Stacked in a closet of an attic of an 18th century farmhouse in Upper Darby, PA, are 14 cardboard ‘bankers boxes’ of cleaned and cataloged artifacts from an archaeological dig of the floor of the 17th century, Swedish Cabin, that are known to a small group of local history aficionados. Two of these boxes held the only known paper record of the cataloging of 4,000 + items from this collection. The dig was conducted to find information about the earliest occupants of the cabin, to prove its 17th century origin. The artifacts that were unearthed never definitively answered this question, and one recommendation of the report was that further digs were not a high priority. The report was filed, the individual items were packaged, labeled, and stored, and largely forgotten. A question comes to mind:
The dig is done and analyzed, so why bother with this stuff?
The answer is straightforward:
Because the material is rich and the first conclusions drawn from it back in the early 1990’s are incomplete.
Further, scholarship about New Sweden and the site of the Swedish Cabin has developed since the artifacts were collected (social history ‘from below,’ and material culture studies), has opened new directions for interpreting these objects. The best way to encourage fresh study of this material is to make it more widely available to history students and the history curious through the use of digital tools.
The Swedish Cabin archaeological dig once had a digital component that, 30 years later, is inaccessible. Interestingly, one of the artifacts of this collection turned out to be the paper print outs of the digital component that was stored with the labeled bags of buttons, pot shards, and bones. Using digital tools, this digital component has being resurrected.
Although anyone could have manually re-created the data on paper as an Excel sheet, this was unlikely given the fact that there were 340+ pages of data pages, with 24 lines of dot matrix printed data on each page, and each line had 10 columns of information. The ability to scan printed pages of text and convert them into digital pages that can be read by a computer has been around for many years. However, it has only been within the past ten years (ABBYY Fine Reader, for example, released in 2009) that affordable software is now available that can read these printed pages of dot matrix text, and turn them into excel tables of data.
After finding a motivated individual willing to 1) discover the dot matrix/paper to digital process who had 2) also found time to convert the dot matrix printed paper data into clean digital data in Excel sheets, the data was ready to be re-imagined using digital tools. One example of this re-imagining is my website, titled “Swedish Cabin Archaeology,” at:
The first thing the website does is visually reconnect the artifacts with the cabin. This helps viewers imagine the locations of the artifacts, and further imagine how the objects became embedded where they were found. Every artifact removed from the cabin floor was brought in there by a person, for a reason, over the past 350 years. The items were also discarded or lost by these people because of additional reasons. Being able to see the artifacts (right now as objects still in their original collection bags – as this needs to be correctly managed to preserve the collection) literally embedded as images within a larger image of a cabin interior or exterior, provides opportunities for comparison (colors, textures, materials) that can lead to inferences about the people who once handled these objects.
The second thing the website does is publicize the existence of the data, in an analyzable form. A series of bar and bubble charts, linked to the site map of the cabin dig, demonstrates some possibilities for the analysis and presentation of the data.
This data could be made available to the public – either online or available when visiting their physical archives — but only with the permission of the board of the Friends of the Swedish Cabin (https://swedishcabin.info/), who help maintain the Swedish Cabin in concert with the Upper Darby Historical Society (who store the artifacts at Collen Brook Farm: http://udhistory.com/), and Upper Darby Township.
In the near future, the digital data will be converted into a comprehensive set of bar and bubble charts that will completely show where items are found around the cabin floor, and at depth. Further analysis would entail looking at individual artifacts from specific depths. As individual items are re-packaged, they can be imaged and added to the website to publicize their existence, and significance to history students and the history curious. Further analysis combined with archival research can be combined to reveal the history of people who brought individual items into the space, through interpreting the past use of these things and how they came to be there.
Laurie Fitzpatrick, April 2017