Friday, May 24, 2013

How to Produce Reconstructed Drawings of an Archaeological Site

I have several times been asked exactly how I produce the reconstructed drawings of archaeological sites that have decorated my site reports over the years. So allow me to explain.

The drawings are made by a profession artist, John Poreda of Richmond, Virginia. He and I have worked on this sort of thing for years. I supply him with a variety of information and rough sketches, and he does the rendering. In every case the drawing is a guess, and some things about it are more likely to be true than others. I assume that the site followed the normal pattern, that is, our site looked pretty much like others of the same time, place, and socioeconomic status. This might be wrong, of course -- our site might have belonged to the local eccentric. But this is the best we can do.

At the top is Poreda's drawing of the Sarah Whitby house in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC. Sarah Whitby was an African American from North Carolina who migrated with her family to Washington after the Civil War. The drawing was based on three sources: the archaeology, a rental from the 1890s that mentions the house, and a series of drawings that a Smithsonian artist named DeLancey Gill made of the houses of black migrants around Washington in this time period. One of these drawings is above. The archaeology of this site showed a stone-lined cellar hole measuring about 10 by 12 feet (3x3.5 m). The large number of nails showed that the house was frame, not log; some pieces of roofing tin showed that at some point it acquired a tin roof. The archaeology indicated a one-room house, but the rental said that the house had two rooms. I interpreted this as indicating an original single-room house with an addition. To highlight this, I asked Poreda to represent the addition with a different roofing material. My instructions in this case otherwised consisted of a measured floor plan and a bunch of the DeLancey Gill drawings, from which Poreda made the reconstruction.

Above is Poreda's reconstruction of the Luke Cannon Plantation in the Prince William Forest Park, ca. 1800. Comparing this with the Whitby reconstruction you can see that I have to specify how close or distant the view is to be. In this case I opted for a distant view, taking in the whole hilltop where the site was located. I did this partly because we had information on some of the other buildings of the farm, including the foundations of the barn and kitchen and some stones and nails where the stable is shown. I also opted to de-emphasize the house itself because we had only the foundation and little information on what it would have looked like otherwise. For a reconstruction like this I send Poreda a measured plan of the whole site that include topo lines showing the slope of the ground.

For most of the buildings we do, I send Poreda a sketch like this one indicating how I want them to look. Sometimes I also send photographs of standing buildings of the same type, so he can see where I get my ideas. The Luke Cannon facade was copied from a standing Virginia house of this period, I forget which.

The Prince William County Poorhouse, 1795. This reconstruction was based on the foundation and chimney base of the larger building, a statement in the record of the Overseers of the Poor that the site included the poor house itself and an unspecified number of "cabins."

Here you can see the site plan of the McKean-Cochran Farm in Delaware, which had two period of buildings, and then the reconstruction prepared for the earlier period. For this drawing I supplied Poreda with a measured plan of all the building footprints and sketches of each structure. The house, barns, and well were based on archaeological data. The kitchen indicated in the 1797 tax record was not found, so presumably its traces were destroyed by later construction or plowing. I added the kitchen in the place where I suspect it was, based on nails and soil chemistry, and then for good measure added one of the miscellaneous sheds that we know were all over these farms. That last is a judgment call. I did not do so for the Luke Cannon Plantation, which no doubt had other structures and so was messier than the reconstruction indicates. But when you make stuff up you never know how close you are to being right.

Images courtesy of the National Park Service and the Delaware Department of Transportation.

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