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Charles Magill

Throughout this semester we have been going through artifacts excavated primarily from the Magill house by Steven Dyson and his students in the 1970’s. Cataloging and analyzing artifacts is a very interesting and unique experience. It’s like learning about someone by going through their garbage. Although not all of the artifacts we cataloged were left by Magill himself it is fun to image what he was like from looking at the artifacts. This is what led me to write my final paper on Magill. I really wanted to get to know just who Charles Magill was. He was born in Tullycarn, Ireland in 1756 and moved to Middletown with his father, Captain John Magill, and his older brother Arthur in 1765. Magill followed in his father’s footsteps and became a ship captain and trader. By 1780, at the age of 24, he had amassed enough wealth to build his mansion on Union Street. Magill’s wealth and status continued to grow until it peaked in about 1795. At that point, as tensions rose between France, England, and America, he began to lose his wealth and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1800. As best as I can tell he moved to Vermont between 1800 and 1801 where he would live out the rest of his days. He died at only 51 years of age in 1807. In my research I went through various newspapers that ran in Middletown from about 1780-1830. The main paper that I examined was the Middlesex Gazette. I found advertisements that Magill himself placed in the papers and from these and various shipping records and logs was able to figure out a lot about Magill’s trading routes. He traded in goods from various islands in the West Indies such as Martinique, as well as Jamaica, and England. He sold some of his goods in New York and Hartford and also auctioned many of his goods right out of his house here in Middletown. He traded in a variety of goods such as rum, sugar, tin, ceramics, cloth, livestock, and probably even enslaved individuals. I also found articles that spoke to the character of Magill, and his harrowing adventures as a trader on the high seas. One article from 1788 spoke of how his ship was caught in storm and run aground off the coast of Long Island and was stuck there for 13 days. The article that struck me the most was from a 1795 issue of the Gazette entailing an encounter Magill had with a French Naval Office. According to testimony from several witnesses Magill’s ship the Brigadier Union was boarded by a Captain Garriscan of the French naval ship Brutus under the auspices of trade with Magill. Magill sold him several goods including sheep but received only a fraction of what he was owed. When he confronted Garriscan about his money, the French Captain threatened to attack Magill’s ship with the superior weapons on the Brutus. Seeing that he was outgunned Magill took the matter up through legal channels, and subsequently several articles about the incident were published in the Gazette. The one that I found the most interesting was written by Magill himself and refers to Garriscan as a “peevish, passionate tyrant, intoxicated with power and unrestrained by principle. convinced that he might exact any conditions from an unarmed man, he seemed more solicitous to acquire property than to do justice. The character of a pirate he well supported, but that of a naval commander he vilely degraded.” Magill was a proud and intelligent man and I think that the fact that he pursued the matter speaks to his strength of will, to his pragmatic ability to realized when he was at a disadvantage, and to his character. I really feel that through my research I have gotten to know Chuck Magill, and I respect him as a Captain, a brother, and the quintessential American entrepreneur. My essay on Magill will be available through this website soon and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

We recently began to look at glass sherds from the Magill site. My thinking about this site has definitely changed over the course of the semester. Something I talked about in my presentation was the change in my thinking about who lived at the Magill site. I had originally thought of all the artifacts as being owned by Captain Magill, whom I now have a better picture of since hearing a classmate’s presentation. However, all of the glass sherds I have recently been examining are from later years. I do not know very much about what was happening at the Magill site after about 1790, although I do know that after the 1830s, Middletown emerged from a post-shipping depression to become more of an industrial center. Throughout the semester, my interest in the individual people who purchased the goods we are looking at has also grown. I wonder about who purchased a cup and why, what they sought through buying it.

Last semester, I did my senior essay about two Jewish female labor organizers who had lifelong relationships with other women. I thought a lot about the affective connection between me and these women. Why was I so interested in them? What did they, as historical figures, offer me? As I think about my relationship to the women who may have handled the artifacts we are looking at now, I feel a similar affective connection. My feelings are some combination of sad and curious. It’s funny to feel sad about imagined figures that one has never known and is not related to. I think it is their invisibility that upsets me, the fact that we do not have access to their thoughts because they were never recorded. This feeling is similar to that which I felt in doing my research on the lives of Rose Schneiderman and Pauline Newman. The past has always interested me in this way. Thinking about consumer agency has only increased my tendency towards empathy with the women of the past.

