Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

The Darkness of the Cellar Hole

John Bedell

Now that the articles based on the archaeology I did in Delaware over the past five years have been accepted by respectable journals, I can confess to nagging doubts about everything I said. In the employ of the Delaware Department of Transportation-- which has, by the way, the best archaeological program of any agency I've ever worked for-- we dug four colonial farms, all of them very interesting sites, and I also arranged to write a sort of summary volume on all the colonial archaeology that has been done in Delaware. I have used this data to write about a couple of theoretical topics, and I suspect some of my results will work their way into the debates of my profession over the next decade or so.

colonial cellar hole after excavationThe thing is, most of the artifacts from all of these sites came from cellar holes. Which is not unusual-- most of the artifacts on at least half the historic sites I have ever worked on came from cellar holes. And on most of these sites, the cellar hole was not filled in until after the site had been abandoned. Where, exactly, did the artifacts in the cellar come from? I have assumed in all my work, as everybody else seems to assume, that they once belonged to the people who lived in the house, but I can't for the life of me think of any reason why that has to be so.

Most cellar holes have something like the same sequence of layers. On top is a layer of topsoil that has blown, washed, or been plowed into the hole since it was left open.  Beneath that is a layer of rubble. Brick and building stone were expensive, and after a house was abandoned or destroyed somebody usually went and salvaged the usable brick or stone.  The broken, useless pieces were tossed into the open cellar. Beneath the rubble is whatever was in the cellar when the house was torn down. Most of the artifacts usually come, though, not from underneath the rubble but from within it. Mixed with the bricks are often thousands of artifacts:  pottery, glass, animal bones, buttons, tools, a brass candlestick, a gun lock, just about anything that could end up in the trash of a farm family. Not only do these artifacts come from a deposit that can't possibly have been put down until after the house had been destroyed and the site abandoned, but they are usually all redeposited, which means that they seem to have been dumped somewhere else first and then moved to the cellar later.  It is these wandering artifacts that are the core of much archaeological interpretation, including the interpretation of the four sites I dug in Delaware. 

On one of my sites, the McKean/Cochran Farm (ca. 1750-1820), there were actually two cellars.  When the first house was abandoned, a new one was built about 50 yards away; and when that one was torn down a third house was built just over the hill.  So in that case I feel pretty confident that all of the trash from those two cellars came from the families that owned the farm.  But what about a site that has been completely abandoned?  Why couldn't the person who salvaged the bricks have carted a few loads of trash in the opposite direction, cleaning out his farm yard while he gathered bricks for that new kitchen?  One of the other sites that has been dug in Delaware, the Charles Robinson Site (ca. 1760-1780) is only two miles or so from the town of Odessa, and the cellar hole on that site produced such an incredible assortment of stuff, including pieces of 53 different teapots, that I have trouble believing they all came from one household.

My troubles with cellar holes are my biggest worry, but I have similar doubts about many of the other artifacts I deal with.  Where did they come from?  How did they get where I found them?  What subset of the total trash thrown away on a site do they represent, and is that subset different on every site?  If it is, how can we compare what we find on different sites?  What is the relationship between the trash thrown out and the things in the house?  Archaeologists sometimes write about the average life span of a teapot or the total amount of trash a household should generate, but we really understand very little of such things, and rarely do excavators know enough about the households they are studying or the length of time those people lived on a site to properly compare what they find in the ground with what they might expect.  Nor, most of the time, do they dig the entire site anyway.  So we find a few artifacts, or a few thousand, and without knowing what they really are, or whose they were, or how they got to be where we found them, we try to reconstruct a whole vanished world.

Sometimes, when I'm digging or writing, I feel like I actually know something about the past, but mostly I feel like I'm just measuring shadows, or trying to reconstruct a beautiful and complicated dance from a few partial footprints in the dust.


From the 
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"The struggle of man against power is the
struggle of memory against forgetting."

--Milan Kundera


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