Summer Archaeology in the Garden State- Rick Altenburg

May 11th, 2019 was a perfect day for digging; it was a warm, sunny day, with a slight breeze coming off the Atlantic Ocean. It was on this day that I had the opportunity to volunteer on a salvage archaeological dig in my hometown of Middletown, NJ. The dig was located at a mid-18th century colonial farmhouse that had recently been purchased by a private developer. Thankfully, the owner allowed the Monmouth County Parks System, in collaboration with the Archaeological Society of New Jersey (ASNJ), to dig a series of test units on the property before the bulldozers rolled in.

            To determine where to dig units, Monmouth County Parks archaeologist Kristen Norbut used a grid of shovel test pits (STP’s) and analyzed the number of artifacts in each hole. It was by a stroke of sheer luck that Kristen put one of her STP’s directly between a row of bricks and a pile of field stones. This curious feature necessitated a closer look, so it decided to dig a five-foot square unit around the STP. Three fellow volunteers and I picked up our shovels and immediately got to digging.

Me on the right. Courtesy of ASNJ.

            There were a ton of artifacts located in our 5×5 square, most likely because the feature was filled in with trash sometime in the early 20th century. Some of the more interesting artifacts that provided us this information were a couple of coins that were found within the midden of trash. One coin was a wheat penny from the 1920’s while the other was an 1897 Barber/Liberty Head Quarter. I personally found the Barber Quarter while sifting—it was one of the highlights of my day.

Barber Quarter. Courtesy of ASNJ.

            Old coins are always fun to find. However, they were far from the only interesting things found in our unit. We also found a 19th century whiskey bottle, an enormous padlock, and several features including a deep hole encircled by a ring of stones. This ring was located within what was clearly a foundation of a structure and therefore led to the hypothesis that we had found either a well or an outhouse. What made us change our idea was the large amount of cut bone and ash deposited in the circle of stones. In light of this evidence, as well as the fact that there was already a well 20 feet away and would not be placed directly next to an outhouse, we came to the conclusion that we found what was most likely a smokehouse.

            I feel very lucky to have been given the chance to actively preserve history in my own hometown. Digging at the Hendrickson House not only taught me a piece of Middletown’s history, but allowed me to connect with it in a real way. Holding artifacts that have not been touched in over 100 years is an extremely surreal feeling. Another part of what makes preservation so special is the people you meet while doing it. An older man from the adjacent property came to talk to us archaeologists about what we were trying to accomplish. He revealed that he had been born and raised in the historic house. Multiple generations of his family lived there, and he was obviously emotional that it was going to be demolished. Nevertheless, he was grateful that archaeology could be done to gather as much historical data on the property as possible. Our conversation is the reason why I want to do preservation in the first place. After all, archaeology is about studying people, not just artifacts.

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