However, as I have reflected on my senior project, I have had to rethink the framework of visibility. Perhaps there is some benefit to not knowing the “hard facts” about what figures from the past whose diaries and daily activities we do not have access to were thinking. The past, here, can be potentially drawn upon as a source of strength and imagination. I hope to go into my final paper feeling a connection through strength to the women whose lives I am studying. As in some ways I have been attempting to prove through my project, women have agency within their social positions to shape their identities. They are not dupes of the system.

Hands-on Archaeology

My partner Dana and I began sifting through an immense bag of bag of blued transfer printed pearlware sherds. The cataloging process for this particular bag took us several lab sessions to go through. We first began our sorting process by matching up all the broken pieces, which was exciting every time Dana and I found matching sherds.  Then after some guidance from Professor Croucher we realized this sorting process was not the best way to sort sherds and was ending up to be a bit too meticulous. We realized we could group the sherds into broader categories of style and design such as flow blues and geometric design categories. This made our cataloguing process seem much more manageable!
After having completed the cataloging process for this first bag Dana and now feel confident in identifying pearlwares. Each new bag of sherds helped us become more familiar with the various ceramic types and styles. For example we came across Chinese porcelain, whitewares, and glasswares. I was also able to become familiar with the various print designs with the help of our class reference books and Professor Croucher’s expertise. We came across many styles such as geometric, pastoral scenes, Chinese house design, Willow design, and many more.
Surprisingly enough we have only made it through one box, and started on another during the last few weeks of our lab classes. I am so curious to know what is in the rest of the shelves of boxes!
I have found our Middletown Materials class has been a rewarding experience. Having only had experience with archaeology through my intro archaeology class readings and what professor Croucher has described, this encounter with archaeology has been quite different. As an archaeology major, finally getting the chance to have hands-on experience working in an archaeology lab has been a very exciting and simultaneously frustrating process, that in the end I have greatly appreciated and learned a lot from. I have really enjoyed learning about the history of Middletown, and finding out how Wesleyan University was established.

I always hated learning about history. It was always presented as dry, boring things that dead people did. However, taking this class and performing research for my final project has made history come alive in a way I had never before encountered. I’ve been perusing issues of The Middlesex Gazette, Middletown’s first newspaper, and learning about history in a new and different way. Mostly, I was interested in trying to find articles and advertisements pertaining directly to the materials we have been re-categorizing in an attempt to understand consumer culture better. But, I was terribly distracted by the news of the day and how it was presented. There are stories of states accepting the ratification of the Constitution, war updates regarding Napoleon, cute stories of country life and moralistic interludes suggesting how to live.

Maybe I’m just “geeking out,” but, it’s truly fascinating watching the news progress almost as though I were there. Another thing that struck me is how little news has changed. Stories are sensationalized in 1788 just as much as they are in 2010! Obituaries are radically different: then, they focused more on the often gory details of how a person died, as opposed to today’s memorials of how they lived. There are also items showing that children were always perceived as being influenced by the media. One example that sticks out for me is the story of a boy from Paris who was arrested for hanging his sister. Apparently, he and his sister regularly attended Punch and Judy puppet shows and the boy behaved as Punch did. In his world, when you returned for the next show, Judy is alive and well–not so for his poor sister.

All in all, This class has been absolutely engaging and much more fun than I thought it could be and I hope that more people outside of academia will take an interest in Middletown and its rich history.

