Book Review: Stone by Stone by Robert Thorson


Author: Robert Thorson
TitleStone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls
Publication Info: New York : Walker & Company, 2002.
Summary/Review:

I grew up in New England, and as a child who liked to wander in the woods, I often came upon stone walls.  Even alongside the parkways of Connecticut, I could see from the car window the long stone walls that once divided up farms now claimed by forests and suburban subdivisions.  When I moved to Virginia in my teenage years, I noticed the absence of stone walls.

Stone by Stone is the most thorough examination of New England’s stone walls I can imagine. Thorson begins with the geological processes that created New England’s rock landscape before detailing the history of the stone wall’s creation, use, readaptation, and eventual disintegration.  Along the way he dispels some myths.  For example, most stone walls were not built during colonial times.  This is because early settlements were built along the coast and in river valleys where the soil wasn’t rocky, but in the early 1800s the forests of inland New England were cleared and stones were unearthed.  The processing of clearing forests also made possible the cycle of frosts that caused many stones to rise through the surface through frost upheaval.  And while new stones needed to be cleared each year, the rocks were not limitless and the upheaval of new stones would end after about 50 years of clearing.  By this time though the land may have already lost it’s productivity for growing crops and reused for another purpose.

There’s an intense amount of detail in this book and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except those with nerdiest interest in the topic.  But Thorson does have a way with words that makes the book quite engaging, as you’ll see in the excerpts below.

Favorite Passages:

“Conventional histories correctly describe how New England’s stone walls were built by farmers who patiently cleared glacier-dropped stones from their fields.  But this story alone cannot account for the magnitude of the phenomenon, or for their structure — thick, low, and crudely stacked.  To understand the archetypal stone walls in New England – primitive, mortar-free, and “tossed” rather than carefully laid — one must turn to the techniques of the natural sciences, in which observation, induction, and analysis carry more weight than quasimythic tales of early America.

The story of stone walls is a very old one, and is appropriately told by a geologist, whose job is to reconstruct the history of the Earth.  The emergence and decay of New England’s stone walls falls under the domain of geoarchaeology, a subdiscipline whose goal is to interpret human artifacts within a broader geological perspective.  Consider this book a geoarchaeological study of stone walls, the first of its kind.” – p. 9

“However tidy well-built walls might appear, most functioned originally as linear landfills, built to hold nonbiodegradable agricultural refuse….

Stone walls not only transformed waste into something useful, they arguably “improved” the local wildlife habitat with respect to diversity.  Prior to wall construction, the dry-land habitats of cliffs and ledges were much more restricted in New England; animals and plants that had adapted to such terrain had a greater chance to survive because stone walls and stone ledges offered similar opportunities.” – p. 10

“Worms don’t actually create new mineral soil or organic matter.  But by constantly stirring the soil, they inevitably concentrate finer-grained material nearer the surface.  Everything too big for a worm to move will sink as a part of the stirring process, partly because it is dense than the surrounding loosened soil.  The primary reason, however, is that stones either remain where they are or move downward, whereas the finer-grain materials can move either up or down.  The net effect is to sink coarse fragments.

Sandier soils, which are common throughout New England, especially when beneath conifers, are too acidic for significant earthworm activity.  In these soils, ants are the most important agent in stirring soils. Several species of ants not only survive New England’s harsh winter, but reproducing at astonishing rates.  They are constantly busy within the soil, bringing fine-grained material to the surface and in the process, sinking the stones.  Building on Darwin’s work, and focusing on ants, the nineteenth-century Harvard geology professor Nathaniel Shaler examined a four-acre field in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He estimated that common ants brought enough particles to the surface that, if spread out evenly, would cover the entire field at a rate of ‘a fifth of an inch’ each year.” – p. 45

“New England statutes still specify the appointment, jurisdiction, and duties of the fence viewer, although their  power is much diminished and hardly noticed.  But in the late colonial period, they would cruise rural land like the state troopers of today, looking for trouble and writing citations.” – p. 56

