Anthropology Field Notes

University of Delaware Anthropology Fieldwork by students and faculty

Category: Old Swedes Church Project 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Archaeologists not Bricklayers….

Like  most archaeologists, we spent our last few days in the field at Old Swedes creating a new archaeological record for the future as we backfilled the units we’d excavated. Finally, Ana, Kelsey and I relaid the brick paving that had sealed the archaeological remains we uncovered around the Church perimeter over the past six months. We placed 2015 pennies in the deepest spots of each excavation unit as another aid to future excavators of the time of our passing through this soil. We also gained greater appreciation for the stone masons and bricklayers responsible for building the church and laying the yards and yards of brick paving as we struggled to relay the bricks in the four different patterns that our predecessors had used, tightly, evenly, and smoothly. Let’s just say we’re better archaeologists than bricklayers!

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Southwest Buttress Excavation showing graveshaft outlines

The last excavation whose story we’d left unfinished is the one just south of the church’s southwest buttress wall, outside the south porch. We’d chosen this spot because the GPR suggested that there were not any graveshafts here, although our excavations confirmed the presence of at least two, probably three, neatly aligned east-west. Each was marked by a 6-12”, irregularly shaped, unmarked stone that we found resting on the surface of the backfilled graveshaft, buried about one foot below the brick paving. Once we determined that they were graveshafts, we stopped excavation so we did not encounter any human remains or otherwise disturb the burial.
Now it’s back to the lab to finish processing and analyzing the artifacts and field data to help Holy Trinity Church and Old Swedes Foundation best plan to preserve this gem of an ancient church and the sanctity of its historic burial ground. We’ll keep you posted!
Lu Ann De Cunzo

The South Porch and the Lost Post

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Spring semester students, Anissa, Jay, and Rebecca, placed the South Porch unit about a yard in front of the original church entrance in order to see what kinds of activities were represented right outside of the church’s door. Clothing pins, perhaps from fastened dresses and shawls, and fragments of clay smoking pipes are evidence of people socializing outside of the church, literally at its doorstep. A Native American presence at the site, now evident in all units, is represented in this unit by a predominance of lithic (stone) material, such as quartz and fine-grained chert. There are flakes, discarded from stone tool manufacturing, and flakes modified to be stone tools. The relatively few historic artifacts may be a result of recurring construction periods that obscured earlier activities.

Architecturally, the South Porch was constructed in 1762 with buttresses meant to relieve the weight of sagging walls. We found some highly corroded window glass and window lead cames that may relate to the removal of casement window sections on the South Wall of the church when they were replaced by fan-light windows in 1750.


The external stair leading to the gallery level, added in 1774, has had several lives in the South Porch. It is presumed that the original 1774 stair had the same form and general appearance of the existing exterior stair today, but there is no physical evidence of the original stair (though see below for more on this). In 1842, a restoration project demolished the exterior stair, which were replaced in 1899. Related to the existing stair, we discovered a cement-like base for one of the stair pillars in the northeast corner of the unit. A bit of the red brick lining the cement peaks out of the footing at the bottom of the unit. We sampled some of the cement to better understand its components and time period, which is linked to the last reincarnation of the external stair.

Feature 21 may relate to an earlier, as of yet undocumented, history of the stair. In July, we discovered a mottled level seen in the western third of the North Profile wall. At first, the mixture of yellow and dark brown soils looked very similar to the grave shafts at the North and South Buttress units, but the GPR map did not identify any shafts oriented north/south. According to the map, there are three potential grave shafts oriented west/east just to the west of our unit in the South Porch. After bisecting the feature, we recognized a post hole/mold (~10 inches) that had been disturbed by rodent activity. The post was about a yard away from the double-door entrance, just off of being centered. The current interpretation places the large post as part of an earlier external stairway construction, perhaps the original 1774 construction.

X-Files: Finding the Unexpected Expected!!

Welcome once again to another exciting edition of Updates from the Field!


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This past week we can definitely say we had  unexpected discoveries. To say the least, it was worthy of an x-file classification. It is no secret that Old Swedes Church is surrounded by a cemetery containing thousands of graves, many of them not marked with headstones or other monuments.

Within the North Buttress unit we came across the shaft for one of these graves! It was not clear at first but once we started to find an increase of quantities of rusted nails we knew it was truly a grave shaft. The soil becoming increasingly mixed and completely different from the surrounding subsoil. We should have expected the unexpected — the GPR suggested we should have just missed the edge of a grave. Now that we have come to a conclusion regarding the presence of a grave, our excavation in the North Buttress came to a close. A member of the Holy Trinity Church clerical staff said a prayer at the graveshaft after services on Sunday.

Well, that makes two units completed and two more to finish so our adventures continue.