With just a few short weeks left to go in the semester, my lab partner, Aidan, and I have finally finished our second bag of material! I’m proud to say that Bag #2 took us a just three lab periods. I wish we could chalk this up to our phenomenally-improved cataloguing skills, but I think it was mostly a factor of the contents (though I can say without question that we’re getting better at what we’re doing). Our first bag contained an enormous pile of pottery sherds, all seemingly grouped together by the original student-archaeologists because they fit the description of “blue and white pottery”. I’m an Archaeology major, but unlike Aidan, I hadn’t had any experience in the lab before this class. I was thoroughly intimidated and feeling pretty clueless with just a crash course in pottery styles courtesy of a couple of readings under my belt. Soon enough, though, I was able to start distinguishing between styles and decoration–even to an untrained eye, hand-painting and transfer printing are not impossible to distinguish, and the bluish blobs of pooling glaze are (fortunately!) a dead giveaway for pearlware. This new-found ability to be able to look at a sherd and know even the smallest thing about it was exhilarating! Far too many labs later we triumphantly categorized the last bag of “unidentifiable pearlware sherds”, but the journey was a true learning process for both of us. We’re much quicker with finding date ranges now (the University of Florida database is my greatest friend), and much more comfortable bunching sherds together for the catalog that before we might have wanted to give their own, separate recognition with individiual numbers. The one thing that really struck me, however, is how quickly the littlest of things can become so exciting! If we found two sherds that conjoined, we sat and marveled at them fro a good minute before moving on; if we found a sherd with ridge molding, we couldn’t put it down; and a particularly interesting print, which for us was anything on a sherd larger than 1/4″ that was distinguishable, would keep us mesmerized for a good long while–I can’t tell you how many times I went back to this nicely-sized, ridged, body sherd with little blue asterisks painted all over it…it made my day. The three pieces in the photo below all conjoined together!

Three conjoining sherds with molded ridges and hand-painted asterisk motif

Now we’ve happily moved on to slightly larger things, and having a little more knowledge about what we’re doing when we go to pick out new bags to catalog has been fun. Let me tell you, though, if you thought a bag full of large chunks of earthenware was likely to have some exciting, conjoining sherds inside, you’d be wrong.

Here’s a look at a couple of our most exciting piece to date–a small doll’s face, and what seems to be something else’s ear!

Porcelain Doll's Face and Bisque Ear

A recently assigned class reading on the challenges of writing archaeological literature for multiple audiences (such as members of academic disciplines outside of archaeology, members of the general public, etc.) prompted me to examine the manifold personal perspectives that have shaped – either consciously or otherwise – my approach to handling, sorting and identifying the material artifacts from the Magill site in our laboratory.  In doing so, my first instinct was to pivot my embedded interests in enrolling in this course on my identities as a student of anthropology, a Connecticut resident, and a descendent of Eastern European immigrants.  I should note that I’m not yet certain as to how and why these frames of personal reference have become conditioned modes of thought.  For the moment, I merely want to flesh out how these aforementioned identities have contributed to the personal appeal that Middletown’s material history held for me.

My interest in Middletown history is, first and foremost, directly related to my status as an undergraduate student at Wesleyan.  As a result, I view my personal investment in Middletown’s history as somewhat circumscribed by the part-time and ultimately transient nature of my Middletown residency.  I feel privileged to have been afforded the opportunity – vis à vis my enrollment at Wesleyan – to personally handle fragments of Middletown’s material history, despite my indirect relationship to the town.  (Alternatively, if we were to get into the socioeconomic politics of this course, one could say that is precisely my ability to afford a private college education that has allowed me privileged access to Middletown’s material history.)

I feel the need, also, to point out that my overarching goal for this coursework is to develop a basic set of skills for analyzing material history in an archaeological laboratory setting.  To that end, I must admit that if, for example, I were enrolled in New York University, I would be just as happily working towards accomplishing this goal through, say, the study of material history of lower Manhattan.

Alternatively, as a Connecticut resident, I don’t consider the subject of such studies to be completely arbitrary.  I do have another source of vested interest in Middletown’s material history – my status as a longtime primary resident of Westport, Connecticut.  The Saugatuck River, which flows through Westport and drains into the Long Island Sound, once facilitated an active shipping industry, just as the Connecticut River did for Middletown.  According to Woody Klein’s Westport Connecticut, The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence (2000), beginning in the post-Revolutionary War period and continuing through the first half of the 19th century, farmers who had settled along the banks of the Saugatuck River began to export grain, vegetables (most notably, onions) and butter to New York, Boston and Providence.  The network of shipyards and warehouses that was established along the River also facilitated the import of sugar, molasses and hardwood lumber from the West Indies.

