Our job here in the archeology lab at NMSC involves a good bit of detective work. Most often the artifacts that we work with are incomplete: a sherd of earthenware, a fragment of freeblown glass, a section of a rusty nail, a small portion of a buckle frame. It is our job to identify the larger objects that these fragments represent. Sometimes the answer comes rather quickly. We can fairly confidently place a string rim on an 18th-century wine bottle, or a feather-edged rim sherd on a pearlware plate. Needless to say, despite our training, experience, and wonderful reference materials, we do of course get stumped from time to time. What type of vessel does this sherd come from? What kind of buckle is that? Is there a name for that decorative motif? What was this thing used for? It is at times like this that time travel would come in handy. A reference library is helpful, sure, but to be able to place an object in context, to see it in its heyday, in the hands of its owner…there would surely be no better way to understand it.
Lucky for us, there is a way to step back in time and see historic objects in context, and that is through art. Like diaries and probate inventories, contemporary paintings and drawings are primary sources in that they “can illustrate past events as they happened and people as they were at a particular time.” (Library and Archives Canada webpage)
Consider Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, painted in 1881 (Phillips Collection). This painting abounds with visual information about material culture in 1881. The clothing, the furniture, the tableware, and the red striped awning together create a factual depiction of material life among this group of people at this date. This painting could be useful for us in the lab for dating glass bottles and drinking vessels, and determining what certain vessels were used for on a late 19th-century table.
The following scenarios are just a few examples of NMSC archeology lab mysteries that have been solved by examining artwork. Be sure to click on the images for an up-close look!
When researching buttons and buckles from the archeology collection at Minute Man National Historical Park, we found portraiture to be an invaluable tool. The MIMA collection contains several button and buckle fragments of different sizes, orientation, metal type, and decorative motif. We used standardized typologies created by Stanley South and others to classify and describe these artifacts (see South’s typology at left).
As helpful as typologies are, seeing similar items worn in 18th-century portraits lent credence to our classifications, and allowed us to see exactly how the artifacts were used. The portrait of Elijah Boardman seen below was painted in 1789 by Ralph Earl (Metropolitan Museum of Art). This painting is pure eye candy for the material culture enthusiast like myself. Visible are knee and shoe buckles like those present in the MIMA collection, as well as buttons, an inkwell, door hardware, furniture tacks, furniture and textiles. Can you spot them all, or more? We thought initially that the item hanging from Mr. Boardman’s waistcoat was a watch fob. Upon closer inspection, we wonder if it could be folded spectacles. What do you think?
While processing a collection of artifacts excavated at the Appomattox Plantation House in City Point, Virginia (a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield), we came across some curiously large glass bottle bases. (See previous blog post, Pick Your Poison: Oversized Wine? Chemical? Pharmaceutical? Bottles From City Point, Virginia) Some of the bases were round, others oval. Although we see mostly round bottle bases in the lab, an oval shape would not be surprising, as it could indicate a fairly common oval bladder or chestnut-type bottle. What was surprising to us was the size of these bases: an average of 17 centimeters in diameter, as opposed to the average diameter of about 10 cm that we typically encounter.
Researching these oversized bottles led us to bottle names like jeroboam, used to hold the equivalent of 4 burgundy bottles of wine; double magnum, used to hold the equivalent of 4 onion wine bottles of wine, fruit, or preserves; demijohn, popular among wine and spirit merchants for transporting up to five gallons of their wares; and carboy, used to store up to 20 gallons of chemicals or pharmaceutical solutions.
The wonderful book Antique Glass Bottles by Willy Van den Bossche provides beautiful photographs of each of these types of oversized bottles. What was especially meaningful to us, however, was being able to see carboys “in action” in this 1824 painting of a pharmacy scene (find them on the top rear shelf). So this is where they were used, and how they were stored… this was the life of a carboy!
A browse through NMSC’s archeology study collection will introduce you to these lovely glass pieces. Many readers of this blog will know what they are. For those that don’t, the still life shown here can provide you with the answer (take a look at the goblet on the left).
