Date December 20, 2022
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In Archaeology of College Hill course, Brown students dig up Rhode Island history

Since 2015, students at Brown have been excavating a 19th-century Providence family home — unearthing stories about the booming local textile industry, the European immigrant experience and life in the Gilded Age.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — An 87-year-old Narragansett Beer can. An 1860s fabric crimping iron. A handful of cooking and baking instruments from Germany. And a cup and saucer commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Gaspee Affair, one of the earliest rebellions in the lead-up to the American Revolution.

Those are just a few of the extraordinary items students have unearthed in one of Brown University’s most popular and buzzed-about courses, Archaeology of College Hill.

Offered at Brown every fall, the introductory archaeology course takes students out of the classroom and into the fresh air of College Hill, a Providence neighborhood so rich in history that there’s always something more to discover underground. Over several weeks, students use trowels, sifters, toothbrushes and trays to dig up, clean and analyze artifacts they discover underground, working together to chronicle their findings on a class Facebook page.

Over the course’s 17-year history, students have learned the principles of archaeology through hands-on work at multiple sites in the area, including the First Baptist Church in America, the John Brown House and Brown’s own Quiet Green. But for the last seven years, they’ve been focused on a site at the corner of Hope Street and Lloyd Avenue, where secrets of a Gilded Age family lay buried for more than a century. The plot of land was once the site of the Sack family house; its patriarch, A. Albert Sack, owned a lucrative textile mill in North Providence.

“There’s so much history beneath our feet, especially in Providence,” said Erynn Bentley, a Ph.D. student at Brown’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World and the instructor of the Fall 2022 course. “This area has changed, grown and reinvented itself so many times over the last few centuries. Looking underground can not only help us understand when and how change happened but can also give us a window into the lives of people from previous generations.”

Bentley said the course doesn’t just bolster Brown students’ critical thinking skills and deepen their understanding of the city they call home. It also fleshes out the local historical record, adding interesting details to what Rhode Island historians already know and in many cases contributing new insights.

“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,” Bentley said. “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.”

Digging into history

Some of the Sack family’s quirks and complexities came to light on a dark evening in late November, as Archaeology of College Hill students spread out on a classroom floor to wash and inspect all of the artifacts they’d found at the excavation site earlier in the fall.

James Dahlen, a senior concentrating in business economics and biology, used an old toothbrush to remove what appeared to be bits of paper or textile from a mysterious 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 what may have been remnants of wallpaper.

“Studying biology has helped me identify and think about some of the materials we found,” Dahlen said, “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 skills, academic research and cultural context, and to feel a little bit like Indiana Jones.”

Throughout the semester, the students traveled down engrossing “rabbit holes” searching for more information on the artifacts they had found, they said. Senior Armeen Golshan, who is concentrating in economics and international and public affairs, dived 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 family home may have been one of the first in the city to get electricity. And Hadley Benjamin, a senior 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 when the Sack family would have bought it.

“This class was a big hit at Thanksgiving,” Benjamin said. “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.’”

But students don’t just sign up for Archaeology of College Hill for bragging rights around the family dinner table. Bentley explained that the course serves as a helpful hands-on introduction to the principles of archaeology for those who hope to pursue a career in the field. In the past, many Brown archaeology concentrators have taken the course to gain valuable experience in excavation and object processing before landing their first summertime gigs at excavation sites in the Mediterranean and Middle East. 

Even if they don’t go on to concentrate in archaeology, Bentley said, students in the course still learn valuable skills they can apply to any career. 

“They learn how to find archival resources and how to interpret historical documents, which can come in very handy in lots of social science fields,” Bentley said. “They become stronger writers, because we ask them to create ‘object biographies’ using observation and historical research. And they come to understand more about community outreach: We talk a lot about how to stay mindful and respectful of people’s different viewpoints, and how to engage the different stakeholders” — including descendants of the Sack family and their household employees, College Hill residents, and Moses Brown School, which today owns the land where the Sack house once stood.

A seven-year excavation

In the dig site’s early years, students also learned how to pivot when things go wrong, said Miriam Rothenberg, a 2021 Brown Ph.D. graduate who is now a junior research fellow at Oxford University.

In Fall 2015, students used historical maps to estimate the location of the house — but when they began digging trenches, they discovered that the maps had led them astray. 

“The first season, they had accidentally missed the house entirely with their trenches — historical maps are not always reliable down to the meter,” Rothenberg said. When she came to the course in Fall 2016 as a teaching assistant, “we called in a ground-penetrating radar expert and finally got a sense of the house's layout in a way that could be georeferenced. We were able to position our trenches to clip one of the outer walls. It was really satisfying and exciting.”

As the course’s instructor in Fall 2017, Rothenberg worked with students to dig a trench a meter deep, all the way down to sterile soil at the base of the Sack house wall. Though they didn’t find many exciting artifacts, they gleaned quite a bit of information about the land and its history by studying its stratigraphy, a geological term for the varied layers of soil and rock. The stratigraphy shows, for example, that the Sack house was likely situated on a sloping hill, and later landowners brought in sediment from nearby quarries to level the land.

Alex Marko — a 2021 Brown Ph.D. graduate who is now an assistant professor of art history at Hofstra University — said Rothenberg’s early work paved the way for success when he took over as the course’s instructor. Digging at last into the remains of the Sack family’s kitchen and living room, Marko’s students discovered artifacts that brought color and dimension to existing written records. An 1880s majolica tile, which once decorated a large fireplace inside the house, helped students glean the family’s decorative taste and budget. A handful of tools for deep frying, some possibly manufactured in the Sack family’s native Germany, offered a window into the customs immigrants hold onto even after they move to a new country. And a rusted can of Narragansett Beer helped illustrate how some local residents embraced progress and innovation.

“Aside from the nice local connection, the can also shows how the world was changing around the Sack house,” Marko said. “The style of Narragansett can we found dates back as early as 1935, the year canned beer was introduced.”

One thing I love about archaeology is how much it can teach us about the past, regardless of how much information we already have.

Erynn Bentley Ph.D. student
Erynn Bentley

Over the years, students, too, drew on their diverse skillsets to enrich the excavation project. In 2019, then-sophomore Sam Wertheimer created a geographic information system to digitally map the boundaries of the excavation site, giving his fellow students a firmer grasp on what lay underground. That same year, a trio of students created a Settlers of Catan-like board game that recalled lessons on archaeology and local history that they’d learned in the course. This fall, a student used his genealogy knowledge to identify every living descendant of the house’s many residents.

As the Fall 2022 semester comes to a close, so does the University’s seven-year excavation of the Sack house. Next fall, Archaeology of College Hill will move to another site in the College Hill neighborhood, where Brown students will no doubt dig up different but equally compelling pieces of Providence history. 

Until then, Bentley said, the public can view some of their many fascinating finds in the basement of the Joukowsky Institute, where she curated an exhibition titled “On Firm Foundations.” 

“I’ve spent a lot of time excavating various Roman sites, and it is so much different than digging at a 19th-century site where we have land deeds and wills and marriage certificates that already give us so much background,” Bentley said. “But one thing I love about archaeology is how much it can teach us about the past, regardless of how much information we already have. You get to interact with artifacts that are sometimes familiar to you and sometimes less familiar, and all of them have a story to tell about the past. The story they tell can help us understand more about the city we live in.”