Although Westport’s shipping industry was of a decidedly smaller scale than that of Middletown’s at it’s height, the two towns do share similar trajectories of growth, based on shifts from farm-based to shipping based economies. In this way, I see Middletown as a sort-of ‘stand-in’ (a term I use very lightly) for my hometown of Westport, Connecticut.  That is, part of my interest derives from an imagined notion that the some of the pearlwares whose sherds we recovered from the Magill site also decorated the tables of early residents of Westport, many of whose circa 18th and 19th century houses still stand today.

On another note, I was amused to learn in the excerpt we read of Elizabeth A. Warner’s “A Pictorial History of Middletown” that the European migration to Middletown in the mid-19th century included Polish émigrés.  My paternal grandfather emigrated from Poland to the United States in the 1930’s, although his family ultimately settled in Brooklyn, NY.  The addition to Magill’s home, which was removed in order to facilitate Professor Dyson’s excavation of the site, was dated as having been constructed post-1870, according to Wesleyan graduate Thea De Armond’s “Middletown Site Summaries.”  Following the vein of architectural history, I have wondered whether this addition was constructed in connection with a conversion of the Magill residence into a tenement for Middletown’s industrial labor force.  Could European immigrants – including my Polish “brethren” – have occupied the Magill site as boarders, and perhaps utilized the brown stoneware bottle, a large fragment of which was present in our second bag of artifacts, to store ink used to write letters to family in the homeland?  It is narratives such as these that emerge from my ancestral imagination occasionally as I sort and categorize fragments.  I readily concede that they are not necessarily historically viable narratives.  Nevertheless, the potential link between my heritage and that of Middletown’s industrial labor force contributes to my thirst for this particular laboratory research.

Having articulated the personal appeals that Middletown’s material history hold for me, I feel obliged to acknowledge them in the written portion of my final project.  However, right now I’m questioning what place (if any) the personal preoccupations of the archaeologist have in archaeological narratives.  With reference to my personal ‘preoccupations,’ is one identity more important to emphasize than the other, and if so, for which audience?  What does the audience of this blog think?  I would appreciate any feedback you have to offer on this subject!

And now, time to rest up before tomorrow’s laboratory session!


I have somehow, in the process of taking one archaeology class, become a giant nerd.

My partner, Rebecca Kowal, and I are currently sorting through a bag of assorted redwares — a type of pottery that is generally orange-red to dark brown and made of a soft, porous material. Terra cotta, which was and still is used for flowerpots, is a kind of redware.

As it was used in between the 1700s and the present, redwares are hard to track down and date. They were easy to make locally, as they are what potters call low fired (baked at a low temperature), and people tended to make straightforward, glazed redwares to use as storage, kitchen or toilet wares. This makes them pretty untraceable unless they were fashionable and expensive redwares with designs on them, which can be dated to timeframes spanning a few decades.

My nerdiness came out in the process of sorting this particular bag. In my section of materials to sort, I found a sherd (like a shard or fragment, only British and generally used for pottery; they’ve kind of cornered the market on useful words, maybe as a way to get back at us pesky American upstarts?) from the broken top of a round vessel — maybe a storage vase or cup. It’s a smallish sherd, about an inch or so all around, but I noticed that intermingled with a dark reddish-brown glaze was a lot of black mottling, almost like the glaze had dripped down the side of the vessel. This is the likely explanation for what happened, but I’d been reading up on redwares earlier (to try and find out how I can better date and locate what I find) and stumbled across a blog about… Kentucky? Tennessee? redwares. The blog included a picture of a vase whose glaze pattern matched my sherd, stating that it was a local distinct style of pottery.

This was great! I’d found something unique! I was so excited! I actually used this many exclamation marks in my descriptions of what I’d found! Thing is, having a sherd from Kentucky or Tennessee in a home in Middletown, Connecticut has some interesting trade implications that I wanted to find out more about. Middletown was, at the time period our sherds are from, a huge hub of commerce; rivers were much more commonly used routes of trade back then, and the bend in the river just above Middletown meant that our town was the natural port of harbor for river-to-land commerce. We were rockin’.

The main problem was that, try as I might, I couldn’t find my source. I’d been bumming around Google looking for references, as the academic ones I had told me things like, “redwares were locally produced from the mid-17th century on.” (Delaware database) That’s not exactly specific and I had no previous experience with redwares, so I figured I’d poke around some and see what I found. I spent a couple of days, on and off, trying to track down which search terms I’d used and clicking around on things, but after a while I needed to move on. As interesting as the sherd would have been, it’s just as likely that the glaze was imperfectly applied — which makes sense, given that these wares were often utilitarian and not overly decorative — and that my sherd is from a perfectly normal, untraceable and undatable redware. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t find the source, but regardless the sherd was too small to make a conclusive finding.

