Monday, December 9, 2013

Holiday Spirit on Elfreth’s Alley

Festive Decorations on the Alley!
Elfreth’s Alley’s annual holiday event, Deck the Alley, was a great success this past weekend.  Despite the crisp weather, visitors came out in droves to check out the houses and celebrate the holidays.  The night was complete with carolers, homemade ginger bread men, and hot apple cider!  I had a chance to speak with a lot of visitors about the archaeology that has been at 124 and 126 Elfreth’s Alley.  It was a great event and fun was had by all. Thanks to all who came out to support the Alley! 

Visitors behind the Museum of Elfreth's Alley
Carolers on the Alley
Discussing Archaeology on the Alley

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Deck the Alley

Elfreth’s Alley’s annual event Deck the Alley is slated to take place on December 7th from 3 – 7pm.  Each year the private residents of Alley kindly open up the first floor of their homes for visitors to explore.  Other activities include story telling, refreshments, and book signings.  Like past years, I will be on hand to discuss the archaeological investigations completed at the Alley. This a really fun event with lots of holiday cheer.  For more information about the event and to buy tickets check out the Ticket Leap Even Page. 

Story Telling at Deck the Alley, 2012

Closing Up the Site

A few weekends ago, we finished exploration of Unit 14. After excavation to sterile soil, we spent the rest of the day documenting the unit prior to backfilling the area. We took closing measurements, photographed each wall, and drew profiles to record the layering of soils. After the paperwork was in order, we got to work backfilling. A big thank you to Katie and Dick for all their help and hard work backfilling! 

Excavation of Unit 14 In-Progress

Backfilling In-Progress (Katie & Dick working hard)

Backfilling Complete!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology Annual Conference

The annual conference for the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology (CNEHA) will be held in Newark, Delaware this weekend (Nov. 8 -10).  It is always a great conference with lots of interesting and informative papers about archaeology being conducted throughout the region. The conference  is also a great opportunity to meet and mingle with other archaeologists involved in research in the northeast.  Online registration is closed, but if you are interested in attending, you can register on site.  More details about registration and cost is available on the CNEHA website.

I am co-chair of a paper session dedicated to the great archaeology being conducted by Temple University graduate students.   Our session is from 8:30am-12pm on Saturday, November 9th.   I will also be presenting the first paper of the session at 8:30am.  My paper is entitled “Memory, Meaning, and Urban Archaeology at Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia."  A full schedule of conference papers is available here

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Fun Visit!

This past Sunday I had a visit from a great group, the Special Needs Scout Troop 364 from Belleville, NJ!  They stopped by Elfreth’s Alley in the morning, and I gave them a tour of the street and an overview of the archaeological investigations on the Alley.  We discussed a few of the basics of archaeology from stratigraphy to screening, and I showed them a bunch of the artifacts recovered this past field season.  They were a fun bunch and asked great questions such as whether the cobblestones along the alley were original (they are not!) and what the fire marks on the homes stood for (different fire insurance companies).  It was a pleasure talking to such a wonderful group! 

Special Needs Scout Troop 364

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Update - 16 October 2013

Over the past two weekends, returning volunteers have come out to the Alley to help finish up excavation. Specifically, we have been working on completing two test areas: unit 14 and shovel test pit 3. 

Working on Unit 14 and STP 3

Volunteers screening

As mentioned in the last update, Unit 14 has produced a large number of historic artifacts. A wide range of ceramics has been recovered in recently excavated layers. Most of the ceramics continue to be small fragments and many date to the 18th century including pieces of whieldon ware, manganese mottled ware, tin-glazed earthenware, and Staffordshire slipware.

Fragments of ceramics recovered from Unit 14

A lot of straight pins were recovered during earlier excavations of Unit 14, but the levels we excavated at the end of the weekend had significantly fewer straight pins. While the number of straight pins decreased, the number of pipe stem and bowl fragments increase considerably. Very few pipe fragments were noted up until this point.

In addition to the numerous historic artifacts found, an artifact of prehistoric origins was recovered last Saturday: a broken biface was unearthed identified in a historic layer. Biface is a term used to denote a stone tool that was worked on both sides. This biface was made of Pennsylvania Jasper. As a previous post explained, the land surrounding Elfreth’s Alley would have been a prime location for Native Americans to inhabit. 

