Podcast S5 E7 | 27 min

Finding Mrs. Jackson

9 May 2023
From your backyard to a hill by the ocean, you can come upon an archaeological find just about anywhere. But what happens when that object was a keepsake meant to stay in the ground?

When archaeologists excavate, they have some idea of what they will find in the ground. But in 2016, a team of archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, was genuinely surprised when they uncovered a Victorian-era cache. In the process, they forged an uncommonly deep connection with an individual from the past.

Narrated by Anya Gruber, this story shows how archaeology can humanize the past and how loss can bring us closer.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod. Ann Marie Awad was the editor for this piece, with help from producer Cat Jaffee. Seth Samuel was the audio editor and sound designer. The executive producers were Cat Jaffee and Chip Colwell.

Anya Gruber is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, specializing in paleoethnobotany. She previously worked in New Mexico and currently works in coastal Massachusetts. Anya writes about a range of topics, including ancient diets, medicinal plants, mourning practices, and infectious diseases. Follow her on Instagram @anyagruber.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

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This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is part of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship funded with the support of a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Read a transcript of this episode .

Finding Mrs. Jackson

Eshe Lewis: From your backyard to a hill by the ocean: An archaeological discovery can happen just about anywhere. But what happens when the discovery was a keepsake that was meant to stay in the ground? Do you keep digging?

My name is Eshe Lewis. This is SAPIENS. And this story comes from Anya Gruber, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, Austin.

What makes us human?

Sara Hoffman: It’s a wild ride. Brace yourself.

Speaker 3: Imagine the future.

Miss Jeri Hutton Green: I will not be quiet.

Koffi Nomedji: You to have to start from scratch.

Julio Tiwiram: Una revolución aquí en la mente.

Emily Willis: It gives me goosebumps.

Eshe: What makes us human?

Group: Let’s find out.

Eshe: SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human.

Anya Gruber: It’s a chilly June morning in 2016 on Cole’s Hill in the ancestral homelands of the Wampanoag, in a village called Patuxent, otherwise known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. The scent of salt spray and fish-and-chip shops mingles with the fog coming off the Atlantic Ocean. You may know it as the home of the Pilgrims or where the first Thanksgiving took place. We’re not talking about Pilgrims today.

Christa Beranek: We didn’t really know exactly what it was that we’d taken out of the ground, but we’d got this thing out and then started exploring the area around this central, unknown thing.

Anya: At an archaeological excavation on a triangular patch of grassy lawn surrounded by hedges, Christa Beranek and her team found some very interesting artifacts.

Christa: I was just about to say, “Oh, you know, could you do that with a shovel? Could you, you know, finish this unit off a little faster? Because I think we’re almost done.” The next thing that they uncovered in this last little section of the unit was a fully intact glass syringe, which, if there had been a shovel involved, would have been in smithereens.

Nadia Waski: We came across some kind of flecks of wood or organics [that] were starting to pop up.

Anya: Nadia Waski was one of the field school students who was excavating the pit at the time.

Nadia: And that’s when we slowed it way down because we were very curious of why, all of a sudden, wood would be popping up in that area.

Anya: These mysterious discoveries were only the beginning. As Christa recalls …

Christa: We started to find pieces of jewelry. There was a cameo. There was a rolled leather belt. There was a locket, small and personal items like the contents of a sewing kit, a thimble, and a collection of loose buttons—so maybe the contents of a bedside table—a perfume bottle, some eyeglasses.

Anya: Often archaeologists are lucky if they just find a few pieces of broken pottery, maybe some glass, a nail or two here and there. And while these are all scientifically interesting and important, what was coming out of this pit was a lot different from those more typical finds.

Christa: You know, people always joke about archaeologists finding … “Oh. Find any gold? Find any jewels?” And usually, like, “No, no, no, that’s not what we’re looking for.” But here, in fact, we were finding, you know, people’s jewelry.

Anya: Christa’s team expected to find remains of houses; houses that would have lined the street in the 1920s. So finding these buttons, cameos, perfume bottles, straight pins, and jewelry clearly from the 1800s was a surprise. It certainly was not what Victoria Cacchione, Nadia’s dig-mate, had imagined when she signed up for the field school.

Victoria Cacchione: Usually you go through periods of not finding anything, and then you stumble across something of this magnitude, just a volume of objects all together. And it’s a bit shocking.

Anya: And it’s true that part of the fun of archaeology is not knowing exactly what you’re going to find, no matter how much research you do. But typically, you do have some idea of what you’re going to dig up.

