Daphne Ahalt: Fabulous Finds – Discovering Artifacts in the Archaeological Lab, Part One

Fall classes have started and I’m back in the Archaeology Lab learning and working with the artifacts that were recently excavated during Field School (see other blog posts by Joey Savino and myself for more about our experiences). Since returning, I have had the opportunity to explore artifacts recently excavated by UMW students. When I say revisit, what I really mean is sort and clean. I have brushed the dirt from numerous nails, animal bones and a couple of rocks – yep, rocks; and I have given dozens of shards of glass a good washing, while a couple dozen sherds of ceramics of various sizes and types received not just one bath, but a second – with a good brushing of the edges. Lesson learned, Professor McMillan.

The process may not sound the least bit exciting, but I have found that the opposite is actually true. As I clean each artifact, I reveal the details of an object that were previously obscured by dirt. What I thought was one thing often turns out to be another, and sometimes that thing is more interesting or exciting than originally thought! So, over the course of the semester I will be writing about the artifacts that I find most interesting, enlightening or just plain cool. I’ll start with an artifact that I think is all three.

Excavated Sticking Tommy. Photo by: Author

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the lab diligently cleaning a very large bag of metal objects that had been pulled from a unit. The layer I was working on is from a large midden associated with a Union Army encampment from 1862 in Stafford County, Virginia. The master context for this layer includes many military related items, such as bayonets, clothing materials, including eagle buttons, and several different types of ordinance. I came upon a blob of metal and dirt on top of a short and sharpened metal spike – it looked like an overgrown lollipop.

I began to brush the sides of the metal blob and soon realized that my effort was having little effect, so I decided to try brushing the blob’s slightly flattened top. Dirt immediately flew everywhere. I kept brushing as the dust continued to fly from the blob creating a brown, Pigpen-style cloud around me. Partly to save my eyes from the dust cloud, and partly out of pure curiosity, I traded my toothbrush for a pick. Ever so gently, I placed the tip of the pick into the top-center of the blob where I had been brushing. To my surprise, the dirt began to flake away in neat, thin layers. As the layers of dirt slowly peeled away, I began to see that under the blob there was an iron rim that encircled a small, tubular void.

With my interest piqued, I began to gently pick the dirt out from the void. As I picked at the soil in the void, the compacted dirt on the sides of the blob began to fall away. Suddenly the object took on a very recognizable form. Handing it to classmate and field school peer, Erin Fox, she immediately confirmed what I was thinking – it is a candle holder! But on a nail? Determined to see as much as I could, I continued to brush and pick until I was nervous that I would damage the artifact.

Examining the candle holder left me with more questions than answers. First, why is this candleholder perched on what appears to be a purposefully sharp spike? Next, what in the heck was this strange little candle holder used for exactly – its odd form must have had a specific purpose. There is a band of corrosion that wraps around the face of the candle socket that refuses to budge; it looks like a worm encased in dirt. What in the heck is that? Research mode kicked in, I had to know the answers. After more than a few fruitless searches, I finally stumbled upon a few websites that showed some promise.

Miner’s Sticking Tommy; Photo courtesy of Amazon

The first was for a historic 1850’s Vermont dairy farm. The page contains a picture of an object that looks very similar to the artifact I discovered in the lab. The title reads “Colonial Sticking Tommy” and the caption explains that the “little sticking Tommy wasn’t used in hard rock mining like most. It is a much earlier, utilitarian, and once popular candlestick used for in-home lighting during American colonial days up and through the Civil War.” Hmmm, interesting. The artifact in the lab was found on an 1840’s plantation that was documented to have had a Union Army Officer’s camp perched on it during the Civil War. The caption continues to note that the object has “two cast-iron spikes at a 90-degree angle to each other. It could be vertically stuck into a railing, post or table or it could be horizontally stuck into a wall or timber posts and thus provide lighting whenever and wherever desired.” Well, that explains the “nail” part. Could that also be the explanation for the worm-like corrosion on the side of the one in the lab? Did the horizontal spike get “stuck” forcefully one-too-many times into a wall or tree and bent beyond repair? Even without the horizontal spike the candle holder could be used vertically stuck into a table or the top of a fence post. Did the bent spike prevent the user from pushing the Tommy into the surface of the wood without poking themselves, rendering it useless and thrown into the midden where it was found during excavation? More questions, more searching.

The next link I investigated sent me to a website produced by Martha’s Vineyard Museum, titled Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship, which “tells the story of Laura Jernegan,… a 6 year old girl from Edgartown, Massachusetts set out on a three year whaling voyage with her father, mother, brother and the ship’s crew to the whaling grounds of the Pacific Ocean” in 1868. Found in the Artifact Catalog on the site, the picture’s caption describes a Sticking Tommy as “an iron candle holder that was used by sailors to ‘stick’ into wooden posts or flat surfaces below decks to provide them with a little extra light.” It goes on to say, however, that “because of their shape, they were sometimes used as impromptu weapons during brawls.” Ouch. But I have a consistent identification and a relatively similar artifact date; that’s enough information to get me headed in the right direction as I continue to research.

A Civil War Era “Stuck” Tommy; Photo courtesy of Ebay

The third link led me to an Ebay page selling a candle spike; not the best place to look for information, but I was curious so I clicked. Another visual match and a new search term! The item description read, in part, “original Civil War era miners metal candle holder with double direction spike. a very versatile[sic] utilitarian necessity for early lighting when and where it was needed. It measures 4 5/8”h x 3 5/8”d x 1 1/8”w and is in all original condition having authentic age character, surface and patina.” This made me curious as to the size of the artifact found in the midden in comparison to this and the others I had just seen, so I measured it with a caliper.

The Sticking Tommy found in the midden is only 2 ¼” high and is 1 5/8” at its widest point (including the “worm”). So, it would seem it is not only broken horizontally – since I have no way of measuring the artifact’s depth (horizontal spike) as above, just the width – but the vertical spike must have also broken. The Sticking Tommy in the lab is only half as tall as the one noted above, and it appears that someone has filed the vertical spike down to a sharp point so it could be re-used. Or maybe it’s some kind of make-shift Sticking Tommy, used in a pinch and then tossed aside. Either way, based on the information in the unit’s Excavation Context Records, and the small amount of information I have gathered so far, I surmise that the owner, whomever that was, finally wearied of the broken and battered candleholder and tossed it into the midden sometime near or during the Civil War.  As to who, we may never know; but we now have an idea as to what. I believe we have found a Sticking Tommy, a 19th century object used for convenient, portable lighting by persons along the east coast – and maybe for fighting.  Pretty cool, and enlightening, don’t you think? Going to have to research that fighting story some more. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

Bowl and “worm” on Excavated Sticking Tommy.
Photo by: Author



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