James Holliday House Reflection

This post is written by field school student Laura Wright:

Now that we’ve finished excavating at the James Holliday House, it’s interesting to look back over the past three weeks and consider how much has changed. We found a lot of curious artifacts as Aley explained in her post but what fascinated me most within our unit were all the features that kept popping up.

We were digging a 4×5 unit off the southeastern corner of the James Holliday house. This spot was chosen due to its close proximity to the privy that the field school excavated last summer. Over the past three weeks we paused to puzzle over the latest oddity in our unit.

Almost immediately below ground level in the northwestern section we uncovered a brick patio. Due to its proximity to the surface we know its fairly recent and the corner was situated very near to the southeastern corner of the addition. Then a few inches down our stratigraphy changed. The soil to the north was hard packed clay; to the south, a layer of silt with many coal inclusions. We took down the clay first, revealing that the layer of coal rubble that continued underneath didn’t reach the northern wall. As we dug deeper, we uncovered a circle of coal ash in the northeastern wall approximately six inches wide. It extended approximately a foot down and the only artifacts were a couple small pieces of glass. Hypotheses included a hole for a controlled fire or a posthole. As we got about a foot and a half down we uncovered a lot of large bricks and natural stone on the western half of our unit. We thought it was just random scatter but as we excavated deeper we uncovered all this rubble was surrounded by a semi circle of small brick fragments disappearing into our unit wall. It looked like a bonfire pit but none of the bricks were burned. We finally decided it was probably a garden.

For me, these features within our unit raised many questions about the Holliday family. Why would they build a patio so close to the addition? Would it have acted more as a path around the house? Were they simply piling coal in their backyard or was there some other purpose for the mound of coal filled soil we found? How did someone dig such a deep hole with only a diameter of half a foot and why would they fill it with coal ash? Why would you pile bricks and large stones in your garden? To me, many of the features we uncovered still don’t completely make sense.

What I’ve realized is how our actions and decisions greatly affect how our history will be understood in the future. Every feature we uncovered was the result of the Holliday family creating them to serve specific purposes. Whether it was a garden, posthole, or patio, it served a precise function for the family. It fascinates me that with less than two centuries between us, we can still struggle to see the reasoning, and sometimes even the purpose behind of the remains of people so closely related to ourselves.

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