Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation - Karin Goldstein - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation: Karin Goldstein November 21, 2006

(Courtesy Plimoth Plantation) [LARGER IMAGE]

How did your interest in Plymouth develop?
I came to Plymouth through my interest in objects rather than an interest in the Pilgrims. I'd been studying artifacts from the seventeenth century for many years. When this position became available, I saw a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the seventeenth century.

How does historical archaeology differ from other types of archaeology?
Some people call historical archaeology "the archaeology of capitalism." It uses a combination of archaeology and documentary evidence to study societies of the past, particularly colonial societies and their interaction with indigenous peoples.

What is the earliest archaeological evidence for habitation of the Plymouth, Massachusetts, area? How long did the Wampanoag Indians live there before the pilgrims arrived?
We know from archaeological (and other) evidence that Native Americans have lived in southeastern Massachusetts for around 12,000 years. We've found projectile points (arrowheads) on the museum property that are 7,000 to 8,000 years old.

The earliest colonial archaeological sites date from the 1630s and after. Unfortunately, we don't have any sites from the 1620s. The original Pilgrim village is located in downtown Plymouth, underneath seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings. We've had better luck excavating in towns adjacent to Plymouth, like Marshfield, Duxbury, and Kingston, where some of the colonists moved in the 1630s.

What are some of the most common artifacts found when excavating? What can we learn from them?
When excavating a Wampanoag site, chipping waste from making stone tools is probably the most common find. It shows the type of materials people were using to make tools. On colonial sites, the materials that survive underground are a bit more varied. I personally like ceramics, as they help archaeologists date the occupation layers.



Wampanoag and Colonial pots (Courtesy Plimoth Plantation)

What is the most unusual or unexpected artifact excavated so far?
One of my favorite objects is an iron brand made for marking boxes and other small goods, found at the Winslow Site in Marshfield. It has the initials of Herbert Pelham, the father-in-law of Josiah Winslow, who lived at the site.

What kind of houses did the Wampanoag Indians live in? What kind of houses did the Pilgrims construct?
Wampanoag people traditionally built wetuash, made of cedar saplings covered with bark. The inside of a wetu was lined with woven rush mats. The low, round design of a wetu works like a convection oven--it's so efficient that you can stand inside one in January without a coat. The English colonists built thatch-roofed, timber-framed houses made of oak, drawn from the houses they knew in England. The wood frame was filled in with wattle and daub, and then covered with wooden clapboards to protect it from weather.

The most famous symbol of Thanksgiving is Plymouth Rock. What evidence is there that Mayflower landed there? Where is the original rock today?
The evidence for the colonists landing on Plymouth Rock comes from oral history. In 1741 the townspeople planned to build a wharf on the site of the rock. An old man, Elder Thomas Faunce, protested. As a boy, Faunce had heard from Mayflower passengers that that was the rock where they had landed. The townspeople left the rock in place, where it stayed until 1774, when a group of Patriot militia moved the top half of the rock to Plymouth's Town Square, to serve as a symbol of separation from England. Eventually, in 1880, the top and bottom halves of the rock were reunited.

Can archaeologists determine what the first Thanksgiving probably looked like, in terms of tables, chairs, plates and utensils?
Unfortunately, our earliest archaeological and documentary evidence for Plymouth comes from the 1630s. Therefore we have to use our imaginations about what happened in 1621. The only knowledge we have of the 1621 harvest event comes from a letter that colonist Edward Winslow sent back to his friends in England. It describes a good harvest where the governor sent four men out to hunt fowl. The group of surviving colonists was joined by 90 Wampanoag men, who hunted enough deer to feed the whole group. That's about all we know. Knowing that only one ship had arrived from England, there probably was not a large amount of furniture. They'd only been here 10 months or so. The colonists probably improvised furniture out of barrels and boards. We know from later probate inventories that they had dishes made of earthenware, wood, and pewter. We've found early spoons and knives, but forks do not turn up in records or on sites until the early eighteenth century.

Describe the clothing worn by Pilgrims. Has any of their clothing survived to today? What was the significance of the buckles, and do any original pilgrim buckles remain?
Clothing is one of the most fragile things that historians work with. Only a few scraps survive in this area. The early colonists wore clothing made of wool and linen, in all sorts of colors that could be obtained from natural dyes. The image of Pilgrims dressed in black with white collars reflects the portrait of one of the colonists, Edward Winslow, who went back to England and had his portrait painted in 1651. Black was a fashionable color at that time.

Actually the Pilgrims did not wear buckles. They fastened their shoes with leather ties. Buckles did not come into fashion in England until the 1660s.

How was the Plimoth Plantation museum site chosen?
Since the original site of the Pilgrims' village is built over with houses from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we could not re-create the village there. Our founder, Harry Hornblower, decided to reconstruct the early village on the site of his family's property, three miles south of the original settlement. Our reconstructed village has almost the same topography as the early settlement.

Are there any excavations currently underway in the Plymouth area?
The most recent excavation was at the Historic Winslow House in Marshfield. This year we also excavated some of our own property at Plimoth Plantation to build a new pathway to the Wampanoag Homesite.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America