“When the farmer walked away from his stone wall for the last time, the human forces that caused the walls to be built up in the first place were replaced by the forces of nature, which will take them down.  The forward part of this reversible ecological reaction – the construction of walls – was powered by solar energy, which was captured via photosynthesis in crops that were eaten and converted to mechanical energy  in the stomachs of the farmers and their stock.  The deconstruction of walls is also being powered by the sun.  In this latter case, however, the solar energy is captured and converted to mechanical energy via wind storms, tree roots, animal burrowing, chemical disintegration, running water, and seasonal frost.  Given enough time, and if left alone, the stones that were once concentrated in the form of the wall must eventually be dispersed back to the field. There, they will be further dispersed into the volume of the soil, buried once again by soil processes, making it appear as if the land had never been cleared.” – p. 93

 

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Secrets of Underground London (2014)


TitleSecrets of Underground London
Release Date: 21 May 2014
Director: Vicky Matthews and Gareth Sacala
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

Not secrets of the London Underground (although there are some) but of 2000+ years of history hidden beneath the surface of England’s capital.  There’s a lot of nifty bits of subterranean trivia in this admittedly corny and sensationalist documentary, including:

  • ruins of the Roman amphitheater
  • Black Death plague pits
  • the labyrinthine Chislehurst Caves where miners extracted chalk for rebuilding London after the Great Fire
  • the innovative Victorian-era engineering of the Thames Tunnel
  • London Underground stations used both as air raid stations and to hide treasures from the British Museum during World War II
  • Churchill’s War Cabinet rooms
  • the lost Fleet River
  • the construction of an expansion of the British Museum into a new space four stories undergroun

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts by Joseph M. Bagley


Author: Joseph M. Bagley
TitleA History of Boston in 50 Artifacts
Publication Info:  Hanover ; London : University Press of New England, [2016]
Summary/Review:

A few years ago I listened to the brilliant podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects presented by the BBC and the British Museum.  Joseph Bagley also listened to this podcast while he was at work and since he’s the city archaeologist of Boston it inspired him to write this book.  Bagley selected 50 objects and broke them down into 5 time periods: Native American Shawmut peninsula before colonization, 17th century Puritan Boston, 18th century growing Boston, Revolutionary Boston, and 200 years as an independent city from the 1780s-1980s.  The artifacts come from several significant archaeological sites including the Katherine Nanny Naylor Privy in the North End, the Three Cranes Tavern in Charlestown, Boston Common, the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, along the Big Dig construction site, and Brook Farm in West Roxbury.  My favorite artifacts include weaving by the Massachusett, a bowling ball from a time when the Puritans forbade such things, vaginal syringes from Ann Street brothels, a Hebrew prayer-book (at the African Meeting House!), a Red Sox pin, and children’s toys.  Each artifact tells a story and from them Bagley draws a bigger picture of the people in that time and place.  Together the 50 artifacts tell an intriguing history of Boston and is a brilliant introduction to archaeology as well as advocating for the importance of archaeology programs in local governments.  This book is a must read, especially if you have any interest in archaeology or Boston history.

Favorite Passages:

“Archaeology, as we archaeologists describe it, is simply the study of the human past through the artifacts that people leave behind.  One important thing missing from this definition is a cutoff date – the coin dropped today is already part of the archaeological record.  When I encounter people who doubt this fact, I always remind them that archaeology is not about the stuff, it’s about the story.  We may know more about the story of daily life now because we live in the “now” and can see how many things interconnect in someone’s life, but over time, these connections break down and the meanings behind various aspects of the past are lost.” – p. 173

Recommended BooksRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz, and Highway to the Past: The Archaeology of Boston’s Big Dig by Ann-Eliza H. Lewis

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje


Author: William Rathje
TitleRubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage
Publication Info: University of Arizona Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