Katie holding Jasper biface she found

Japser biface

We are now approximately 2.5 feet below ground surface, and the artifact density has decreased. It appears we are nearing the end of the historic fill. 

Shovel test pit 3 (STP 3) was located just south of the small garden wall behind 124 Elfreth’s Alley.

Matt working on STP 3

The soil in the test pit was very mixed and included several different colors and textures. Shortly after beginning excavation, a brick wall was unearthed in the eastern section of the shovel test pit. The bricks continued for four courses until a stone foundation wall appeared below the bricks. A cast iron pipe was also uncovered in the center of the shovel test pit. 

Brick wall visible in profile of STP 3

These finds were not unexpected; in 2011 and 2012 we unearthed portions of the same wall (Wall #1) and pipe under the brick patio. When we initially found the stone foundation wall, we hypothesized that a narrower brick wall may have once sat atop the stone foundations, but no evidence of these bricks were recovered in previous excavations. STP 3 confirmed our hypothesis. Also it appears the terminus of wall #1 is in the center of STP 3. This roughly aligns with lot dimensions shown on historic maps, indicating that the wall conforms to historic lots lines. Expanding excavation of the shovel test pit would reveal whether the wall turns at this terminus, in other words whether this is the corner of a former building. Very few artifacts were recovered from STP 3. Excavation of the pit was terminated became too difficult to excavate due to the pipe. 

A bit more excavation needs to be completed, then we will back fill Unit 14 and the courtyard will once again transform into a roaming ground for tourists.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pennsylvania Archaeology Month

October is Pennsylvania Archaeology Month!  There are lots of really neat events to celebrate archaeology throughout the state.  A few of the activities are described at the bottom of most recent post on the This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology blog, written by The State Museum of Pennsylvania/Pennsylvania Historical and Museum.  Two notable events coming up specifically in Philadelphia are:

Dialogues with the Past: Celebrating Temple Archaeology!

107 Gladfelter Hall, Temple University 
October 24th from 5-:8:45pm

Temple University’s Anthropology Research and Learning Center is hosting a symposium highlighting the archaeological research being conducted by Temple Students and Faculty.  Six graduate students, including myself, and five faculty and staff will be discussing a wide range of topics from the origins of New World agriculture in Columbia to evidence of a unknown brigade encampment at Valley Forge.  After the presentations, guests will be invited to view artifact on display in the
Anthropology Research and Learning CenterI am slotted to present on my work at Elfreth’s Alley from 5:55 - 6:05pm.   As soon as the complete schedule is available, I will post the information here. 

Explore Philadelphia’s Buried Past 2013 

National Constitution Center, Kirby Auditorium 
October 26th from 10a-3:30p 

This archaeology month event includes diverse talks about archaeology completed in the Philadelphia area.  The event is hosted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum and the National Parks Service. More information about the event and a program of talks is available here.

Both events are free and open to the public!  Hope to see you there!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Much Overdue Update!

The end of summer and the beginning of fall have been very busy! With the start of Temple University’s semester at the end of August, public excavation came to and end. However, due to all the rain cancellations this summer, the dig timeline was delayed and not all testing concluded. Consequently, a bit more excavation needs to be completed before the site can be officially closed. As digging is finalized, returning volunteers will be invited back to help wrap up the excavation. 

If you recall from the last post, we left off finishing up the shovel test pits in the back lot behind 124 and 126 Elfreth’s Alley. During the last public dig days in August, we opened up a 5 foot by 5 foot excavation unit in the vicinity of shovel test pit 10 which is located approximately 10 feet south of the brick patio behind the row houses. During shovel testing, this area yielded a wide array of historic artifacts and contained layers of historic fill. Shovel test pit 10 was excavated to a depth of approximately 2.5 feet below ground surface, but historic deposits appeared to be continuing deeper.

An excavation unit, Unit 14, was placed in this location to further test the historic matrix. Excavation of the test unit has revealed further evidence of layers of historic fill spanning both the 18th and 19th centuries as well as two historic post features. 

Unit 14 after heavy rain
post mold feature

Several buttons were found in the initial fill deposits, including the civil war button with an eagle featured on it pictured below (unearthed and accurately identified by a faithful volunteer!) along with other bone, metal, and shell buttons. 

