Luke J. Pecoraro, Assistant Archaeologist
In almost every blog post we use the word “midden” to describe the archaeological deposit in the South Grove. But why call it a midden? Why not the South Grove Trash Dump, or Washington’s Landfill? After all, we are talking about garbage, so shouldn’t we call it what it is?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary(OED), a midden refers to a dung-heap, refuse pile, or a domestic ash-pit. The origins of the word come from Scandinavian roots, appearing in print beginning in the 14th century. The OED’s definition for midden in an archaeological context characterizes it as a “refuse heap which marks an ancient settlement, consisting chiefly of shells and bones and often also discarded artefacts.” Danish scholars first used the term to describe archaeological remains found in the mid-19th century in association with shell heaps from antiquity.
The term “trash pit” in archaeology is used to describe a feature where refuse was discarded over a few episodes. Historical archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume suggests that trash pits had short lives, and were usually sealed over purposefully to prevent nasty smells and animal disturbance (for definitions of features commonly found on historic sites, see Noël Hume’s Historical Archaeology).
However, we think that some fairly distasteful smells probably emanated from the South Grove Midden (especially considering all the fish remains) and provided food for foraging animals (some of the bones show the teeth marks of rodents). The trash built up over the succession of early households at Mount Vernon and spanned approximately four decades and we found no evidence that the trash was covered or sealed in any way. One attribute that the South Grove Midden lacks when compared to the OED definition is that it’s not a heap or a mound, and left little physical evidence above ground to suggest its existence.
The midden’s location, behind the kitchen on a gentle declivity which extends to the Potomac River, provides the reason why. Deposits of household trash were often placed in depressions (natural or man-made, such as privies and disused wells or cellars), which overtime, could help to level out uneven ground. The surface below the feature suggests a natural depression, perhaps where a large tree had fallen down. It seems there was some conscious effort to fill in this depression with refuse. The majority of the trash accumulated from c. 1735 – 1775, when the yard surrounding the midden was turned into the South Grove, a formalized area planted with flowering shrubs and small trees.
Middens provide an invaluable material record for archaeologists because of the way that objects are deposited in a somewhat regular manner — in the case of the midden, rubbish accumulated over an area of roughly 30’, with at least 46 distinct episodes of disposal. To understand how we can define these layers, check back in a few weeks when we discuss feature plans and profiles!