“What is your favorite artifact?”
The infamous question that archaeologists always get asked. We all have favorite artifacts; sometimes our favorite artifact changes with each project and some stay with us for a long time. This is the first in an ongoing series of our (many) favorite artifacts.
Our first entry istitled “Peace Forms” by Diane George.
History is made of moments. A collection of moments creates a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. Archaeologists don’t usually get to see moments, to connect to the experience of someone long dead, even when we have the advantage of using documents as we do in historical archaeology. We look at the bigger picture: what did the people in this household, or tenement, or community eat? What types of dishes or medicines did they buy? What can these things tell us about them? But an artifact that shows us a moment… that is a special artifact.
The first time I experienced this was when, as a student working in the archaeology lab at Brooklyn College, I found a thumbprint preserved in a piece of stoneware found during excavations at New York’s City Hall Park. Thumb to thumbprint, I thought about the potter, who perhaps was distracted by what he would be having for dinner, or how he was going to pay his debts, or any other of the million things that still distract us at our jobs today, and I experienced the artifact, the simple sherd from a stoneware jar, as a moment in time, one of many in the life of the unknown potter.
I’ve always loved the scene in Peter Weir’s brilliant film, Gallipoli, where Archy and Frank (the latter played by a young Mel Gibson), about to fight in one of the bloodiest and most senseless campaigns of World War I, sit atop an Egyptian pyramid at dusk, carving their names in the ancient stone. That is the epitome of a moment, fragmentary yet infinite, accentuated by the vastness of time represented in their surroundings.
This brings me to my favorite artifact from a multi-year project at New York City’s South Street Seaport. While monitoring construction work for upgrades to utilities, Chrysalis found almost 25,000 artifacts that had been deposited in a boat slip in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Among these thousands of artifacts is a small piece of window glass with an aqua tint that bears the words “Peace forms o–” hand engraved in a neat script.
Archaeologists do come across names, dates, or other writing on artifacts and buildings, although finding handwriting on buried window glass fragments is relatively rare. People were putting graffiti on their buildings in ancient Rome. The walls at Pompeii are covered with writings including political slogans and profanities, reflecting moments perhaps of pique, grandstanding, rivalry, civic pride, callousness, transcendance and depravity.
There are a number of examples from more recent history of writing specifically on window glass, which appears to have been a fairly common practice in England in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have written of his fear of failure on a window at the Court of Queen Elizabeth I. The writing implement was a ring that contained a sharply pointed diamond made specifically for such a purpose.
In the late 1800s, Alice Douglas-Pennant, the daughter of a Lord in northern Wales, fell in love with a gardener and was confined by her father to her room in Penrhyn Castle. She carved the words “essere amato amando” – “to be loved while loving” – on a window pane: possibly a moment of joy in the face heartbreak.
Children at school have etched their names on window glass: three girls named Fannie, Estelle and Lucy in 1887 at the State Female Normal School in Farmville; John B. Gerrish in 1869 at Harvard. Even famous authors weren’t above leaving a reminder that they existed in a moment: Dickens, Keats, and Twain are among those who have etched their names onto a window at Shakespeare’s birthplace.
The archaeology doesn’t give us a lot to go on to determine the meaning of the window glass fragment from the Seaport. It was written around the time of the American Revolution, almost certainly by a resident of the area, since the Slip was filled largely with trash from the neighborhood. This was an upper class community of merchants and artisans, and the etching may have been done with a diamond ring, such as the one owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. The handwriting is neat and legible, the work of an educated individual. What the author was trying to say can only be filled in by speculation. I like to picture someone standing at her window at the end of a war that was long and difficult for the City, receiving the news that the bloodshed and horror were ending. Perhaps as she looked out over the East River, reflecting on the resilience of New York, she wrote something like “Peace forms over our city”, freezing a moment in glass to be found by archaeologists over 200 years later.
What do you think is the message on the window glass? Please share your ideas in the comments.
“Finger Rings.” Beadle’s Monthly, A Magazine of To-Day, Volume I, pages 260-267, 1866. https://archive.org/stream/beadlesmonthly02unkngoog#page/n3/mode/2up
“Lohmann: Etching Their Names in History.” Richmond Times Dispatch, March 18, 2013.
“Penrhyn Castle Alice Douglas-Pennant ‘love story’ uncovered.” BBC News, October 28, 2012. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-20048410
“The Mysterious Writing on the Glass.” Inside the Peabody Museum, June 2010. https://peabody.harvard.edu/node/601
“Rachel Was Here.” Annette Cook, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, January 2010. http://www.jefpat.org/CuratorsChoiceArchive/2010CuratorsChoice/Jan2010-RachelWasHere.html
The scene from Gallipoli can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGuY5r-7ta4