This book documents the fascinating efforts of the Garbage Project in Tuscon, AZ to use archaeological practices to study garbage – officially known as municipal solid waste – collected from outside peoples’ homes as well as excavating landfills.  These studies show patterns of consumption and disposal that are different from what people volunteer in surveys.  Rathje also describes many fascinating I-never-thought-of-that aspects of garbage and it’s disposal in landfill and incinerators, including a historical survey.  He also debunks many popular beliefs about trash.  For instance, things people think are common in landfills (styrofoam and diapers) are not, while we don’t usually think of the things that do take up a lot of landfill space (construction debris and paper).  And while the concept of biodegradable waste is popular, excavations show that very little actually biodegrades in landfills, although this may be a good thing as it prevents the creating of waste slurry that contaminate water and surrounding areas. Even recycling is more complicated than believe, as many things collected to recycle (with the exception of aluminum) far exceed the demand of manufactures to recycle them.  This book is surprising in both what it reveals about humanity through our waste as well as the sense of optimism it gives in that the waste problems while huge are not as bad as we may think they are.  Much of what is described in the book happened 20 or more years ago.  I’d love to see an update on the Garbage Project and how the challenges of municipal solid waste are being addressed today.

Recommended books:  In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz
Rating: ****

Book Review: Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson


Author: Marilyn Johnson
TitleLives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble
Narrator: Hilary Huber
Publication Info: Tantor Audio, 2014
Summary/Review:

Johnson’s book is a peek into the lives of archaeologists ranging from the expected academics working on notable sites to the more every day contract archaeologists working for little pay and a lot of love.  There are even forensic archaeologists who use the tools of the trade to help solve crimes.  By interviewing archaeologists and participating in classes, conferences, and field schools, Johnson exposes the reader to a wide variety of the practitioners of archaeology and their craft.  I studied archaeology in college and thought of going into the field, but all the same I was surprised to read about people I know, including my college classmate Grant Gilmore.  An excellent book about an endlessly fascinating (and undersupported) field of study.
Favorite Passages:

We think we know what archaeologists do, but, like librarians, they toil behind an obscuring stereotype.  The Hollywood image of the dashing adventurer bears little resemblance to the real people who, armed with not much more than a trowel and a sense of humor, try to tease one true thing from the rot and rubble of the past.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Archaeology of Home by Katharine Greider


Author: Katharine Greider
Title: The archaeology of home : an epic set on a thousand square feet of the Lower East Side
Publication Info: New York : PublicAffairs, c2011.
ISBN: 9781586487126
Summary/Review: With much anticipation, I received this book as an advanced reading copy through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Greider and her family lived on two floors of a refurbished tenement house on East 7th Street in Manhattan until a home inspector discovered that the building was unstable and on the verge of collapse.  She researched the house’s history to deal with contractors and lawyers and from that grew this fascinating microhistory.  Starting with pre-colonial native tribes through Dutch and English settlement, the construction of the tenement in 1845 and all it’s residents through the troubled era of the 70’s & 80’s, Greider details the lives and times of the people who have lived on this spot and their neighbors.  It’s a detailed look at the use of one plot of land that touches on history, archaeology, ethnography and sociology.  Amidst the history is Greider’s own story of renovation, lawsuits, and displacement which I did not like so much, in fact it uncomfortably reminded me of Under the Tuscan Sun (one of my least favorite books).  This should be a book that I love in that it covers many things I’m obsessed with – history, New York, immigration, social life, urbanism – but alas I just like this book.  I had to put this book down several times while reading it because I just couldn’t get into it Greider’s writing style.  Nevertheless I salute her brilliant premise and extensive research in creating this book.

Favorite Passages:

“The typical Manhattan abode simply lacks the square footage necessary to organize interior space according to expectations.  What you get instead is a commingling of functions that are normally segregated and an intimacy some find inappropriate or uncomfortable.  Children share a bedroom, or even sleep in their parent’s room.  Often there’s only one bathroom.  In a few of the oldest tenements, the bathtub is still in the kitchen.  People often eat in their living rooms.  Entertaining in these circumstances is almost unavoidably casual.  If a couple who lives in a tiny walk-up invite you to dinner, you will witness the ferocious labor required to prepare a hot meal in a galley kitchen, to drag out a folding table while kicking toys out of the way, and then to tidy up the blitzkrieg that results.  It is all very unlovely and close; acquire the taste and nothing could be nicer.” – p. 80