When our excavation for the North Buttress came to a close it was very heartfelt for me. I’m Ana and I have been helping with this project since the spring. We even named our big rock Nigel. It was heartfelt to start closing and backfilling the unit for it seems the project is coming to an end faster than I expected.  We are more than ready to take on the challenge of completing our work at the South Buttress and South Porch, so stay tuned to see what we find.

More, or Actually Less, Foundations

Hello everyone!
My name is Kelsey Timmons and this is the first time I am appearing on the blog.
I spent most of the semester at the unit designated N. 87 E. 72 – otherwise known as the north buttress. Together with Michael, Nikki and Amara we uncovered several interesting finds including features – that is, immovable artifacts – nails, slip wear and one gigantic rock we named Nigel.
We have now uncovered the base, or corner stone, of the North Buttress. In actuality, it is a slapdash pile of rocks tightly wedged together atop what appears to be a cobbled path. “Not what we were expecting to find.” (Our current theme for the summer dig.) This prompted us to question if this corner was part of the problem with the re-occurring crack in the northeast corner of the original church. With the pile of rocks settling over time, more weight would have been added to the walls of the body of the church. The long crack in the wall could be a possible repercussion.
And, although I spent the semester at the north buttress, I have spent most of my time so far this summer outside the bell tower. Nothing we found there went according to plan either.
First we discovered that the sill under the doorframe extends less than half a foot. From then on it’s nothing but soil. Apparently, this is because originally these were not doors, but rather an open archway. This, along with the strange patterns we were finding in the soil, might answer one of the church’s drainage problems. The water is ebbing and flowing under the door until it is absorbed or drained further down. Normally that would be fine but a little under a foot and a half into the unit there appears to be a bed of clay – which doesn’t drain water. Instead it holds the water like a giant sponge. If there is too much water at any given time, you could be left with a puddle sitting on top. This seems to be the case for Old Swedes – but we will have to continue our work before any one can say anything with certainty.

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Excavation at the Bell Tower
Continuing with our theme of “Not what I expected to see,” the bell tower unit has been producing evidence of Lenape presence around the site. We have found two projectile points and a handful of flakes. (Flakes are pieces chipped off of stone tools either in their creation or their upkeep.)
This week has been a productive one. We almost completed our two open units and we have several theories about the questions every one has been asking.

Ending and Beginning Again

Finally, my turn! Our first semester of excavations at Old Swedes was like working for the U.S. Postal Service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” Seems we saw it all during our weekly Friday morning travails in Wilmington. Thanks to an enthusiastic, dedicated group of staunch archaeologists-in-training, we made good progress peeling back the layers of brick, stone, and soil around the church in search of the stories they had to tell.

And here they are:
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Catherine, Sophi, and Ana at the Bell Tower

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Amara, Michael, and Nicole at the North Buttress

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Jay, Anissa, and Rebecca at the South Porch


Emily, Brianna, and Joe (with a special helper) at the South Buttress Path

The last Sunday of our project, half of our team shared their work with 30+ church parishioners, neighbors, and friends, who especially enjoyed peering into our digs to learn the secrets of stratigraphy.

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Sophi, Catherine, Rebecca, Jay, Nicole, and Kelsey after Sunday’s ‘dig tour’

Emily Rebmann, one of our graduate student archaeologists from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture Studies, created an informative and fun video featuring members of our student team, Old Swedes parishioners, the Holy Trinity Church rector, and Old Swedes Foundation members. Check it out on youtube:

This summer, thanks to a grant from the Jessie Ball Du Pont Foundation to the Old Swedes Foundation, Kelsey and Ana are returning to the site on summer internships with me and Andrea to complete our preliminary excavations.


Foundation, north buttress
We’re focusing first on the bell tower and north buttress excavations, both of which abut the building foundations. This week, historic architect Dale Frens, who did the Historic Structures Report for Old Swedes Church, joined us in concluding, “well that’s not what I expected to see!” when we unearthed the north buttress foundation corner and found a patchwork of stones and mortar and an irregular mortared stone paving extending only along the north wall of the buttress. This week we plan to expose more, and to continue digging through layers of flooded soils, rodent holes, and rubble-filled pits at the bell tower.

Check in next week when hopefully we’ll have sorted out what we’re seeing there to explain to you, our readers.

Thanks for following our progress!
Lu Ann De Cunzo

Coming to the End!

As the semester comes to a close, we are starting to present our work to the public and making the final touches on our units.

On the North Buttress unit, we labeled each charred area as its own sub level (level 6a-f) and used spoons, which yes is a valid archaeological technique, to dig the individual areas to see what they would revel and how far the ash went. We found that most of them were deeper than we anticipated with one going several inches down creating a nice “ravine” in the center of our unit. We found one nail and plenty of coal clinker and pieces of bricks within each small unit.  Also, because of the layer of sand underneath our layer of bricks, we have to balance ourselves on planks of plywood over the unit so as to not put to much pressure on one area of bricks.

