I spent part of this morning picking eggshells out of a screen. I know, riveting stuff. These weren’t just any eggshells, though. These were 150-or-so year old eggshells recovered from last year’s Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program dig at Block Six, in Historic Washington State Park.
Eggshell is not the most common find on an archaeological site. The fragility of the shell itself, the sale of chicken eggs off-site for side money (Peres 2008:99), and the likelihood that most of it will fall through the 1/4″ screen we use to sieve excavation fill means most of it, if present, will end up going unnoticed. We were lucky that the excavators last June noticed it and bagged the associated fill, allowing me to pick it out in the lab.
Now, obviously finding eggshell suggests egg consumption, but the explanatory possibilities inevitably blow past this meager insight. I wanted to get a little bit of a handle on what other historical archaeologists have done with eggshell finds, so I got on the SHA’s Publications Explorer and did a search for articles from Historical Archaeology that talk about eggshells. It returned a fair number of hits, and since this isn’t a formal paper, I’m only going to touch on a few of them.
As every credible archaeologist should agree, context is everything…
Returns included a number of articles that simply mention the recovery of eggshell as evidence of dietary preference. These contexts ranged from a 19th-century bordello in St. Paul, Minnesota (Ketz et al 2005) to an early integrated community at New Philadelphia, Illinois (Martin and Martin 2010) to privies in North Carolina (Carnes-McNaughton and Harper 2000), and finally (to return to a red light district) the Five Points area of New York City (Milne and Crabtree 2001).
But let’s go farther.
Markell, Hall, and Schrire (1995:28), working on a mill at Vergelegen, on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, found quantities of ostrich eggshells in their excavation units. In addition to being an indication of the consumption of ostrich eggs by the site’s residents, historical data suggest that such eggs were collected by hunters as roamed the surrounding veld, and were subsequently traded to Vergelegen residents. These eggshell fragments, are not just food, they are evidence of local exchange networks that tied together hunter and miller.
Brown and Cooper (1990:15) worked at the Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria County, Texas. They found eggshell throughout the site’s deposit, suggesting eggs were consumed at a fairly steady clip throughout the site’s history by African-American slaves and later tenant farmers. This gets more interesting when compared with other food remains. While eggshell remained a constant part of the fill, fish bones and scales, along with turtle remains, decreased over time, suggesting that domesticated species such as chicken were a staple of local diet, whereas wild species became less important over time. The fishing and collecting (“turtle hunting” doesn’t seem to be particularly challenging) that wild species’s bones suggest were less and less-frequently pursued over time.
Eggshells also relate to economic status. Rather, eggshells in comparison with chicken bones. What, isn’t that relationship immediately obvious? No? Basically, the way it works is if you have some disposable income, you can afford to buy chicken to eat, and an archaeologist, rooting around in your refuse decades later should find a goodly amount of chicken bone in addition to eggshell. However, if you don’t have the money to buy chicken (and we’re talking back before fast food made “chicken” cheaper than salad), you’re not going to eat chicken often. You might have some chickens scratching around in your yard, but you’re not going to eat them until they quit laying eggs. You do get to eat the eggs, though. As a result, your household refuse will have a lot of eggshell fragments, but only a few chicken bones by comparison, testimony of the meals made from aged hens (Peres 2008:99; West 1995:29).
So, what does this all mean for our eggshells from Block Six? Well, we’ve got an interesting interpretive opportunity here. Since Block Six was a commercial district, and most of the studies cited here relate to residential sites, we’ve got a bit of a task teasing out what these shells mean. They could have been someone’s lunch, could have been for sale in one of the stores, or some other as-yet un-researched possibility. I don’t have anything more concrete at this point, largely because my doctoral defense is coming up, and I’m up to my elbows in Dooley’s Ferry for the next few weeks. We’ll get back to this one soon, though.
Brown, Kenneth L. and Doreen C. Cooper
1990 Structural Continuity in an African-American Slave and Tenant Community. Historical Archaeology 24(4):7-19.
Carnes-McNaughton, Linda F. and Terry M. Harper
2000 The Parity of Privies: Summary Research on Privies in North Carolina. Historical Archaeology 34(1):97-110.
Ketz, K. Anne, Elizabeth J. Abel, and Andrew J. Schmidt
2005 Public Image and Private Reality: An Analysis of Differentiation in a Nineteenth-Century St. Paul Bordello. Historical Archaeology 39(1):74-88.
Markell, Ann, Martin Hall, and Carmel Schrire
1995 The Historical Archaeology of Vergelegen, an Early Farmstead at the Cape of Good Hope. Historical Archaeology 29(1):10-34.
Martin Terrance J. and Claire F. Martin
2010 Courtly, Careful, Thrifty: Subsistence and Regional Origin at New Philadelphia. Historical Archaeology 44(1):85-101.
Milne, C. and Pamela J. Crabtree
2001 Prostitutes, a Rabbi, and a Carpenter: Dinner at the Five Points in the 1830s. Historical Archaeology 35(3):31-48.
Peres, Tanya M.
2008 Foodways, Economic Status, and the Antebellum Upland South in Central Kentucky. Historical Archaeology 42(4):88-104.
1995 The Case of the Missing Victuals. Historical Archaeology 29(2):20-42.