David Landon: So archaeologists spend a lot of time digging and finding artifacts and recovering features.

Anya: That is David Landon, the other director of the Plymouth excavation and a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, alongside Christa.

David: It’s really unusual when you’re completely surprised. So I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m rarely surprised. You know, there always is a process of discovery that’s always new, and you don’t know what you might uncover.

Anya: David was there when the students started discovering these remarkable items.

David: It was just clearly a very different kind of deposit right from the start.

Anya: What stood out to the team, aside from how unusual the artifacts themselves were, was how intentionally the objects seemed to be buried all together. “Usually it’s kind of a jumble and not nearly so neat,” says Christa.

Christa: And we had seen parts of what looked like a ribbon in the soil. And then there was this braid of hair on top. So clearly this is a very intentional, very careful, intentional deposit, not things that people had lost, but things that had been put here.

Anya: This was very unique.

Christa: People don’t normally intentionally bury collections of objects like this. You might find one or two of these things that are lost, but nobody working on the site had ever excavated anything like this.

Anya: A syringe, jewelry, a leather belt, buttons, and all sorts of beautiful things buried lovingly together on a hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts. But there is far more here, and somehow it kept getting more and more unusual, like a “whole necklace’s worth of loose gemstones” kind of unusual.

Christa: So below the loose dirt with these small gemstones in it, there was something really fragile and organic, the kind of material that doesn’t always preserve well archaeologically. And we couldn’t tell what it was exactly, but it was clear that it had wood or leather components to it, maybe some fabric parts, and that it was super fragile.

Anya: Those wood bits the team found earlier turned out to be debris from what they thought might be some kind of wooden box. Whatever it was, they unearthed it as carefully as they could and rushed it off to the conservator for a thorough cleaning.

Christa: Their conservator called us back the next day to say, “Wow, that stack of daguerreotypes you sent me is really cool. And did you see the braid of human hair on top?” And we’re like, “Wow. What? No.”

Anya: It turned out that what they thought was a wooden box was actually a stack of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. These are kinds of early photographs first produced in the early 1800s. You may have seen this early photography technology in museums or at estate sales. They are black-and-white or kind of sepia-toned, and the image feels almost ghostly and otherworldly.

David: I’m not sure if those are ever found on an archaeological site in a condition where images can be recovered from them.

Anya: David Landon says that old photographs are super, super fragile and get destroyed really easily.

Imagine what happens to a thin piece of paper when it gets left in the rain for 200 years. But eventually, conservators were able to bring the photographs back to life.

David: It’s kind of a partially hidden image on some of these, by the signs of weathering and decay.

Anya: I remember the first time I saw these images. It gave me goosebumps, which sounds cliché, but it’s true. Though partially hidden, the figures are still striking. One of the images shows a young woman sitting, wearing a bonnet in a dark-colored dress with a white collar and a bow at her neck. Her image is surrounded by a gold frame with a tiny pansy design. Another shows a boy smartly dressed in a suit with a smile on his face; in another, a young girl with braids in a printed dress.

Christa: It was pretty incredible because we always know we’re dealing with people in the past. Sometimes you know their names, but you very, very rarely get pictures of them.

Anya: Christa says the team was not really sure what to make of this discovery.

Christa: I don’t think we had a good idea of what it was because it’s not something that there are really any parallels for. You know, people don’t normally intentionally bury collections of objects like this.

Anya: After the field season ended, she went to work on two questions: One, why were these objects buried? And two, who buried them? She investigated land deeds and other historical documents to try and narrow down the time period for these artifacts. Several were able to be dated.

Christa: We looked at the dates of the daguerreotypes and the ambrotypes. When were those invented? Ambrotypes only existed for a relatively short period of time.

We looked at the dates of when the different jewelry was popular, and these were all things that had dates in the middle of the 19th century, the second half of the 19th century. But then there were also some other things in there that had some later dates. There were some drawing pencils that still had the manufacturer’s name on them, and some other things that provided a later 19th-century date. So we knew that, although these things had been held onto for a long time, these were older objects, something … things that people had held onto for decades and then buried together at the end of the 1800s or maybe even the early 1900s.

Anya: Christa was able to track down the family who lived on the lot next to where the cache was found. She figured out that the Jackson family once lived there and that perhaps Judith Jackson buried it.

Christa: And it was when we started to learn the story of this family and the woman who was the last member of her family, with her three children having predeceased her and her husband having predeceased her, that we began to think about this as sort of a private act of mourning.

Anya: All of the objects were here because one woman buried them after suffering a series of tragic losses. And there the archaeologists were, over 100 years later, bringing them back out of the ground.

