Everyday objects can open windows to the past; so it was with a hoop skirt found underneath the attic floorboards of the Colonial-era William Green farmhouse on TCNJ’s campus.
The cage crinoline — along with other items including the barrel-band of a rifle, a shoe, and some ceramics — was discovered in an archaeological field study of the house led by Assistant Professor of Anthropology George Leader in 2019. Examination found that the skirt dated to the 1860s, when the family who lived in the home lost two young daughters to scarlet fever.
In a paper published recently in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Leader and his research team posit that the crinoline, which likely would have been worn by the young girls, most likely was left under the floorboards to ward off more bad fortune. So-called “ritual concealment” was a widely practiced folk magic tradition in England at the time.
“People would hide small items in their homes for protection,” Leader said. This is the first documented example of a crinoline being used for the ritual.
The research paper was authored by Leader along with TCNJ alumnus Nick Wekselblatt ’22, Gianna Puzzo, a PhD candidate at the University of Delaware who studies historical textiles, and Lance Greene, an anthropology professor at Wright State University in Ohio.
Wekselblatt is finishing up a master’s degree at Monmouth University and is now exploring doctoral programs in anthropology and archaeology. While a student at TCNJ, he said the archaeological field work at the farmhouse and at the site of a colonial cemetery on Arch Street in Philadelphia provided incomparable experiences — and a path to his future.
“I was lucky I was able to participate in two great hands-on projects with great faculty to lead us,” Wekselblatt said.
Professor Greene (despite the added ‘e’ at the end of his name) is a descendant of the original family who lived in the home beginning in 1720 after emigrating from England. He has taught the field study classes at the farmhouse with Professor Leader. The Green farmhouse — off limits for now because of safety concerns — has provided a treasure trove of information and has been an important teaching tool. Indentured and enslaved workers worked the farm, which served as an encampment for Washington’s calvary during the Revolutionary War.
The items found at the house “add up to help understand life back then,” Leader said.
“Historical archaeology has the opportunity to fill in the gaps of knowledge and remind us of the ordinary,” he says “It’s a special feeling when you find something that can bring a story back to life for the first time in 250 years and remind us of our shared humanity.”
— Patricia Alex