In the other sites around the church, the South Porch group uncovered the foundation for the pillar supporting the balcony in the corner of their unit.

Because of the flowering trees and our beautiful sunny days, we have also had to continue to make our own shade (though we cant complain as the beginning of the semester had been cold, cloudy and snowy) using our spirited UD capes. 1891103_10206969238455939_8011273943166247716_n


While we all had hoped as first time archaeologists to make the big find of the century, our finds of nails and pins could be helpful in showing us that there could be more lurking beneath the layers. Hopefully this last week we can go farther down our units to see what else it holds.

New Techniques and Interesting Artifacts: May 8th, 2015

On May 8th, we returned to the field for our second-to-last day of excavation (for the semester) at Old Swedes Church. Each team has continued to make excellent progress, and there is much to report, including some new types of artifacts and the use of a new excavation technique by one of our teams.

For the past two weeks, our blog has reported on features uncovered in a charcoal/ash-rich soil layer in the EU located at the northeast corner of the church. This week, the team that is working at the southwest buttress excavated two features in a compositionally similar layer of soil. Unlike the clear evidence of planks and shingles identified in the features on the north side of the church, the southwest buttress unit’s features were much less regular, and the team is still working to determine what they mean in regards to our interpretation of the site.

A Feature at the Southwest Buttress Unit

A Feature at the Southwest Buttress Unit

 The team at the northeast corner EU, meanwhile, continued to work to carefully excavate the charcoal layer at their site—this time using a new technique: “spooning.” Spooning is the term used to describe the use of spoons to carefully excavate a feature and determine its depth. Though we have used trowels, brushes, and hand picks, this is the first time that we have used any kind of kitchen utensil to facilitate our archaeological investigation!

"Spooning" at the Northeast Corner EU

“Spooning” at the Northeast Corner EU

Inside the south porch, the team uncovered a number of intriguing artifacts during the May 8th excavation. They include a straight with a round or ball head, a miniscule fragment from a tobacco pipe bowl, and several pieces of glass. Since most of the material evidence that we have uncovered thus far in our excavation has been limited to nails, coal clinker, and fragments of brick, May 8th’s finds were hailed as exciting signs of what is to come—hopefully additional pieces of datable material evidence! There were also some interesting discoveries at the bell tower unit, including shell mortar and a piece of wire.

An Exciting Discovery from the South Porch EU

An Exciting Discovery from the South Porch EU

We ended our day with a practice session for the six class members that were slated to present an overview of our project and the findings thus far at the Early Colonial Delaware History Symposium on Saturday, May 9th. The presentation was successful, consisting of a succinct evaluation and interpretation of our excavation along with resources for interested audience members to consult in order to remain apprised of future discoveries!

As the semester draws to a close, we have all become more proficient at each of the archaeological tasks that we have been practicing. Many of the students have reported feeling excited and accomplished as they work to unearth new levels in collaboration with their team members, and some students have even become confident enough to demonstrate their new skills on camera for the documentary that is being created to tell the story of our excavation. Be sure to check this blog next week for our final update from the field!

Trying the Hero Cape: May 1st and May 2nd

Welcome once again to another exciting edition of Updates from the Field!

This week we worked on Friday May 1st and May 2nd. May flowers are blooming and making the site gorgeous to look at, and the beauty (and the falling petals) can be distracting after the winter we’ve had. Windblown blossoms leave petals everywhere and when I say everywhere I mean everywhere. Lots of cleaning in the sites and in each unit had to be done but no worry we were prepared.

This week we had an awesome and productive week. Most of our units are now in very interesting new levels. As noted in the previous update, we found burning and wooden planks at the northeast corner of the church. Well, excavation revealed them to have irregular shapes for wooden planks, and we are now considering they may be tree branches.

During this week we also had fascinating  encounters with photography. We want to be as photographically correct as possible so 11130219_10205373782456619_5040757015754197036_nwe had to create our own shade to photograph so we pulled out our trusty UD blue hero capes (they are really just the tarps we use to cover the units) for the job. Feeling like heroes for the day was fun and brought a smile to our faces, which is our aim. Hero capes or no hero capes we still worked extremely hard to make some progress.

We decided this week that in order to get the most out of our remaining time in the field that we should excavate only half of our 5×5 units. At the Bell Tower, our team is excavating 2 2.5×5 units to not only capture the foundation of the building but also explore the drainage problem at  the Bell Tower entrance.

As each individual unit becomes deeper we are starting to see major differences in the levels. Prime examples of this are the northeast corner and south church entrance units. Under the south porch, the team uncovered a layer of mixed soils with the greatest variety of soil colors we have yet seen.

Our findings continue to be mostly bits and pieces of the building–stone, brick, mortar, metal hardware, nails, and the like.  Stay tuned for next week’s editions of Updates from the Field!

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