Thursday, August 1, 2013

I Love Buckles!

Fragment of buckle frame found in our unit
While doing archaeology, you never know what secrets the ground might hold. For instance, yesterday, while excavating our unit, my unit partner and I uncovered what appeared to be a rusty nail. When we are digging in the layers believed to be undisturbed, we pedestal around artifacts to leave them in situ until we map the unit. While mapping, we noticed that what appeared to be a rusty, slightly bent nail was something much more. The clinging dirt and small bits of corrosion were removed and an ornate fragment of some variety of buckle. The decoration includes a small heart motif with a "wrapped wire" molded design.
      Now, not knowing much about buckles, especially those from the 18th century and not the belt variety from the 1980s with unicorns on them, I decided to do some research. However, now I know more about them than I have ever dreamed, mainly because I've never dreamed about knowing about buckles.
                Most people consider buckles' only use to be to secure belts. But, between the 17th and 18th centuries, buckles had diverse roles. In addition to belts, buckles were used on shoes, breeches, harnesses, stocks (a men's garment that consisted of a piece of cloth wrapped around the neck and secured with a tie, or you guessed it, a buckle), girdles (a women's fancy belt worn with fancy dresses), hats, and with long boots (garter buckles), swords and spurs. They also had varying levels of decoration, frequently based on function but also socio-economic status. For instance, garter buckles are generally undecorated, while girdle buckles tend to be the fanciest. Shoe buckles, however, can be a simple rectangular frame, or a valuable, highly decorated gilded piece with intricate scrollwork. Shoe buckles are often an indicator of socio-economic status because of the high variation of ornamentation, though the presence or lack of an elaborate specimen alone cannot be the sole deciding factor.
Anatomy of a buckle (Image from White, 2005)
                In addition to function, buckles can vary greatly in material, from copper alloy, to iron, pewter, and gilded or plated metals. They may also have inlays, such as shell, ceramic, wood, precious or semi-precious stones, or "paste" stones. Paste stones are false gemstones, similar to rhinestones, made out of flint glass and high in lead content, and are often preferred for use in shoe buckles, due to inexpensive pricing as well as ease of setting into the buckle.
                Buckles can also be used diagnostically for dating purposes, especially shoe buckles. They generally were only in use between the late 1600s until the late 1700s and early 1800s. Also, styles changed greatly in that time as well, with larger, more ornamented shoe buckles being later than smaller, simpler ones. Decoration can also play an important role in dating a specimen.
      Diagnostically, certain aspects of a buckle can be used to determine its function. Size and decoration are important, but also aspects such as frame and chape (the interior part of a buckle, see diagram) design are key elements to consider. For instance, the frame of a shoe buckle will be more curved to fit the contours of the foot, whereas a knee buckle, used to keep breeches tightly fitted to above or below the knee, will be more flat. And, more visible buckles tend to be more highly decorated, at least if socio-economic status allows for it-- so shoe, knee, hat, and stock buckles are often those most highly ornate.
                Our fragment of a buckle frame seems to be from a shoe, based on its curvature as well as size. While the fragment is only about 40mm long, it appears to have had a height of around 45mm. The width is difficult to project, as not enough of the fragment remains. From colour, patina, and weight, it seems to be made of pewter, though closer analysis should be made. Interestingly, a nearly identical fragment was found at Fort Michilimackinac, and was made of brass. It's about the same length, except it broke off at a slightly higher point, and bears the same decoration. The heart motif was important in Jesuit designs, which could imply origins of this buckle.
               In summary, something as mundane as a fragment of a shoe buckle can tell us a lot about not only the particular area in which it was excavated, but also about how people lived at Fort St. Joseph. Even at a post in the wilds of Michigan, ornamentation and personal decoration seem to have still been important in everyday life. 
Fragment of buckle frame found at Fort Michilimackinac (Image from Stone, 1974)
Sources: Kerr, Ian B. (2012), "An Analysis of Personal Adornment at Fort St. Joseph (20BE23), An Eighteenth-Century French Trading Post in Southwest Michigan". Master's Thesis. Western Michigan University, Department of Anthropology.
Stone, Lyle M., (1974). Fort Michilimackinac 1715-1781: An Archaeological Perspective on the Revolutionary Frontier. Publications of the Museum, Michigan State University

White, Carolyn L., (2005). American Artifacts of Personal Adornment 1680-1820: A Guide to Identification and Interpretation. Altamira Press.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

