Putting Things into Context

Connie Young Yu with the students from the laboratory methods class, after her talk on January 28.

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy Chinese New Year! This week was a special week for our project. On Tuesday, Connie Young Yu, historian and author of the book, Chinatown, San Jose, U.S.A., guest lectured in our Tuesday morning class. Connie Young Yu’s exhaustive documentary research into the history of Chinese Overseas communities in the Santa Clara Valley is augmented by personal interviews and family history. Her grandfather, Young Soong Quong, was a pioneer of San Jose’s Market Street Chinatown. He arrived at the Market Street Chinatown in 1881 at age 11 to work as a child laborer, first in a store and then as a house servant. Connie’s stories about her family and their acquaintances at the Market Street Chinatown put a human face on the artifacts that we are cataloging, and helped us better understand the community’s vibrant social life.

Materials used in cataloging: catalog record forms, archival polyethelene bags, liquid lacquer for labels, and marking pens and pencils.

In the discussion forum of this website, one message posted on January 14 asked, “what will be done with the artifacts once cataloged? With about 500 boxes this could take awhile.” This is a great question. We’re still not sure how long it is going to take to catalog the entire collection, so we are working through the collection in small batches. As artifacts are cataloged, we will have the collection inspected by a professional conservator to identify which artifacts might need special treatment to prevent deterioration. We also hope to develop a digital visual archive of the artifacts, which would put both the catalog database and pictures of the artifacts on a website. The artifacts themselves will be returned to History San Jose where they will be available to researchers and educators, and can be used in museum displays. We envision that the first group of artifacts might be returned to History San Jose before the end of the year.

Artifact of the Week

Bracelet fragments (from left): 85-31/3-6, 85-31/7-1, 85-31/13-301, 85-31/18-28.

Gina cataloged these jade and imitation jade bracelet fragments last week. The imitation jade bracelets are manufactured from green-tinted glass, but over the years a light patina has altered the color of the glass surface. The only artifact that is true jade is the one on the far right. In a discussion comment posted earlier, Gina commented, “What is really interesting to me is that both jade and glass bracelets were found on the same site. I wonder what that might say about differences in class, or maybe everyday vs. special occasion jewelry. If anybody has any ideas I’d love to hear them.”

Now what do we have here?

Beveled leaded glass, catalog # 85-31/35-24.

It’s not uncommon for archaeologists to find objects that baffle them. This week our project update provides images of two such artifacts that we have come across during our cataloging of the Market Street collection, which we either haven’t been able to fully identify or that were tricky at first. We are hoping that you might be able to help us by sharing your knowledge with us about these pieces! This first artifact is a flat, beveled piece of leaded glass. It is roughly square in shape, with two parallel sides, and two sides that bow outwards. There is a residue adhering to the outer edges of the object both on the beveled surface and on the underside. The residue is greenish-brown and compares favorably in color to a copper alloy, perhaps suggesting that this piece of glass was originally mounted in a metal casing. The artifact measures 85mm x 80mm x 9mm.

Lamp, catalog #85-31/13-158.

An artifact that took some time to identify is this porcelain dish. Decorations on the dish were hand-painted in blue underneath the glaze. The pattern consists of two concentric circles around the rim and an unidentified image in the central medallion. The underside is unglazed. A similar artifact found at the Riverside Chinatown was classified as “Southeast Asian Porcelain,” a term which refers to Chinese-produced ceramics found commonly at archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Looking at the size, shape, and fabric of this vessel, it resembles a small condiment dish. The vessel also has a black residue on part of its rim. But what is it? This is where comparative collections, reference books, and the work of other archaeologists and historians really help! By consulting the report of excavations of a Los Angeles Chinatown occupied in an overlapping time period, we found that dishes like this one were often used as small lamps. Peanut oil or animal fat was poured into the dish, and then a wick was put in and ignited. Roberta Greenwood, the author of this book, also found blackened, burnt residue on similar artifacts from her work in Los Angeles.

Artifact of the Week

Toothbrush, catalog #85-31/28-11.

Since we presented two artifacts that were (and are!) difficult to identify, our artifact of the week is one that is fairly easy to recognize. This is a toothbrush, made out of bone. The “head” of the toothbrush contained several long rows of bristles. Although these toothbrushes are not very different in overall design from other toothbrushes of the nineteenth century, or from modern toothbrushes for that matter, they are recognizable as Asian toothbrushes due to a very distinctive trait. The holes for the bristle go all the way through the toothbrush, while European and Euroamerican toothbrushes of the time did not have holes for bristles that penetrated all the way through the handle. The design of the Asian toothbrush allowed the bristles to be replaced. Bristles would be inserted from the front of the toothbrush, then bent and inserted through the back. The bristles would then be cut to create a “brushing” surface. That these brushes were used for quite some time is attested by the degree to which their handles have been worn over time.

Working with Ceramics in the Lab

Bryn cataloging spouted Chinese stoneware jars. Some of the artifacts are nearly intact...

This week was very busy! In the classroom, our readings and lecture focused on ceramics. We discussed how ceramics are produced and decorated, and the attributes that make it possible for archaeologists to understand something about the method and date of manufacture of ceramic artifacts. The attributes studied by archaeologists include color, the hardness of the paste (the material the body of the ceramic is made from), the thickness, color, or texture of the glaze, and whether a ceramic artifact is hand-painted, or decorated through transfer printing, a decal, or being formed in a mold. Different techniques have been used to make and decorate ceramics at different times and in different places, and learning how to identify different attributes of ceramics helps archaeologists to say something about where a bowl, plate, or jar came from, and when. This information helps make it possible to say something about the kinds of lives that people lived in the past at the Market Street Chinatown – where were they getting their plates and cups? Were their ceramics made in China, England, or the United States? What was their economic situation like?

...and some artifacts are broken! Lynsie is piecing together a large stoneware vessel.

As we opened boxes, we found that the artifacts varied greatly in type, size, and condition. Some of the artifacts are intact or nearly so, while some are fragments the size of a fingernail. Some boxes, such as that in the picture to the left, contained many pieces that fit together into a single artifact – in this case a large Chinese stoneware storage vessel. We have seen a wide variety of ceramics, including pieces manufactured in England, China, and the United States, in a wide range of conditions, from highly fragmented to whole. Although it is exciting to recover whole artifacts, even small fragments can tell us a great deal. In fact, sometimes broken artifacts allow us to see details of their manufacture that would not be visible otherwise, giving clues as to the type of clay used, the firing temperature, or the manufacturing technique employed. Many artifacts fall somewhere between small fragments and whole vessels, and look instead like this week’s artifact of the week.

Artifact of the Week

A large Chinese exportware bowl, decorated with the FitzHugh pattern.

This week’s artifact is a large bowl of Chinese export porcelain decorated with a pattern known as FitzHugh. Export wares are ceramics made specifically for export from China to Europe or the United States. On the interior of the bowl, the decoration is said to represent the traditional skills of the Chinese scholar: calligraphy, painting, music, and chess. This pattern was first used in the late eighteenth century, but remained popular in the nineteenth. FitzHugh is one among many varieties of blue on white underglaze decoration. Ceramic pieces with the FitzHugh pattern would have been expensive, and are considered luxury goods. Such goods were not used every day, but saved for special occasions or display. Often luxury goods that archaeologists find are older than other artifacts found near them, because these special artifacts are protected from the risk of breakage associated with everyday use. This may have been true for this bowl. Archaeologists often call these artifacts that are owned and used over long periods of time heirlooms. Eventually, however, this artifact was discarded along with artifacts of everyday life, such as Chinese stoneware jars, European stoneware, tableware, and glass bottles.