Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Oven Site Summary

The Oven Site excavations provide insights into the first century of Bermuda’s settlement. The site appears on both the 1616/17 and 1662/63 Norwood Surveys.[1] Previous seasons revealed that the house dimensions were approximately ten feet by twenty-four feet and that the house evolved in two phases. This year’s research focused on exposing the majority of the Period I (thought to date c. 1615 to 1640?) phase of Oven Site in order to determine its dimensions and construction techniques, refine its dating, and shed light on how and when the Period II expansion occurred. Additionally, having defined the front of the house, we hypothesize the presence of a sheet refuse scatter in the yard to the north of the house that can yield further information about a succession of Oven Site occupants.
With these research foci in mind, we excavated a five-meter by one-meter trench extending north and perpendicular to the 2013-2014 central east-west trench (N4-9, E5), and also excavated five meter square units (N5, E 2-5; N6 E4) covering the predicted front wall of the Period I house.

The Northern Trench and Test Pits

Outside the boundaries of the house footprint, the new trench was very shallow (10-16 cm) and yielded very few artifacts, a mix of modern, 18th-century quarry-associated, and 17th-century finds. This surprising result led us to suspect that the sharp slope northward of the topography in this area may have produced a natural northerly/downslope migration of deposits over time, but the presence of the relocated 1970s yellow metal tank and backfill pile made extension of the trench difficult. To assess the possible distribution of the typical/expected domestic scatter, we excavated seven 50cm-square test pits in an array to the northeast, north, and northwest of the North Trench, ranging from ten to fifty-five feet away. All test pits yielded artifacts and varied in depth from 35 to 55 cm.

Miraculously, two of the test pits came down squarely on features. Test Pit Four completely exposed a 30 cm-diameter posthole extending 35cm into natural bedrock. Associated artifacts included bone, charcoal, and a tobacco pipe rim, but no datable finds.

Test Pit Five bisected a distinctive feature exhibiting a linear vertical cut into bedrock, which was treated with mortar and plaster. Close examination of a fragment of this plaster/mortar face led us to believe it related to a water cistern, since it very closely resembled an exposed tarris tank discovered at Smiths Island’s western end in 2014. Remarkably, the test pit exposed the sloping, smooth northwest corner of this hypothesized tank. The feature fill below the grade of natural bedrock was left unexcavated, pending the extension of the Oven Site’s formal grid to these units for more systematic excavation.
 The Cistern feature fell into units N10-11, E7-8. Excavation revealed the entire western face of the tank  and a portion of the north wall, which has been disturbed by two superimposed postholes dug at a later date that damaged the plaster wall. Three additional post holes were identified just to the west of the tank’s western wall, likely associated with a wooden structure covering the tank .

 Numerous fill layers were artifact rich. Upper layers (Master Context 155) contained a mix of 18th- and 17th-century ceramics and tobacco pipes, including white salt-glazed stoneware and Creamware as well as coarse earthenwares typical of Oven Site’s interior layers, while the cistern’s lower fill layers (Master Contexts 166, 170, 171) had consistently 17th-century ceramics and a large concentration of large mammal, fish, and bird bones. Excavation at the Cistern Site continued through July 4 and removed nearly 60 cm of fill, but was suspended due to time constraints prior to completion; a final probe reveals that the bottom of the tank still remains at least 30 cm below the stopping point.

Our preliminary interpretation is that the cistern was probably abandoned prior to the general abandonment of Oven Site in circa 1712, given the dating of artifacts in much of the excavated fill, but that the hole remained open to receive additional deposits through the early- to mid-18th century, when quarrying  was being conducted to the south of the site. Dateable material from the deepest strata of the Cistern fill will help establish when the cistern fell into disuse, and to which set of Oven House occupants we can associate the faunal and cultural materials within the fill.

Within Oven Site itself, excavations along the northern portion of the Period I house followed the same stratigraphic progression found in 2014: a thin quarry detritus layer (Master Context 018) underlying the surface layer, followed by a 19th-century agricultural layer (MCxt 003) and a thick, dense earlier quarry detritus layer (MCxt 005) that seals the Oven Site Period II earthen floor layers (MCxt 006 and 009).

 Artifacts from the earth floor were consistent with past seasons and included several dozen additional worked stone chert flakes, which corresponds with the presence of Native American slaves during Boaz Sharpe’s occupation of the site (c. 1683-1705). A stone scatter abutting the northern front wall and in line with the revised rectangular orientation of the Period II house appears to have supported the footing for a wooden sill that anchored the front wall of the expanded Oven Site structure, since there is no evidence of earth-fast construction (i.e. sunken postholes) for this period.

Oven Site North wall, looking west. The 17th-century earthen floor (MCxt 006) is to the east of a linear stone scatter, which directly overlies the Period I northern wall cut.

