In the years between 1974 and 1985, Professor Stephen Dyson of the Wesleyan University Classics Department led his Introduction to Archaeology classes in the excavation of upwards of 11 sites around Middletown. Most of these sites corresponded with properties in the region between Main Street and the Connecticut River; during the late 18th century, this area was chiefly inhabited by families associated with Middletown’s short-lived but very successful shipping industry.
Professor Dyson’s excavations were often conducted under severe time constraints. As he discusses in his articles on the subject, Dyson’s primary goal was to preserve the historical integrity of these sites as the structural integrity became increasingly compromised. Beginning with the construction of Route 9 across the river and culminating in an enthusiastic urban renewal effort in the 70s, buildings that had been left relatively untouched for decades were in danger of being torn down and forgotten. With the help of his students, and occasionally mere days before the scheduled destruction of the buildings, Professor Dyson collected and analyzed the remnants of the lives of Middletown’s historical families—paying particular attention to ceramic artifacts—in an effort to reconstruct and tell their stories.
Dyson stored his finds in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections and published two articles on his excavations; several of his students contributed papers on the subject as well. After finishing out his work at the university, however, Dyson’s finds lost their immediate relevance and were relegated to a place of honor in the Exley Penthouse—if by “Penthouse,” one means the chaotic storage facility on the seventh floor of the Exley Science Center, and by “place of honor,” one means dilapidated plastic bags crammed into chests of drawers, shoved in a corner, and forgotten.
And so, from a certain perspective, Professor Dyson’s worst nightmare came to pass: the artifacts lost both their historical integrity and, perhaps more importantly, their historical context. Beyond the limited information gleaned from non-standardized tags and labels in the artifact bags, it is extremely difficult to determine anything definitive about these finds, or the people whose lives they represent. And this story is not unique to Professor Dyson’s efforts; errors of judgment and disregard occur frequently in the business of artifact preservation, often resulting in the irretrievable loss of information pertaining to the finds. And just how useful can these objects be without their context?
In Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections, we are going to try to find out, because the story of Professor Dyson’s excavations does not end here. Beginning in the summer of 2015 and due to a reorganization of the Collections’ space in the Exley Science Center, Wesleyan students such as myself have been slowly and methodically going through the finds from Dyson’s excavations, reorganizing and cataloging them so as to be compatible with our current archiving system.
I joined the effort relatively late in the game, and I can’t begin to imagine how overwhelming this undertaking must have seemed at the outset. The process is relatively straightforward: Dyson’s finds are stored in plastic bags and housed in trays or boxes in the Collections’ storage spaces on the third and seventh floors of the Exley Science Center. Our job is to go through each bag individually, sort out particularly interesting (or particularly rusty) materials, repackage the finds in new bags, use the information on Dyson’s students’ tags to label the new bags coherently and consistently, then store the new bags in standardized boxes. By the end of the ordeal, all of Dyson’s finds will be housed in neatly labeled white boxes and recorded in our computer system in a standardized form.
Working on this project has been my first exposure both to Wesleyan’s collections, as well as to the fields of archaeology and artifact preservation in general. It has been an incredibly interesting experience because the artifacts that I work with every day have been, in a sense, doubly lost. As I spread them out in front of me, it is as if I am looking at them through two distorted lenses; the first is the lens through which Dyson and his students initially analyzed the objects upon their recovery from the sites, but the second is the result of years of neglect and gathering dust in the attic. It is difficult enough to reconstruct a story through that first lens; the second makes it nearly impossible.
Our efforts have not been entirely without success, however. Professor Dyson and his students provided some information on the families who lived on the properties, which, along with historical background on Middletown, has made it possible to make certain inferences regarding some objects—in other words, it makes for an entertaining guessing game. Dyson already noted in his articles that some of the families showed a preference for certain colors and types of ceramic-ware over others—plates with blue decorations versus plates with green decorations, as well as the somewhat rarer occurrence of “mocha-ware.”
It is also the case that some types of artifacts will always tell a clearer story than others. For example, an artifact bag containing no fewer than four multicolored marbles is pretty strong evidence of the remnants of a child’s old game. The same can be said for the beautiful bone die that I found in a different bag from the same site. Both the marbles and the die look as if they could have come out of a game box purchased yesterday.
Finds like the marbles, which paint such a clear picture of life in these houses over two centuries ago, tend to make the “interesting finds” cut and are moved to individually labeled bags in a special box for display and further examination. However, not all of the artifacts in the “interesting finds” box have such simple explanations. Some of my favorite finds are the ones that I instinctively believe to have had value, but offer no obvious explanation for their use.
One such artifact, which I find particularly interesting, is a circular object, about one centimeter in diameter, which has been carved in the shape of an owl’s head.
We initially believed this object to be a button, but the eyes of the owl don’t pierce all the way through from the obverse to the reverse side, and there is therefore no place to attached thread. It could be a pendant of some sort but, again, there is no visible place to attach a chain or string. We aren’t even sure what material the object is made of, but my own examination under a microscope as led me to believe it is made of some kind of stone. The only thing I can really say about this object with certainty is that I find it beautiful, which is nothing more than a subjective observation.
Another case of an interesting object with no obvious use is the mystery squares.
At least five of these have been found in the bags from two different sites. Each is about one square inch and each is stamped with the letter “B”. We have absolutely no idea what their use could have been, but they keep popping up so they must have been important. Right?
Working on Dyson’s collection has given me a unique perspective on the work of artifact preservation because it has forced me to ask myself repeatedly what “preservation” really means. We are certainly working hard to preserve the actual, physical objects; we are placing them in sturdier containers, separating out any metal objects whose rustiness might harm the other artifacts in the bags, removing anything fragile enough to require its own, separate container, and (my personal favorite) getting rid of any mold in the old bags.
But preserving an object—preserving anything, really—is just as much about preserving its soul as its body, and it remains unclear to me how successful we have been in that endeavor. It makes me wonder what future archaeologists will think when they discover modern archaeological collections such as the one located in Exley 301. How salvageable is the new context we have given to these artifacts? Will it be obvious that the proximity of these objects to one another is contrived, or will future archaeologists come up with some fantastical explanation for how ancient stone tools from a cave in Israel-Palestine, a motley assortment of animal bones from all over the world, and partially-reconstructed ceramic plates from Middletown, Connecticut all ended up in the same room?
Some of the story will always be irretrievable, and it can be difficult to accept that. But I’d like to think that the attention we have devoted to these objects, the time we have spent wiping pounds and pounds of dust off of glass shards, and the laughs we have shared while speculating on the history of these artifacts have imbued them with a second life, of sorts. Or maybe it’s a third.
“Middletown Site Summaries” compiled by Thea De Armond
“Material Culture, Social Structure, and Changing Cultural Values: The Ceramics of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Middletown, Connecticut” by Stephen L. Dyson, in Archaeology of Urban America: The Search for Pattern and Process
“Historical Archaeology in Middletown, Connecticut” by Stephen L. Dyson
“The Relationship Between Social History and Historical Archaeology: The Mercantile Community of Middletown, Connecticut” by Brenda Ellen Gray
Posted by Sophia Shoulson ’18