These glass objects are raspberry prunts, which, in the words of Olive Jones, are “blobs of glass applied to an object, which may be tooled or impressed with various motifs, most commonly leaf and raspberry” (p. 52). It is a treat to find raspberry prunts in an archeological collection; even more so to find them and then to be able to see them in a painting in their original context on a glass vessel.
As you can see, paintings have proved to be a helpful tool in the lab here at NMSC. Our understanding of buttons, buckles, bottles, and prunts (to name a few!) would not be the same without the context provided by contemporary works of art. In the study of archeology and material culture, it is important that we are able to identify historic artifacts, but equally important that we are able to use these artifacts to better understand the people who used them years ago. Archeologists study social behavior as is evidenced through objects that human beings have left behind. By placing these objects in historical context, paintings help us to see the behavior – the humanity – behind the “stuff.”
Paintings can also help us to understand the various, and sometimes surprising, ways in which objects were used. Alternate interpretations provided by painted scenes breathe new life into objects that seem straightforward. Today, we are constantly repurposing our physical possessions. On several occasions I have used the end of a spoon as a screwdriver, or a kitchen chair as a stepstool. My two young sons turn my couch into a trampoline daily and have been known to play basketball with pieces of fruit. As we do in the 21st century, people in the past also repurposed objects to suit their needs or fancies.
Clay smoking pipes are abundant in the archeological record. When we encounter them in collections here in the lab, we catalog them as “tobacco pipes,” since they were used for smoking tobacco.
These two images remind us that the history behind an object is not always clear-cut. Yes, clay pipes were used for smoking tobacco…unless you were a child, and used your father’s pipe to blow bubbles. Seen through the perspective of this painting, a smoking device becomes a toy. With the help of tools like contemporary paintings, we are reminded that every object has a history all its own, of which we are lucky enough at times to catch a glimpse.
The idea of repurposing – of multiple uses for a particular object – could add interesting new possibilities to interpretive frameworks. Think how much more compelling a tobacco pipe could be to a museum visitor if he or she is encouraged to think about its possible use as a toy!
One thing that I have yet to catalog at work is a cloak pin. We are always seeing new and different artifacts, however, and it is not out of the question. While I would classify a cloak pin as a “personal object” for cataloging purposes, the wonderful portrait seen below indicates that they were not always used to fasten one’s cloak. As suggested by the Hartford cabinetmaking firm Kneeland and Adams in the late 18th century, cloak pins were an excellent way to hang a looking glass! (See At Home page 256 for reference)
It may be difficult to identify repurposing in artifacts found in the archeological record. These artifacts have typically been altered simply as a result of being in the ground, and possibly by ground disturbances or even by the process of excavation itself. It I ever do catalog a cloak pin, however, I will remember this painting. Wear marks indicating possible use as a hanging device may be worth a mention in the catalog record.
Paintings and drawings can be invaluable tools for archeologists and others tasked with identifying historic objects, and fragments thereof. They also remind us that, as is often the case, things may not be always as they seem. While it is prudent to stay away from conjecture while cataloging, the idea of repurposing as suggested through paintings reminds us to consider wear patterns a little more carefully, and allows us a deeper and more colorful understanding of the artifacts that pass through our hands.
Garrett, Elisabeth Donaghy. At Home: The American Family 1750-1870. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1990.
Hume, Ivor Noel. A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Philadelphia: University of PA Press, 1969.
Jones, Olive, Catherine Sullivan et al. The Parks Canada Glass Glossary. Canadian Parks Service, 1985.
Library and Archives Canada webpage. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/education/008-3010-e.html.
Transferware Collectors Club Database. http://www.transcollectorsclub.org/
Van den Bossche, Willy. Antique Glass Bottles. Woodbridge Suffolk: Antique Collectors Club, 2001.
Web Gallery of Art. http://www.wga.hu/
The Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine. Glass and British Pharmacy 1600-1900. London: Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, 1972.