From Germany with Love

The other day while excavating in our unit on the southern side, about forty-three centimeters down, we happened to unearth a piece of ceramic about the size of a dime with a dark blue glaze on one side. This type of ceramic is part of a stoneware vessel which was produced in the Rhine Valley and the German states and is commonly referred to as Westerwald Ware, named from the region it was produce and exported from.[1]
            Westerwald is a durable form of ceramic made from the local Rhenish clays which means that the ceramic itself varies from an off white to a gray and are found along the Rhine Valley and in the Westerwald region in the Southwest of modern day Germany. The characteristic blue glaze is made using cobalt, although purple was introduced by using manganese after 1665, and is the trademark for this sort of pottery. This style originated in the Low Countries in the 16th century until a large amount of the potters decided to migrate to the Westerwald region at the end of the 17th century where the practiced flourished.[2] These ceramics were then traded to France and Britain for use as jugs, tankards or chamber pots, with medallions on the British bound items with either “AR” for Queen Anne who reigned from 1702-14 or “GR” for both King George I and II who reigned from 1714-1760.[3]
A sherd found at the site yesterday
The ceramics were not slip molded like other ceramics of the period, but thrown on a wheel and then designs were molded, stamped or carved into the vessels.[4] Some vessels were found at other sites which have no indication of the “blauwerk” that is commonly seen, but are decorated in flowers and have been associated for being produced especially for the French trade.[5] In Jamestown, these artifacts have been recovered, but do not show up in large quantities until the 18th century.[6] Other examples have been found across Colonial America including sites such as Williamsburg, Virginia, along the Chesapeake Bay, into the fortresses of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia and Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Between 1959 and 1965, 73 shards of Westerwald ware were discovered at Fort Michilimackinac, during the period at which the British occupied the fort.[7]
The Rhineland with Europe
From what we can conclude about this one shard, and five others discovered at the site up to 2010, is that Fort St. Joseph was part of an extensive trade network. Pieces were formed and finished in the German States and then shipped to either Britain or France where it was then shipped to the New World. Though there are examples found at French occupied zones, they were more prevalent with the British, who did control Fort St. Joseph from 1761 to 1763.

[1]  J. Jefferson Miller and Lyle M. Stone, Eighteenth Century Ceramics from Fort Michilimackinac: A Study in Historical Archaeology (Washington: Smithsonian), 74.

[2] “Westerwald Stoneware,” Accessed July 31, 2013,
[3] “Rhenish Stoneware,” Accessed July 31, 2013,
[4] Westerwald”
[5] Miller and Stone, Ceramic, 76.
[6] “Westerwald”
[7] Miller and Stone, Ceramics, 76.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

At FSJ the Glass is Half Full

Today was a good day for us in Niles. We dug all day, worked with adult campers in the afternoon, and then enjoyed a wonderful dinner and tour hosted by William, Martha, and their friends at the beautiful Lavender Hill Farms. A lot of cool things are happening at the site, such as everyone finally digging deep enough to hopefully find features in our units as well as many interesting artifacts popping up. Feel free to come by on Friday at 2:00 pm to see our progress! There is also the weekly lecture series Wednesday night at 7:00 pm, this week titled “The Other 'Kitchen Debate': Changing Foodways Among the Michiana Potawotami in the Early-1800s” by Dr. Ben Secunda. And of course, the Open House on August 10th and 11th is drawing close, so mark your calendars!
Blue-green glass fragment from France. The glass was blown, as shown by the imperfections and bubbles in the glass.