Civil War Button

Additionally, a large number of straight pins have been recovered from the throughout the unit. Although the pins have yet to be processed and counted, the current estimate is close to a hundred straight pins! 

As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter the excavation site will be closed for the season. Artifact processing in Temple University’s Anthropology lab will be staring soon! Returning and new volunteers are invited to assist with artifact cleaning. If you are interested in helping with processing feel free to contact Deirdre at and check back soon for details about dates and times!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

August Dig Days

Two more public archaeology excavation days have been added to the calendar!  We will be out next Saturday, August 3rd and Sunday, August 4th.  If you would like to volunteer with the project, check out the Volunteer Opportunities Section for details on how to sign up. 

Philadelphia's Day of Archaeology

Friday, July 26th was the "Day of Archaeology 2013," a international initiative to spread the word about what archaeologists really do.  The Philadelphia Archaeology Forum (PAF) compiled several submissions from archaeologists in the Philly region detailing what a typical day looks like for an archaeologist.  Check out what Philly archaeologist are up to here!

I participated in the Day of Archaeology and submitted a brief paragraph describing the research I did on Elfreth's Alley that day.  My Day of Archaeology write-up is available on the PAF's website here and the Day of Archaeology website here

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Update - 25 July 2013

We just about wrapped up the shovel test pits (STPs) in the back portion of the lots of 124 and 126 Elfreth’s Alley last week. Excavating STPs has allowed us to quickly and efficiently assess the integrity and type of the deposits in the back area. While the STPs in the south portion of the lots were largely filled with brick rubble and modern fill, one STP to the north, closer to the houses, had intact historic deposits. Based on the results of the STPs, we will open a 5 feet x 5 feet exaction unit to further explore the historic layers.

The heat was brutal last week! To get a little relief from digging in the excessive temperatures and humidity, we set up artifact cleaning in the shaded patio behind the museum. 

Artifact cleaning in progress

Artifact cleaning in progress

Artifact cleaning in progress

The site has gotten a lot of great press this summer! From radio to print, it has been fun to see how all the stories come together. A few of the stories have also been picked up by other news outlets like HiddenCity and Curbed which is very exciting! Last Thursday we had another press visit, this time from Hadas Kuznits of KWY news radio. Kuznits stopped by around lunchtime to visit site. Check out the audio from her interview about the dig here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Philadelphia Inquirer News Story

Yesterday staff writer Summer Ballentine and staff photographer Michael Bryant from the The Philadelphia Inquirer visited the site to check out the dig.  It was a lot of fun talking to everyone and sharing what we have been finding!  Check out the story and great pictures here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Update - 16 July 2013

We finally have a brief reprieve from all the rain this summer, but now we have a heat wave! Despite the tough Philly weather, all the volunteers have been very dedicated.

Volunteer Philippe gets a little artistic with the photo board

Over the past week, we have excavated up a few more shovel test pits (STPs) in the back of 124 and 126 Elfreth’s Alley. We have encountered a number of finds in the STPs including:

A large state stone and metal wire obstructing excavation of one STP. 

Potential remnants of a brick wall in another STP. 
Photo Credit: Jill Saull
 And a whole bunch of small historic artifacts. 
Photo Credit: Jill Saull

One neat historic artifact recovered is this stamped brick:

Today we potentially found the oldest artifacts uncovered at Elfreth’s Alley; we recovered a chert cobble and flake that could be Native American artifacts (SEE NEW UPDATED BELOW). Cobbles and flake are indicators of stone tool production. The items were unearthed in a historic soil layer preliminary dated to the mid-nineteenth century. While the artifact was not recovered from intact Native American deposits, the item does tell us about land use on the properties. The geographic location of Elfreth’s Alley on a terrace close to the Delaware River would have been an ideal location for Native Americans. 

UPDATE: After consulting with colleagues, the large stone artifact is more likely a piece of historic British flint that has been worked. This type of cryptocrystalline rock material was commonly used as ship ballast to provide stabilization in the hulls of vessels making the voyage from Great Britain to America. Elfreth’s Alleys location adjacent to the Delaware River makes it a prime location for artifacts associated with Philadelphia’s status as a port city. As indicated in the earlier post, this artifact was recovered from a historic stratigraphic layer. This context along with the evidence of the material type being of English origin, make indicate that this artifact is indeed a piece of worked English flint rather than an Native American artifact.

