we do not plan to have a lab on Saturday, so tomorrow may be it for volunteer work this week!


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bring out your dead!!

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, American mortuary practices developed a popular cultural trend called the "beautification of death." Mass-produced coffin hardware have appeared in archaeological contexts throughout North America. Types of hardware range from glass viewing plates, decorative handles, screw caps, escutcheons, etc. A few months back, assisted by the Northern Chesapeake Chapter of ASM, we excavated the Cole Cemetery near Aberdeen, MD.

Over the next few weeks we will discuss some of the different types of coffin hardware found at the Cole cemetery. Today we will cover coffin and casket handles.

There are three basic types of handles: bail handles, drop handles, and bar handles. All can be either single or double lug.

The handles found at the Cole cemetery are all double lug swing bail handles, meaning they had two attachments to the coffin.

Bail handles are open loops that hang freely between two fixed mounts. Drop handles have oval or circular grips with one central bracket secured to the coffin (single lug). The bar handle comes in two styles, the short and extended bar. Short bars have only two brackets through which a bar is fixed. An extended bar handle can run the length of the coffin and often have several brackets.

The handles recovered from the Cole cemetery are double lug swing bail handles. Of course, once we find a 19th century catalog of coffin hardware we might come up with another name for them.

Stay tuned for more mortuary hardware blogs soon!

- Peter

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Magical, Mystical, Miracle Moisturizer

Recently Pete blogged on a nice, almost complete spouted crock we mended. We've also mended several glass vessels. One such was this molded case bottle.

It once contained Phalon's Paphian Lotion for the Skin. An advertisement for the concoction appeared in 'The Plough, the Loom, and the Anvil,' a New York publication from 1855. It was made by Edward Phalon from New York and sold for a dollar. This "Infallible...Preservative of the Skin and Complexion" cured "Freckles, Tan, Pimples, Chapped Hands, Lips, and Face, Blotches, Sun Burn, Scalds, Burns, etc., and all Diseases appertaining to the Skin."
I wonder which poor soul at Port Tobacco needed this miracle cream...

Read the original ad here.
A harsh critique of the product and its manufacturer can be found here.
Google search the word's "Phalon's paphian lotion" to read more.

Field Work: We will not be out at Port Tobacco on Tuesday as the forecast calls for rain.