Finding Mrs. Judith Jackson put a name and a story to this discovery. It was no longer just a cache but a precious collection of keepsakes. This gave a different perspective to the excavators at the site, like Nadia Waski.

Nadia: You know, on the academic side, it’s extremely exciting. On the more personal side, when I would go home, it was a little bittersweet because it’s like, “Well, thank you to that person for burying this stuff, but it’s out of extreme loss, and we’re the ones who are finding it and get to tell the story.”

Anya: All of the people who I talked to about Mrs. Jackson’s memorial cache expressed very similar sentiments to Nadia, that it was fascinating and exciting, but it was also really difficult and very emotional.

Emily: It gives me goosebumps.

Anya: Emily Willis, a mortuary archaeologist and self-proclaimed Creepy Death Girl, said that this was the most humbling project of her career so far.

Emily: There’s nothing in this cache that was done accidentally or without great thought and great intention.

Anya: Emily swooned when she saw some of these objects, and I mean full falling-to-the-ground swooning.

Emily: I kept having to catch my breath and take a moment and sit down. I feel like with meaning and memory and intention, you don’t want people to be forgotten. Mrs. Jackson didn’t want her children to be forgotten.

Anya: Emily and one of her dig-mates, Catherine Grimes, later recovered even more belongings: a pocket watch, buttons, a toothbrush handle, more pins and brooches, more jewelry, a locket, and a folded-up piece of fabric with a hook-and-eye closure still attached.

Catherine Grimes: You know, so it’s like, OK, well, are we looking at a sewing kit?

Anya: Cat recalled holding some of these objects—the first time they’d been held in well over 100 years.

Catherine: Who knows how many people before them had that pocket watch? Who knows how long they held onto it? You know, the kinds of things that get passed down from person to person in families.

Anya: Learning Mrs. Jackson’s name and her story made the crew feel that they could connect with her. And it was hard not to try to picture what she was like or what she was going through. Christa said she imagined Mrs. Jackson to be tough as nails.

Christa: Did she dig this personally? Maybe not. But if not, she directed the construction of a really sort of substantial memorial on her yard. So she clearly had a vision and a desire to do something. And I think that’s something that everybody can relate to, like the desire to do something after the death of a loved one or a family member, and to have some sort of impact, even if that impact is going to be kind of secret or personal.

Anya: David Landon also talked about how he really felt that personal bond with Mrs. Jackson. I really love working with David because of how moved he gets when we find good archaeology. I can recall a few times when he’s gotten teared-up in the field.

David: I always tell people that, you know, I do archaeology with both my heart and my head. And this is a great example of the heart part of the archaeology, when you really have, kind of, a very humanistic connection to people in the past.

Anya: There is no denying that this discovery was one of the coolest things that everyone working that summer had ever seen. But cool and ethical aren’t always friends. Now that Mrs. Jackson’s keepsakes were out of the ground, what was the team going to do with them?

Archaeology is a destructive science, no matter how careful you are. You can never re-excavate the same spot. Once you move dirt, it’s moved forever. Cat talked about how she and her dig-mates had to discuss this problem as they were actively excavating.

Catherine: It brings up that moment in archaeology when you have to decide what you remove and why. Because this is something that, in an ideal world, would and should remain buried, would and should remain in the ground.

Anya: After the field season of 2016, when the memorial cache was first found, David and Christa weren’t sure if they would return to Cole’s Hill.

Christa: We sort of uncovered and destabilized the first part, so we had to finish that in 2016. But now, having the sense that these are things that were deposited intentionally, that would need a lot of care if they were excavated, no, we were going to leave any of the rest of it there.

Anya: But in 2021, the team was drawn back to the site. A local museum wanted to build a memorial park on Cole’s Hill. A memorial of multitudes in fact: to the victims of the Great Dying, when hundreds of Indigenous people passed away from disease in the early 1600s; to the passengers of the Mayflower, who died that first winter of 1622; to the victims of the 1918 flu; and to the victims of COVID-19. A memorial to all those who came before and after Mrs. Jackson.

Christa: So we decided to go back and excavate the rest of it on the idea that this was somebody who really had a story that they themselves wanted to be remembered. And so we thought it would be OK if we brought this story, the rest of this story, back and let other people sort of share in this memory.

Anya: So that’s how the crew ended up back at the site five years later to rescue the rest of the cache before a park was built on top of it. But there were still ethical considerations to work through. For example, field school student Victoria Cacchione considered how fragile so many of these objects are. If they weren’t professionally conserved, they’d be a rusted, broken mess in a short time.