Chert cobble & flake

Monday, July 15, 2013

WHYY Radio Story

Peter Crimmins from WHYY-FM visited the site on Friday, and the station aired a short story about the dig this evening! Listen out the audio from the full show here. The story about Elfreth’s Alley archaeology is towards the end of the program (about ¾ of the way through the audio clip). A short write-up of the interview is also available on their website.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Update - 4 July 2013

Elfreth's Alley, 2012

Happy Independence Day! Elfreth’s Alley’s history actually extends back to a time before the birth of the nation. The small street was formed early in the 1700s, and it was a witness to the American Revolution over 70 years later. Today the Alley is a poignant symbol of American history.


We are a few weeks into our summer excavation and things have been slow but steady! The Philly weather has been very rainy so we had to cancel a few dig days, which has set us back a bit, but we have still been making progress. Thanks to all the awesome volunteers how helped out in Temple University’s Anthropology Laboratory when the rain thwarted our digging plans. With the help of volunteers we relabled several bags of artifacts from the 2012 excavation season with the site number and appropriate catalog numbers.

Volunteers working in the Anthropology Lab

Despite the soggy conditions, we did manage to get in a few days of digging. At the end of June we focused on continuing excavation of Unit 13.
Volunteers working in Unit 13
 This past week we switched gears a little bit and started excavating shovel test pits in the back portion of the lot behind 124 and 126 Elfreth’s Alley.

Back portion of the property

Today the Elfreth’s Alley Association owns the property that extends to the south of the small garden wall; however, based on historic maps, the current property did not always extend that far back. Instead that back area comprised a separate lot and had an independent land deed. (This portion of the property was not associated with the current property on maps until after 1922.) The back area is not directly accessible from the street and does not appear to have been accessible in historic times either. It is still unclear how this land was utilized in the past and historical research on this area is ongoing. A late nineteenth century maps show a wooden structure on the property, but no indication is made of the function of the structure.
Volunteer working on STP

This past Monday and Tuesday we extended our excavation grid into this back area and started excavation of shovel test pits (STPs). The first STP (30S, 5E) we explored had very clear delineations between the soil levels. The ground surface was covered with reddish and gray gravel fill overlaying black plastic sheeting. This gravel appears to have been laid down in the 1980s for landscaping purposes. The gravel is followed by three other stats that are very sandy and loose with a lot of cultural material in them. Historic artifacts recovered include bottle glass, shell, redware, window glass, brick fragments, and nails. Digging was obstructed at a depth of approximately 1.4 feet below the ground surface due to the number of brick inclusions and a metal object in the north portion of the STP. Much of the material recovered was architectural in nature including a large quantity of brick indicating that perhaps there was also a brick structure on this property at one point.

STP (30S, 5E)

Over the next few weeks we will continue exploration of the STPs in the back area. Stay tuned for more updates!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

First Week of Excavation!

Foundation Walls present in top and right of picture
The 2013 field season at Elfreth's Alley started this week!  Over the weekend we dismantled a portion of the brick patio in the courtyard behind the Museum of Elfreth's Alley; no small feat given the concrete mortar holding the bricks together.  After pulling up the bricks, we prepped the area for excavation.  So far we have opened up one new unit, unit 13, behind 126 Elfreth's Alley.  We have already located several foundation walls in the unit associated with the former structures that stood in this location.  A quick review of the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) map of Elfreth's Alley from 1931 shows the footprint of the structures.  Unit 13 is placed with in the interior of the last structure depicted behind 126 Elfreth's Alley.  Excavation will help illuminate the function of this structure.

Volunteer excavating Unit 13
We got rained out today, but will be back out digging next week!  

Fete Day in Review

The annual Fete Day celebration at Elfreth's Alley was last Saturday.  The day was replete with colonial artisans and colonial eats!  

Artisan Spinner working the the Alley

Michele Schutte, Museum Curator, also gave a demonstration on traditional colonial garb.  

Michele explaining how to wear colonial attire

We also had a small archaeology display and spoke with visitors about the ongoing excavations throughout the day.  
Archaeology Display

Overall, it was a great event and a beautiful day for a stroll down the Alley!