Recommended books: New York Calling by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger and Five Points by Tyler Anbinder.
Rating: ***1/2

Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary


As detailed in this post about Jamestown, the buried truth, I’ve been greatly anticipating the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the Western hemisphere. May 13, 1607 is the date of the founding of Jamestown by the Virginia Company (although some sources state May 14, since that is the day the colonists went ashore and started building. I’ll go with the 13th since that is also my sister’s birthday). I first visited Jamestown as a geeky 11-year old in 1985 and even at that time I calculated that I could be alive for the 400th anniversary, albeit impossibly old. Turns out I’m not as old as I imagined, but I’m still geeky and love commemorations of historic events. Since I lived in James City County, VA (the modern continuance of Jamestown) for 7 years, and worked in a living history museum in Virginia, this was an event I could not miss.

My photos from Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary

The key event is patriotically called America’s 400th Anniversary cleverly overlooking the priority of St. Augustine while advancing Jamestown’s claim over those upstarts in Plymouth, MA. Jamestown does have the advantage that it plays a role in beginning one of the colonies that would eventually form the original United States whereas Florida is in territory acquired later, so Jamestown is central to the story of the American experience from its very beginning. This point was emphasized by stressing the “birth of democracy” (basically the election of the Virginia Company’s chairmen of the board in 1619) and the “birth of slavery” since captured Africans first arrived in America for forced labor at Jamestown, also in 1619. Another interesting point is that Jamestown is the first place in the world where people of Europe, Africa, and indigenous Americans lived and worked together, albeit far from an ideal community.

The anniversary weekend took place 11-13 May and my mother and I attended on Sunday, the final day. Due to a visit by President Bush, access to the site was restricted from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and people who were already there were pretty much in a lockdown situation. So we decided to arrive in the afternoon, after the President departed, and security was less stringent. The logistics for the event were excellent, especially the use of satellite parking in numerous lots in the area with school buses shuttling visitors to Jamestown. The scenic Colonial Parkway basically became a convoy of yellow buses as well as a staging area for emergency vehicles. The bus was full of happy, chatting people and was a good way to start the day. Oddly, many people who still live in the area went out of town (including my mother’s co-workers) but they were counterbalanced by the soldier we met on the bus who used his leave from Iraq to come Jamestown.

We arrived first at Jamestown Settlement, which looks very different from when my mom worked there and when I volunteered with the museum registrar to help count rocks. Not only is the museum expanded and redesigned but they’ve even realigned a road around the parking lot! We visited the living history exhibits at Jamestown Settlement which for maybe the first time ever were densely populated with costumed historic interpreters. One of the first employees I met was my friend and former housemate Lara although we did not get to speak for long. We wandered through the recreated James Forte, down to the ships, and back to the Powhatan village.

Next we took the bus to the actual site of the original settlement at Historic Jamestowne, property which is administered jointly by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). Things have changed there quite a bit since my last visit as well, especially since the APVA hired Dr. William Kelso to conduct an archaeological excavation which uncovered the remains of the original James Fort used from 1607-24, and many other fascinating discoveries. We arrived just in time to hear Bill Kelso speak which may have been the highlight of the day for me. I don’t think Kelso ever finished his presentation because he got a bit choked up the the magnitude of the day, but he received a well-deserved standing ovation. After strolling through the fort site and taking a lunch break by the river, we waited in line for the brand new Archearium a museum containing the relics, um, I mean artifacts from Kelso’s Jamestown Rediscovery excavations. The wait was long to get into the small museum, made longer because we chose to visit the gallery with the skeletons. While in line we saw that the elderly woman behind us had a pewter broche from the Jamestown tercentenary in 1907 which was pretty cool. What was not cool is that the younger woman pushing the elderly woman’s wheelchair kept pushing it into my heels, and didn’t seem all to sorry about the pushiness either.

While wonderful to visit all the museum sites on THE DAY, they definitely will be worth a more comprehensive return visit in the future. Footsore and facing closing time at the museums, we headed over to the Anniversary Park to relax with entertainment. Anniversary Park was once the Jamestown Beach Campsites and I’m said to see it’s gone (unless they campground owners just rented the land out for the weekend). We stayed at that campground on our first visit to Virginia in 1985 and it has sentimental memories. Anniversary Park consisted of a giant stage and a grassy area for the audience as well as some exhibition tents that we never had time to see.