Michelle Garcia, with one of her pottery sherds

Michelle Garcia, with one of her pottery sherds

Maker’s Marks

Most of the material we sift through in Middletown Materials is unmarked; we can date it or identify its source only by analyzing the particular features of the artifact, comparing those features to other pieces that have been found and reported in archaeological literature, and make a “best guess,” so to speak, as to from where and when the artifact originates.

Maker's mark on blue and white creamware.

Maker's mark on blue and white creamware.

Occasionally, however—in the midst of piles of unmarked blue and white ceramics—we run into a ceramic sherd with an identifying mark, or “maker’s mark.” At the right of the page is an example of a maker’s mark on a piece of  blue and white creamware. The ceramic appears to be a creamer or other small container, judging by the size of its base.

My partner, Dawn Piscitelli, and I encountered this piece in late February and it was our first encounter with a maker’s mark. We were able to track down the source of this potsherd through the an online index of potter’s marks from Staffordshire, England. While our piece of pottery had a mark in which only “LEWS” was visible, we were able to find the maker’s mark for James and Ralph Clews, which matches perfectly with the visible portion of the mark on our own sherd. We were, through this identification, able to ascertain that our ceramic was manufactured at Cobridge in North Staffordshire, England, roughly between 1818 and 1834.

Part of the excitement of archaeological research is the encountering this kind of very sure evidence—it gives a kind of visceral connection with the past one is studying. Of course, most of the artifacts we find are not so interesting in and of themselves; they nonetheless serve larger research purposes. It’s nice, however, to have these kinds of moments to break up the relative monotony of the identification and cataloging process.

Being an English major with a passing fancy toward Archaeology, I am finding this class frustrating and rewarding. Having had no practical background in the science aspect, I’ve been whittling my way through a bag of blue and white painted pearlware sherds with my fabulous partner Morgan Hamill. What, at first, seemed an unsurmountable pile of teeny pieces of plates has become a wealth of knowledge regarding what years these fragments were manufactured in. This doesn’t necessarily let us find a distinct date, usage or socio-economic status regarding the consumer or owner of these items, but it does provide us with a broad range describing how long certain ceramics remained in daily use since they were all found within the same trash midden.
I am hoping that my further studies into the newspapers of the time will reveal clues and unveil the secrets of these chips of blue and white along with their popularity and more effective dating.

Dawn and Morgan make progress on their cataloguing

Dawn and Morgan make progress on their cataloguing

Dana Pellegrino (left) and Miriam Manda (right) unscramble a bag of 'sorted' ceramics

Dana Pellegrino (left) and Miriam Manda (right) unscramble a bag of 'sorted' ceramics

Week Seven update. Miriam and I have finally come to an end with our first bag of sherds, after working for approximately four lab classes. Phew. To be honest, it was quite a challenge, considering that my knowledge of Archaeology and the process of sorting sherds was practically nothing before I entered “Middletown Materials.” Yet, the course readings, lectures, and lab time with my wonderful partner Miriam have helped me to understand it all more and more each week.

Take our bag of sherds for example. Before this course I would have looked at the one hundred or so ceramic fragments and not have been able to distinguish even 10% of them. Yet, after a few readings and lectures I was able to say: “Ah! This kind of reminds me of a Chinese House Style Print, with it’s sparse strokes and simple border,” and then go look it up in one of our reference books. I really surprised myself. I even began to find that little clues revealed grand purposes, like a teeny handle that was hand painted and so small it was most likely used for a dainty teacup. With this information perhaps I’ll be able to decipher more about who might have been using the teacup, if it was in a set, and what the socioeconomic status of the owner might have been…maybe.

I’m slowly, but definitely surely on my way to becoming more involved in the archaeological process. When we finished our bag of sherds, we found so many different styles of blue transfer printed whiteware, pearlware and porcelain: Chinese House Style print, Willow print, handpainted, etc. I’m excited to see where our next bag takes us.

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