Victoria: These meant a lot to these people, and they didn’t intend for us to find them. But we did. And because we uncovered them, we can’t ethically leave them there because they’ll disintegrate. So in order to best preserve them, they need to come out of the ground, and we need to take care of them.

Anya: And also, should the whole collection stay together?

Victoria: You don’t want to further disturb someone’s mourning practices. But then another thought is, “Well, you’ve taken half of it out, so you’ve already disturbed it. And is it better to reunite all of these things out of the ground? Or keep it separate forever?”

Anya: But as David pointed out, these objects were intended to stay in the ground forever.

David: And it really raised a lot of questions about what we were doing digging this deposit up, honestly, because the sense that these objects were so kind of personal and so kind of representing really personal and intimate behavior on the part of the people who gathered and buried these things.

Anya: Cat says this was kind of the central theme. These objects were irrevocably tied to this plot of land …

Catherine: … where this individual placed them, unfortunately and fortunately, because in certain ways we have to remove this cache, but also in a certain way we get to share in the life of the people in some very distant way.

Anya: And then there was the question of what Mrs. Jackson would want. She put these objects in the ground. How would she feel about their removal?

There are so many different perspectives to look at this puzzle from, with no right answer.

Emily: I really do get emotional.

Anya: Emily Willis looked at this from a lens of remembrance, as a way to keep the memory of the Jackson family alive.

Emily: This was somebody who loved these people so much. These were her children, you know, and in more than one way, she said goodbye to them. Hopefully, through this and through continued work with the cache, Mrs. Jackson’s children won’t be relegated to anonymity again.

Anya: And maybe it’s the archaeologist’s job as a steward of the past to keep these objects in the best condition we can on Mrs. Jackson’s behalf.

Emily: It may sound strange, but we’re archaeologists, so to talk to the objects coming out and to … I mean, I’m a little strange, so I talk to the ground too. But let the ground and the objects to … and through them, I suppose for me, Mrs. Jackson and her kin, to let them know that we recognize the depths and the enormity of this experience and these experiences related to it. And we’re here to honor that. And, you know, even though we’re removing these things, they will always be taken care of.

Anya: Victoria told me how these objects present a balancing act. Yes, they are treasures, not because they have monetary value but because of what they represent.

Victoria: When someone says, “What’s the coolest thing you’ve found?” And you have to say, “Well, we found this really amazing cache of objects.” But without overselling it so that they think, “Oh, you just found a whole bunch of treasure.” You’re like, “Well, it’s not treasure. It’s someone’s belongings.”

Anya: The word “treasure” has a lot of different meanings. These artifacts are a treasure in that they give us a glimpse into a Victorian woman’s life, her loss, her story. And that is unique and irreplaceable.

There is so much tragedy that has occurred in this one place. And over time, history has a way of making all those losses faceless. But here, we can reconstruct the story of one specific family. And unless we could get Mrs. Jackson herself on the line, of course, we will never really know what was going through her head when she buried her memorial cache. But I want you to take a moment, listener, and imagine with me.

It was maybe an autumn day, sort of like the day when I’m recording this—November, with a chill coming, the sea breeze tugging the last brown leaves off the mostly bare branches. I think each object in the cache represented someone she had lost. Maybe the lock of hair was her daughter’s from when she was a young child. The pocket watch could have belonged to her husband, given to him by his own father. Maybe the leather belt was her son’s, and he wore it every day. Perhaps the dress was her other daughter’s, and it was green silk, and she wore it on Christmas.

I imagine that she wanted this memorial to be noticeable but not showy; something she knew was there and would be beautiful to look at. She probably planted flowers: rosemary for remembrance, forget-me-nots for true love, moss for maternal love, daisies for goodbyes.

And why did this crew, at this time, find these objects after so many years? It would have been easy to miss if they’d excavated just a foot or two to the left or right. Maybe it was fate. Probably it was just luck or chance. But maybe it was the right time for this collection to see daylight again. But no matter why it happens, now, after all this time, this family has a second life.

Eshe: That was Anya Gruber. Thank you to Christa Beranek and David Landon at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, as well as Emily Willis, Catherine Grimes, Nadia Waski, and Victoria Cacchione for their expertise and contributions to this episode.

SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Ann Marie Awad was the editor of this piece, with help from producer Cat Jaffe. Seth Samuel is our audio editor and sound designer. Cat Jaffe and Chip Colwell are executive producers.

This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is the end product of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Christine Weeber, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes, on our website, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. I’m Eshe Lewis. ¡Hasta luego!


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