There were a lot of people in Anniversary Park when we arrived including the 1,607-voice choir and 400-piece orchestra performing. For some reason I expected all those musicians to be really loud but in the “back rows” the music sounded faint even when amplified.

Following the concert, emcee Dr. Rex Ellis told us we had a “special treat,” a performance entitled “Journey of Destiny.” Subtitled: “Hokey-hontas.” Told through a bizarre mix of interpretive dance, historical pageants, and dramatic readings of primary documents, “Journey of Destiny” recreated Jamestown history in an incredibly cheezy manner.

Once that was over, the Governor of Virginia and family dropped some things in the time capsule. Rex Ellis told us that the time capsule had a CD-player, DVD-player, and batteries for future generations to use to watch and listen to the items within. I suspect those things will be rusted and inoperative. But I’m a librarian, and librarians and archivists hate time capsules.

For a finale, fireworks lit up the chilly night sky accompanied by the 400-piece orchestra. That may be the first time I’ve ever seen fireworks with live music which is pretty cool even if the musical selection was odd for the event (The 1812 Overture? The Star Wars main title theme?) It was all good fun though, and a nice finale. Despite being in a crowd of up to 30,000 people we were able to get to our shuttle bus and back to home fairly swiftly.

Lots more about Jamestown’s Birthday at the Library of Congress blog.

News reports:

 

Other blogs:

I searched Technorati to find posts by other people who attended the Jamestown 2007 events but didn’t have much luck. Most posts were simply reporting on the event or criticizing them (or reporting on Bush’s visit and criticizing him). If you attended America’s 400th Anniversary please post your thoughts in the comments and/or link to your blog. Thanks!

Also in my searches I found this map of the College of William & Mary as Middle-Earth, which has nothing to do with Jamestown but it’s damned funny.

Book Review: Jamestown, the Buried Truth


As my mom likes to tell the story, back in 1994 archaeologist Bill Kelso addressed a small audience to introduce his plans for the Jamestown Rediscovery project. The lack of interest arose from the notion that all that could be learned about the early days of the settlement had already been discovered. It was popularly believed that the remains of James Fort had been eroded by the James River.

Bill Kelso proved them wrong.

Jamestown, the Buried Truth by William M. Kelso tells the story of 12 years of excavation and discovery at Jamestown. The remains of the triangular fort from Jamestown’s early period 1607-1624 were there to be found, and the was just the beginning. The archaeologists uncovered remnants of the monumental effort to build a new colony in an unforgiving country fighting diseases, weather, starvation and conflicts with the native population of Tsenacomacans. The material record tells stories undocumented in the colonists records and early histories. The archaeological team may even have uncovered the remains of Bartholomew Gosnold, an early leader of the colony.

Kelso emphasizes that despite their flaws and mistakes, the Jamestown settlers were far from failures and Jamestown was not a fiasco but in fact successfully the first permanent English settlement in North America. Much to my pleasure, Kelso writes a chapter on the long, often overlooked period of Jamestown after initial settlement. From 1619-1699 Jamestown was home to the first popularly elected governmental body and served as the capital of the Virginia Colony. Kelso traces the development of that government through the traces of the five structures that served as the State House.

I’ll be traveling to Virginia in a couple of weeks for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s settlement. It should be an exciting event and a big party. More information at Jamestown 2007 and Jamestown 400. Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestowne (National Park Service), and Historic Jamestowne (Association for the Preservation of Antiquities) are always worth a visit, in person or online.

Other Jamestownia worth reading:

The cover story in the May 2007 edition of National Geographic is all about America in 1607.

A January 9, 2007 article in the Boston Globe about archaeological discovery of seeds, Jamestown seeds reflect survival efforts.

If you like a little fiction in your history, there’s Secret Histories: The Jamestown Colony in Postmodern Fiction at The Millions (A Blog About Books).