Unearthing Rhode Island History
A dig at a 19th-century College Hill home unveils stories about the textile industry, the European immigrant experience, and life in the Gilded Age.
An 87-year-old Narragansett beer can. An 1860s fabric crimping iron. A cup and saucer commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the 1772 Gaspee Affair, one of the earliest rebellions in the lead-up to the American Revolution. Those are just a few of the items students have unearthed for Archaeology of College Hill, an introductory archaeology course that has been offered at Brown every fall for 17 years. Using trowels, sifters, toothbrushes, and trays, students dig up, clean, and analyze artifacts they discover underground, chronicling their findings on a class Facebook page.
The course has focused on multiple sites, including the First Baptist Church in America, the John Brown House, and Brown’s own Quiet Green. But for the last seven years, its location has been the corner of Hope Street and Lloyd Avenue, where the Sack family house once stood. Family patriarch A. Albert Sack owned a lucrative textile mill in North Providence.
“This area has changed, grown, and reinvented itself so many times over the last few centuries,” says Erynn Bentley, a PhD student at Brown’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World and the instructor of the Fall 2022 course. “Rhode Island has a wealth of written records, but the documentary record can’t tell us everything—think about how the contents of your trash can reveal things about your identity and interests that aren’t on your LinkedIn page. There’s something about uncovering a family’s personal possessions, seeing what they kept from their past, what they embraced in the present, and what they ultimately left behind—it helps you learn more about the complexity of people that you can’t learn from a birth certificate or a property deed.”
Down the rabbit hole
Some of the Sack family’s quirks and complexities came to light on a dark evening in late November, as students spread out on a classroom floor to wash and inspect all of the artifacts they’d found earlier in the fall.
James Dahlen ’23, concentrating in business economics and biology, used an old toothbrush to remove bits of paper from a cylindrical metal object. It might have been a paper towel holder or curtain rod, he surmised; that would explain why it was found mixed with likely wallpaper remnants.
“Studying biology has helped me identify and think about some of the materials we found,” Dahlen says, “but what helped the most were all the readings we did on how archaeologists interpret artifacts. It’s fun to use a combination of deductive reasoning, academic research, and cultural context, and feel a little bit like Indiana Jones.”
Throughout the semester, students traveled down engrossing rabbit holes related to the artifacts they found. Senior Armeen Golshan ’23, who is concentrating in economics and international and public affairs, dove deep into the history of electricity on Providence’s East Side after the class found an electric plug in one of the trenches; his research indicates that the Sack home may have been one of the first in the city to get electricity. And Hadley Benjamin ’23, concentrating in urban studies and entrepreneurship, traced a floral saucer back to an Ohio-based china company whose wares were available at a mall in Worcester for only six years, making it easy to pinpoint the timeframe it was purchased.
“This class was a big hit at Thanksgiving,” Benjamin says. “Usually when your uncle asks, ‘So, what are you doing in school?’ he doesn’t expect you to answer, ‘Well, I’m excavating a house.’”
The course serves as a hands-on introduction to the principles of archaeology for those who hope to pursue a career in the field, preparing them for summertime digs in the Mediterranean and Middle East, Bentley explains. Even if they don’t concentrate in archaeology, students “learn how to find archival resources and how to interpret historical documents, which can come in very handy in lots of social science fields,” he says. “They become stronger writers, because we ask them to create ‘object biographies’ using observation and historical research.” Students also learn about community outreach, communicating with stakeholders, including the Moses Brown School, which owns the land, and descendants of both the Sacks and their employees.
A ROUGH START
In Fall 2015, students used historical maps to estimate the location of the house, then began digging—in vain.
“Historical maps are not always reliable,” says Miriam Rothenberg ’21 ScM, ’21 PhD, a junior research fellow at Oxford University. When she served as TA for the course in Fall 2016, “we called in a ground-penetrating radar expert and finally got a sense of the house’s layout.”
As the course’s instructor in Fall 2017, Rothenberg worked with students to dig a trench a meter deep, studying the land’s stratigraphy—a geological term for layers of soil and rock. Their work showed the house was situated on a sloping hill but that later landowners brought in sediment from nearby quarries to level the land.
Alex Marko ’21 PhD, an assistant professor of art history at Hofstra University, led the class next, digging into the remains of the Sack family’s kitchen and living room. An 1880s majolica tile, which once decorated a large fireplace, shed light on the family’s taste and budget. Tools for deep frying, some possibly manufactured in the family’s native Germany, offered a window into the customs immigrants hold onto even after they move. And a rusted Narragansett beer can helped illustrate how some local residents embraced innovation: “The can shows how the world was changing,” Marko says. “That style of Narragansett can dates back as early as 1935, the year canned beer was introduced.”
Students have drawn on diverse skill sets to enrich the project. In 2019, Sam Wertheimer ’22 created a geographic information system to digitally map the boundaries of the site. That same year, a trio of students created a Settlers of Catan–like board game based on the local history they’d learned. This fall, a student used his genealogy knowledge to identify every living descendant of the house’s many residents.
Next fall, Archaeology of College Hill will move to another local site. Wherever it is, students will discover artifacts that “have a story to tell about the past,” says Bentley. “The story they tell can help us understand more about the city we live in today.”