Archaeology of Home

As I’ve just arrived on Cyprus, I’m thinking about home. 

This last week, I had the pleasure of giving a short tour of our 19th century home to a group of graduate students in my colleague’s, Cindy Prescott, material culture seminar. I took a little time to prepare a list of things that I’d talk about when taking students through an actual house. 

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Here’s the list:

1. Local History. One of the lovely things about our house is that it dates to the mid to late 1880s. The rail road comes to Grand Forks in 1887 connecting the community with the more settled and commercial east. As a result, our house has little of the prefabricated character of many homes in Grand Forks from the 1890s and early 20th century. As homeowners, of course, we pay the price since every window is a different size and the house lacks the charming, if ubiquitous catalogue woodwork of many more modest homes of a decade or two, but as historians we enjoy that our home likely dates to right around the arrival of the railroad to our community and the changes in local domesticated architecture associated with easy access to catalogues and prefabricated forms.

We also recognize that our house is on the southern edge of town when it was built. While we’re now comfortably surrounded by neighbors who built along the grid of streets established in the 1890s, the steeply pitched roof of our house and its unusual form sets it apart from the more common four-squares that surround us. 

2. Architectural Stratigraphy. There is only a little evidence for the architectural stratigraphy of our house because it underwent relatively few additions and modifications in its 120+ year history. This is a great challenge for students used to expecting dramatic changes in the form of houses and pushed them to notice subtle things gaps in the hardwood floors or how continuous siding  obscured the discontinuous construction of a small garage in the back of the house. In fact, we can argue that the garage has three clear phases: original garage, a small extension, which was then (maybe in the 1950s) covered with asbestos siding. 

3. Type Fossils. In archaeology we’re always looking for type fossils that can give us absolute-ish dates to the relative phases preserved in stratigraphy. In my house, we noticed an iron, in-grain, face-pinched, cut nail that provided a date for the only major edition to the house’s basic shape. These nails usually date to the late 19th century and probably date the edition to the first decade and a half of the home’s life and is probably contemporary with the arrival of indoor plumbing.

4. Social History. In America, houses are getting bigger and rooms are getting bigger. These facts obviously relate to the history of the home as a place for family relations. Our late 19th century home continues to show evidence of small rooms, for example, despite the decision in the 1950s to remove the wall between the front parlor and the formal dining room. These small rooms reflected the divisions between the space for formal display and places for domestic work. As that division broke down and social roles changes, spaces in the house changed and are clearly visible in the architecture. While our house will never have a “great room,” there was clearly an interest in creating a more open living space and less an interest in formal, functional divisions.

We also got excited to discover that the garage was extended, probably in the 1950s when cars got bigger, but not enough to accommodate the larger cars of the 1960s and 1970s. At some point in the 1970s an additional two car garage was built, and amusingly enough it has proven too small for my 10 year old pick ‘em up truck. So as houses have gotten bigger so have cars.

5. Excavations. All this has made me more and more interested in conducting a small scale excavation in my backyard. The house sits at the cusp of a number of developments historically in the southern part of downtown Grand Forks ranging from plumbing to construction practices. As I’ve said, the excavation will be remove the remains of a sand box from the backyard, but if I’m going to dig that out, I might as well go a bit deeper just to see if we can find any cultural deposits that shed light on the history of the house. 

Before we do that though, I want to go through the excavation reports from after the 1997 flood in Grand Forks. Apparently, there is a wealth of grey paper reports on excavations in Grand Forks. Without having seen them, I have this naive optimism that they could be the basis for a little article on the archaeology of a modern small town.

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