Where the Bones Are

Documentary accounts of the historic past seldom capture the flavor of daily life hundreds of years ago. But broken pipestems, clay marbles, and...

Documentary accounts of the historic past seldom capture the flavor of daily life hundreds of years ago. But broken pipestems, clay marbles, and chicken bones--mute castoffs--can say quite a lot about this aspect of a culture when interpreted by a thoughtful archaeologist. Last spring, lecturer John Gerry, Ph.D. '93, gave students in his historical archaeology class the chance to learn how as they dug the detritus of two and a half centuries of Harvard life at a small plot by the back door of Wadsworth House. The timber-framed structure, built in 1726 and filled today with University Library and Harvard Alumni Association offices, originally housed Harvard's president and his family on the second and third floors; public functions of the College took place on the first. Throughout the eighteenth century, Gerry says, trash was often just thrown out the back door. His class found lots of broken glass, ceramics, and pipestems (top), including one with the bowl attached and the maker's mark still visible. Clay pipes are useful for dating a site because the bore diameter of the stems narrowed through time at a fairly uniform rate. Those from behind Wadsworth date to the mid eighteenth century, says Gerry. (Note the pipe smokers in the 1863 view of Wadsworth House, below.) Mostly, the class's soil-sifting yielded artifacts that reflected the building's administrative function. The key (left) belongs to a group of personal artifacts. The excavations, funded by vice president for administration Sally Zeckhauser, preceded a long-planned summer renovation that included stripping (left), repainting, repointing, reroofing (with wood shingles, far left), and the addition of a handicapped-accessible toilet to the first floor. A shallow notch at the rear of the building was walled and roofed in by permission of the Cambridge Historical Commission to capture space lost to the expanded bathroom.

Meanwhile, summer upgrades at Holden Chapel, where formerly there had been no toilets or running water, unearthed the unexpected: human bones. With the building's floor removed (right), a backhoe working in the basement exposed a shallow, round feature of mortared brick containing hundreds of artifacts: a skull (right), found packed with glass, and other human remains, such as a foot that had been deposited, skin and all. The presence of arsenic, an early embalming agent, required the use of special clothing and breathing apparatus (above, center). Quick inquiry into the building's history revealed that it had once served as the medical school, and later, at the time the murderous Dr. Webster was the medical lecturer, as a site for teaching anatomy to undergraduates. A number of the glass and ceramic objects retrieved from the site, most circa 1850, were later identified as having specific uses. The broken, footed glass (below) was meant to hold medicinal leeches, and the lidded jar would have held a specimen, says associate professor of anthropology Carole Mandryk, who was called in to identify the new-found bones.

"We've now excavated sites of different functions--residential, administrative, and academic--all over campus, from all three centuries," says Gerry, referring to digs that have taken place since 1979. "Holden is the first purely academic find."

After the dust had cleared, the seismic upgrades, acoustical improvements, and super-quiet heating, ventilat-
ing, and cooling systems called for by Perry and Radford, Architects were completed. And then the student choral groups who use the building sang for joy.

 

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