Primary Source/Item: Jacob Whittemore Archaeological Site
(Images courtesy of the Minute Man National Historical Park) Primary sources are the raw materials that historians use to reconstruct the past. Archaeological evidence, a special kind of primary source, is not only raw, but can also be dirty and wet. This is especially true for those who study life in eighteenth century New England, as much of the open farmland of that time has since become heavily overgrown, depositing thick layers of organic matter over the surface evidence of early generations of English settlers. Archaeologists and historians are able to reconstruct the past through the methodical process of excavation of sites, or ‘digs,’ and through strict observance of scientific methods. Excavations are necessary because natural processes have taken place over time that have changed the landscapes those past societies once inhabited. Archaeologists must dig for artifacts- objects manufactured, modified or used by humans, such as tools, domestic items, trash, and structures.
When we seek to learn about life in eighteenth century New England, we can turn to reams of public and private documents, as well as large collections of objects from the period, many of which are held in museums, libraries, and archives. Despite all of these primary sources, there are still questions about the past that only archaeological science can answer. How were the homes and outbuildings of rural homesteads laid out? What kinds of and how many household objects did ordinary people own? Archaeological evidence can help us gain a deeper understanding of the fabric of everyday life at specific places and times.
Archaeologists and historians who seek this kind of understanding cannot simply grab a shovel and dig. If they hope to learn through a dig, as much information as possible must be collected in advance, making careful planning vital. First, all available documentary evidence about the location to be studied is gathered. This entails finding and analyzing all primary source documents that relate to the site to be investigated, as well as relevant historical and archaeological studies. Through that study, researchers can pinpoint a site of past activity, such as a former farm or a tavern, where an excavation is likely to answer their questions.
In Lexington, Massachusetts, just within the bounds of the National Park Service’s Minute Man National Historical Park is a site known as the Jacob Whittemore property. The Park preserves the landscape in which much of the first battle of the Revolutionary War took place on April 19, 1775. Archaeological research has been conducted within the Park since its establishment in 1959, but in the mid- 1980s a large-scale and in-depth investigation * was launched to learn more about the lives of the people who lived along what is known today as the Battle Road. The National Park Service’s project team decided to excavate what was believed to have been a blacksmith’s workshop on the Whittemore property. (See image above, 2008)
* Findings from this investigation are the main source for this post, and were accessed through a document by Synenki, Alan T., et al., Archeological Investigations of Minute Man National Historical Park: Volume 1, Cultural Resources Management Study No. 22. Boston: National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1990.
Through comparing property deeds and tax records, historians had been able to establish that local oral tradition was correct in placing a smithy at the Whittemore site. However, it could not be determined whether a blacksmith was active there in 1775. Through deeds, tax records, probate inventories, and town records, we learn that Jacob Whittemore inherited a substantial farm of 114 acres when his father, Nathaniel, died in 1754. On the property were: a dwelling house (half of which was still used by Jacob’s widowed mother), a cornhouse, a barn, and a cider mill. In 1779, Jacob sold much of this property, with the exception of a blacksmith shop – this structure must have been added to the site after 1754, as the deed of sale is the first documentary mention we have of it. As Jacob himself was not a blacksmith, someone else must have operated the smithy on his premises, establishing it there in the years between 1754 and 1779. It may be that Jacob was able to rent the building to his neighbor, blacksmith Josiah Mansfield, who moved to the property across the street in 1772.
Despite the rich documentary evidence, it was still not clear whether a blacksmith’s shop was in operation on the Whittemore property in 1775. Besides the need to explore this question, an archaeological dig could deepen the project team’s knowledge of exactly how rural blacksmiths performed their trade around the time of the Revolution. The project team hoped that excavations at the Jacob Whittemore site could contribute to answering both questions.
In order to understand what the remains at the Whittemore site might mean, the archaeologists needed to conduct a carefully controlled Dig ! on the property. After walking over the site and determining that no remains of old structures could be detected on the surface of the soil, the archaeologists surveyed the area. They superimposed a grid over the site and excavated sample test pits at regular intervals across it. As hoped, the survey revealed that someone had put down cobblestones, as blacksmiths who shod horses often did to create a work area, and that someone had dumped the kind of trash that an eighteenth century smithy produced on another part of the site. Using the clues the survey had revealed, the archaeologists then selected 34 quadrants from the grid for the core excavation. They decided to dig in various places, both near the cobblestone surface and the debris dump. (See image below, 1985) Their methodical procedure did not disappoint them- these quadrants contained evidence of the smithy's wooden frame, its walls and windows, and its furnace for softening wrought iron bars for the shaping process, as well as a charcoal storage area. On this basis, the team was able to reconstruct many of the things that the blacksmith had done in and near his shop.
Of course, the archaeologists made other finds that they could learn from in addition to the site’s features. Scattered throughout the quadrants that were excavated were artifacts: small pieces of trash, old tools, metal scraps, ceramics, and glass that the smith had left behind. Artifacts found together, in other words in ‘association’ with one another, were clearly left behind as a result of a single kind of past activity that took place on that spot. For example, artifacts found inside the shop included ‘iron scale’ made when the smith shaved new metal objects smooth and ‘hot punches’ from putting holes in the soft metal of newly-made hinges. These activities were conducted by a blacksmith working at an iron anvil with a vice, so we know that the shop contained those tools of the trade. As indicated by a fill of stone rubble and a stone hearth, a sand-lined furnace was located at one end of the workshop. Little bits of charcoal found throughout the site revealed that, in the earliest days of its use, the furnace was heated with wood, not coal. It was heated to such high temperatures that some of the brick tiles that lined it had changed color. Slag, the impure waste material left over when metal ores are smelted into the pure metals, was also found. Because different types of metal are used to make different objects, the kind of slag found at a smith’s workshop can help us understand what he was making – at the Whittemore site, blue slag showed that the blacksmith was welding pieces of metal together. Perhaps he had a side-line in repairing customers’ broken metal objects. In indoor and outdoor trash areas, the archaeologists found pieces of ceramic and bones, things that were left behind when the blacksmith ate and drank in his workshop. Because historians know a great deal about when different kinds of ceramics were made and sold in the eighteenth century, they can date a site by looking at the ceramic shards found there.
Clearly, the smith at the Whittemore site was a busy person, not only working but also eating and drinking in his workshop. He made metal tools and utensils and at some later point started making horseshoes and shoeing horses. He also seems to have repaired people’s old things. Because his shop was located on a well-traveled overland route, he could diversify his offerings by shoeing the horses of travelers and perhaps repairing coaches that were passing through. Although a well-rounded picture of this smithy’s activities could be formed, the archaeologists were still not able to tell beyond a doubt whether the workshop was active in 1775. The kind of metalwork being done and the age of the ceramic remains found on site suggest that this is quite possible, but there is no conclusive proof.
Here's how this can be applied in the elementary classroom: Archaeology Activities
Here's how elementary school groups can discover more about Archaeology at the National Heritage Museum: Archaeology Program Description