Olive green glass fragment most likely from France. Window glass is even lighter than this.
For my blog today, I'll give you guys some background on the glass we're finding at the fort. The glass is from the eighteenth century and made in either England or France and then imported to Fort St. Joseph. Glass at this time was one of two types: soda and lead. Soda glass is typically French-made, consists of sand, limestone, and soda, and results in a light blue-green color and is used in many different objects. Lead glass, on the other hand, could be French or British depending on the shape, is made of sand, lead, and potash, and results in an olive green color. Both kinds of glass have been found at Fort St. Joseph, as well as other forts in New France such as Michilimackinac. I thought that clear glass would be the easiest to make, and colored glass would mean adding more minerals to get stuff like the green glass I've dug out of the ground, but it's actually the opposite. To get clear glass or other colors, you need to add a decolorant such as manganese dioxide. This was used to get bright clear glass, though it wasn't always perfect due to the limitations of technology at the time.
In the eighteenth century, glass was usually hand blown, no matter what object they were trying to make. Flat window glass and a small amount of table glass (such as drinking glasses or dining objects) have been found at Fort St. Joseph, but the most common kind of glass found has been container, storage, or bottle glass. Due to different techniques between the French and British, we can sometimes tell where an artifact was made, depending on what part of the bottle we've found. The neck, shoulder, lower base, and kick up (the indent at the base of the bottle) are the areas that can indicate the country of origin, but it is rare to find complete pieces like these in the archaeological record. Container glass we've found at Fort St. Joseph varies in color and size, implying that they had different types of bottles. Wine bottle fragments are common, and are typically olive green. We also find blue-green medicinal or condiment bottle fragments. Table glass is somewhat rare, though a few pieces have been found with etching. Window glass fragments are more common at the site, and are usually a very pale olive green color, almost clear.
What is most important about archaeology is not what artifacts we find, but the information and interpretations we make from them. So what does something as simple as glass tell us? Well, since we are seeing both French and British glass at Fort St. Joseph, it confirms both of their presence at the site. At Fort Michilimackinac, there is a higher quantity of British glass, due to the large population size of the British there, and because the British came to the Fort later than the French and so did not have their artifacts disturbed as much. Fort St. Joseph is different in that most of the glass found has been made and used by the French. This makes sense because while the British did spend a few years at the fort, it was almost always French occupied. So far this information doesn't tell us a whole lot about daily life, but when we compare the glass found at Fort St. Joseph to glass found at other New France forts, such as Michilimackinac, we can learn more. The glass found at Fort Michilimackinac includes containers for oil, liquor, snuff, and medicine, as well as tableware and window glass. At Fort St. Joseph, glass for liquor containers, wine bottles, and oil, medicinal, and many other containers of varying color have been found, as well as some tableware and a lot of window glass. I expected to find evidence that Fort St. Joseph had much less variety and general luxury goods than Fort Michilimackinac due to its relatively isolated location, but the artifacts found say otherwise. There has been a general variety of luxury objects at Fort St. Joseph, from decorative items to adornments to varieties of ceramics and glass. This shows us that even though Fort St. Joseph may have been slightly more rustic and out of the way than other forts, the people there still enjoyed status goods and personal effects. I guess life back then wouldn't have been so bad after all.


For more information about glass you can consult the sources I used:
Brown, Margaret Kimball. 1971. Glass From Fort Michilimackinac: A Classification for Eighteenth Century Glass. The Michigan Archaeologist 17: 3-4.

Hulse, Charles A. 1977. An Archaeological Evaluation of Fort St. Joseph: An Eighteenth Century Military Post and Settlement in Berrien County, Michigan. M.A. Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Jones, Olive and Catherine Sullivan. 1985. The Parks Canada Glass Glossary. Studies in Archaeology Architecture and History, National Historic Parks and Sites, Canadian Parks Service.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Time Detectives!

Dr. Michael Nassaney speaking with Dr. Monty Dobson.  A star is born!

       This past week was an exciting one in the field! On Friday, the students, staff and volunteers of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project got our fifteen minutes of fame.  A film crew from PBS came to the dig site to interview Dr. Nassaney on the Fort’s involvement in the fur trade and the Seven Years’ War.  The title of the documentary series is America from the Ground Up and will be airing in the spring of 2014 with four hour-long episodes.  This project is being headed by Dr. Monty Dobson, an archaeologist/historian/filmmaker and assistant professor at Central Michigan University.  Clearly Fort St. Joseph was an important part of America’s historical past!  For more information on this documentary and to watch part of the pilot episode for free, go to


                On Friday we ended our first week with campers.  We spent the week in the company of some awesome middle-schoolers who learned a lot from us and even taught us a few things in return.  Teaching these kids how to dig and identify artifacts really helps us remember how to be good archaeologists ourselves.  A few of them even had better eyes at finding artifacts than us!  They pulled out a lot of really interesting artifacts, including large beads and gun parts.

                This week we start working with life-long learner campers.  Anyone above the age of sixteen can get involved.  I think it will be fascinating to experience the difference between these campers and the middle-schoolers.  Our learning community is growing!

Me, looking intrinsically sweet with my trowel.

                Monday evening we had a discussion about how to remain excited about archaeology even when we are not finding hidden temples and lost civilizations.  Dr. Nassaney told us to think of ourselves as “time detectives” in the field.  We look for clues, like detectives, to give us a broader view of the big picture of what happened here at Fort St. Joseph or anywhere else.  Think of an incomplete puzzle of the Mona Lisa.  Even though pieces are missing, we can guess what the rest of the picture looks like based on the information we have.  That is exactly what archaeologists do.  We find pieces of the past, and try our best to assemble a fuller picture of our history.

              Make sure you come to part 3 of our lecture series titled “The Other ‘Kitchen Debate:’ Changing Foodways Among the Michiana Potawatomi in the early-1800s” by Dr. Ben Secunda of the University of Michigan and NAGPRA project manager this Wednesday July 31 at 7pm at the Niles District Library.