As was found in 2014, the floor layers sealed a densely packed limestone rubble layer (MCxt 089) that we now interpret to be associated with the quarrying out of the hillside to the west to create the Period II house expansion and bringing the deeper Period I floor level up to the Period II level. This layer seals a greasy black charcoal-rich layer (MCxt 091) with brick and mortar fragments formerly associated with the salvaging of bricks from the original Period I hearth-less brick oven prior to the creation of the current Period II hearth and ovens in the site’s northwest corner. The density of charcoal and the presence of char in underlying postholes, however, now raises the possibility that the Period I house experienced a partial fire as responsible for the architectural transition. If this occurred, it does appear that in the rebuilding transition, the occupants removed evidence of earlier domestic deposits, since these layers are very sparse in terms of artifacts. In terms of datable ceramics, all recovered examples below the MCxt 009 floor layer are consistent with types found on the Sea Venture: plain North Devonware, Metropolitan/London coarse earthenware, and tin-glazed earthenware. The complete absence of bottle glass is consistent with pre-1640s sites. The absence of nails, scarcity of iron architectural artifacts of any kind, and absence of window glass in these early layers all point to an entirely timber-framed building held together with treenails and with open windows – material culture elements entirely consistent with daily life as described by the tenants of the Earl of Warwick and Sir Nathaniel Rich in the 1610s and 1620s in Vernon Ives’s The Rich Papers (Toronto, 1985).
Oven Site Period I footprint with MCxt 091 layer
and stone concentration, looking north.

The iron plate found at the end of the 2014 season in unit N5 E5 was completely exposed with the excavation of N4 E5. Despite the use of a microcrystalline wax consolidator as a field conservation effort, the plate was found to be entirely a rust stain lacking any intact iron and could not be removed intact. Unfortunately, the exposed shape was too ambiguous to attribute a use or function.

Perhaps the most significant discovery with regard to early Bermudian architecture emerged at the end of excavation as MCxt 089 and 091 were removed. Both layers abutted a stack of flat stones along the north wall cut, which were initially interpreted as a partial flagstone floor. As they were removed and put into a vertical position, however, it became apparent that they were actually fragments of the Period I house wall. Besides their consistent thickness, many stones exhibited evidence of smoothing or plastering and the impressions of wattle or wooden lathes. The porous character of the back portion of several of the stones reveals that they are reconstituted mortar fill rather than natural cut bedrock. The importance of this discovery is significant in establishing that at least at this early site, Bermudian builders were using limestone from the start in a local adaptation of traditional English wattle-and-daub timber frame construction, with a Bermuda stone and mortar slurry substituting for the clay daub that other English settlers used in England and Virginia. The fact that these stone examples are sealed by the earthen floor layers (MCxt 006 and 009) clearly dates them to Oven Site Phase I and the 1610s (that is, pre-1617 Norwood)

The final revelation of the 2015 season at Oven Site relates to the numerous postholes cut into the Period I floor and adjoining the northern wall cut. A second large posthole matching the one discovered in 2013 next to the early oven was found midway along the west wall cut. Period I Oven Site was supported by two huge posts carrying a roof ridge, which apparently anchored a series of cruck beams set onto bedrock but not anchored in postholes.  A single deep posthole was identified outside the wall cut at the midpoint of the north wall, which possibly anchored a wall sill; the lack of a similar corresponding posthole at either corner makes this particular feature enigmatic. A similar semi- subterranean early house was excavated by James Deetz at Flowerdew Hundred, Virginia, dating to the late 1610s or early 1620s and also apparently had cruck timber framing, so this building style was clearly within early English colonists' construction repertoires.

With dimensions of eight feet by fourteen feet, the Period I Oven Site was small and cramped, suggesting a very early shelter driven by immediate housing needs; even by the late 1610s, Richard Norwood reported that Bermudian colonists had embraced larger, more complex labour and resource- intensive housing for their families, shifting from living in "tents or cabbins" to "substantial houses."[2] The Period II expansion more than doubled the living area, increasing it from approximately 112 square feet to 240 square feet.

The discovery of the cistern and a large posthole to the north of Oven Site this season raises the distinct possibility that the building may in fact be a detached kitchen or service building for the main residence located nearby. This scenario fits well with the reality that Boaz Sharp and his nine Native American slaves would have been hard pressed to comfortably occupy a 240-square foot house, especially when surrounded by ample land for expansion. The proximity of water to the north, with access to St. George's just across the harbour and to Smiths Fort - which the master of the house was duty-bound to man and manage, strongly suggests that a conjectured but currently unlocated main house could be situated near to but north of Oven Site. Future research should include a comprehensive Phase I testing program, as well as more concentrated investigation of the area immediately adjoining the cistern feature - which would have had to have received water from some nearby roof. Rather than completing Oven Site, this season's fieldwork has recast the site's interpretation and importance.

[1] The original 1616/17 Norwood survey does not survive, but the author has argued the case that the 1626 printed Speed map reflects the state of Bermuda when Norwood departed in 1617, especially with reference to Southampton’s post-1617 settlement  patterns, as documented in Vernon Ives, ed., The Rich Papers. (Toronto, 1985).
[2] Richard Norwood, Insularum De La Bermuda Detectio, c. 1622, f. 9; John Carter Brown Library.

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