Historical Archaeology Collections

Introduction to Historical Archaeology

Although the majority of the archaeological collection housed at Luther is comprised of prehistoric Native American artifacts, the college also possesses historical artifacts from several sites across Iowa. These sites include Terrace Hill in Des Moines and the Seth Richards site in southeastern Iowa.

Historical archaeology in North America begins with European contact, spanning from the first written accounts of European explorers and continuing on into the early 20th century. It is unique from prehistoric archaeology in that there are additional forms of evidence, most often written or printed materials, available to researchers. These can include diaries, court documents, or perhaps even first-hand accounts by people who experienced the history of a site. Such documents can assist archaeologists in locating sites, understanding what artifacts they have excavated, and give them a clearer pictures of who lived on or utilized a site. These records may corroborate data recovered at a site or it could potentially contradict the archeological record, forcing archaeologists to reevaluate both forms of evidence. Like prehistoric archaeology, historical archaeological sites have a wide range of variation ranging from humble frontier houses to large Victorian mansions, from early industrial sites to shipwrecks.

The artifacts found at the sites also display a wide range of variation. Some of the most common artifacts from European inhabitation are historic ceramics and glass. Although both of these objects are relatively fragile, they remain in the ground for centuries without decomposing like bone or wood. They are also incredibly helpful due to their stylistic and technological changes over the years, allowing historical archaeologists to date sites based on the type of ceramic or glass excavated.

Historic Ceramics

If a particular site exists within the historic period but lacks associated historical documents and accounts, historic ceramics are one of the primary methods of dating a historical site. Because styles and technology change over time, the type of ceramics found can often be used to narrow down the time frame of a site to a few decades. Ceramics have also been used as a means to reveal the socioeconomic status of a site’s inhabitants. As might be expected, finer and more expensive wares, such as delicate ceramics imported from China, are usually a sign of greater wealth. Rougher and cheaper ceramics, such as those produced in a home or in mass quantities, might indicate lower economic status. By identifying specific ceramic wares, archaeologists can then use historical documents — such as catalogs and store ledgers – to indicate or corroborate evidence of social status or function at a particular site.

Ceramics are often identified based on three primary attributes. The first of these is the paste, which is the characteristics of the raw material used to make the ceramic. Another attribute is the surface treatment, which involves the manner in which the vessel is covered or glazed. The last is the decoration, which is interesting in the way the piece is decorated with various patterns, motifs, color scheme, and even method of decoration. These three factors define each unique type of historic ceramic, allowing for easy identification and dating. Analysis of historic ceramics is aided by account and descriptions of the various wares written by the manufacturers or by contemporary people interested in the art of ceramic making.

The Florida Museum of Natural History has created a digital type collection containing ceramics from Europe, America, and Asia. The site is useful for both learning more about historic ceramics and for identifying the various types.

Historic Glass

In addition to historic ceramics, glass is often found at historic sites. This is most often fragments of glass bottles or window glass. Bottle glass, like ceramics, can illuminate much about a site. By using various physical and manufacturing features, such as shape, color, and seam characteristics, a glass bottle can often be dated to a specific decade. This is because manufacturing techniques for bottles were always changing as new technology became available, proving helpful for archaeologists attempting to piece together the past.

Bottle type is also useful for understanding the function of a site. These types include unique bottle styles for liquor, champagne, beer, medicine, canning, and soda water just to name a few. Bottle types are identified by a label found on the bottle (rare) and its shape, color, or method of manufacture. For example, champagne bottles are often round in cross-section, and are often made from an olive green, olive amber, or colorless glass. In contrast, soda bottles were made from relatively thick glass, round in cross-section, and made from aqua or clear glass. Some bottle types, such as medicine bottles, run the gambit of shapes, colors, sizes, and manufacturing methods, and are therefore more difficult to identify without additional context.

You can learn more about historic glass bottles as well as identify any in your possession on the Society for Historical Archaeology website.