Category: Archeology

London Residence is Ben Franklin’s Only Surviving Home



36 Craven Street, London–Photos by Bruce & Deb Watley

Earlier this fall my husband and I traveled to London for vacation. One of my sightseeing must-do’s in London was to tour 36 Craven Street, the only surviving residence of Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ Founding Fathers.

Part of the reason I wanted to see this home was because I’m teaching a high school literature class this fall, and we were reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography the same month I was in London.

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706 and moved to Philadelphia when still a kid. Although, he lived in Philadelphia most of the rest of his life, he lived in London for a short time as a young man learning more about the printing trade; in London from 1757-75 as the representative of several of the American colonies’ to the British government in London; and then later during the American Revolution when he represented the Americans’ interests to the French in Paris.

When Franklin arrived in Britain in 1757, he thought he’d be there for less than a year. However, he stayed until 1775 trying to broker some sort of peace between the American colonies and Britain.

Although he wasn’t successful in bringing peace, he did make lots of friends, conducted scientific experiments, and wrote many letters and articles.

During most of his pre-Revolution time in London, he rented his lodging from Margaret Stevenson 36 Craven Street, and this home became the unofficial first American embassy in Britain.


This is the historical plaque on the outside of 36 Craven Street.



This is the central hallway of the home, running from the front door to the back of the house.

After Franklin went back to Philadelphia, the house continued as a boarding house, and later a hotel and office space. By the time The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House obtained the house about twenty years or so ago, it had even been lived in by squatters. This cloud had a silver lining because the squatters didn’t destroy the house, nor did they do any remodeling, so many of the house’s architectural features of Franklin’s time were still there.

The house was originally built in about 1730, and it’s located between the Thames River and Trafalgar Square.

Now visitors can tour the house, noting its architecture, or they can participate in a multi-media historical experience that focuses on Franklin’s time in London and connections with the house.


The historical experience included “Polly Hewson.” Polly was the daughter of Franklin’s landlady.

An interesting story is that when the home was obtained by the preservationists, human bones were found in what would have been the back garden while Franklin lived there. Archaeologists were brought in, and they determined that these remains were from the private anatomy school run by Mrs. Stevenson’s son-in-law.

I enjoyed the tour! It was interesting to walk in the same rooms Franklin did, and intriguing to think this small home housed him, Mrs. Stevenson and her extended family, as well as servants. It’s a simple home, yet Franklin was such a multi-faceted person. He was interested in science, business, music, literature, politics, and medicine.

For more information, see Benjamin Franklin House.

What was the latest place you visited that had a historical connection? What do historic homes reveal about the personalities of historic people? Have you ever been to 36 Craven Street? What do you know about Benjamin Franklin?

Pottery Reveals Our Love For Beauty


Pottery Sherds (Flckr: Creative Commons by Iris Fernandez/The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)

Pottery sherds are important artifacts for archeologists. They can learn lots from those broken pieces of pottery, like what people group made the pottery, where they made it, and sometimes, what it held.

One of the ways they determine who made the pottery is by the decorative designs on the piece.

I am amazed that people who had to gather, grow, and hunt for every piece of food they ate still took the time to make beautiful things. The need to beautify even our basic possessions is a human trait. We are creative. We seek and appreciate beauty.

Even now.


My sister and my mom–and our pottery.

Last weekend I met my sister, Ruth, and my mom, Betty, at It’s Your Pottery in Omaha, Neb., to paint pottery. It was fun! The most difficult part was deciding which piece to choose.

I wonder, in 1,000 years or so, will archeologists find pieces of my pottery? What will they be able to determine about me?

What do you do to add beauty to your life?

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village Is Active Archeological Site

One of my favorite South Dakota places to visit is the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village just off Interstate 90, and my family and I visited last weekend during its annual Archeology Awareness Days.

This prehistoric Indian village, occupied about 1,000 years ago, is the only ongoing archeology site in South Dakota open to the public. Thanks to the Boehnen Memorial Museum and the Thomsen Center Archeodome, people can visit year-round.

For a month every summer, Augustana University in Sioux Falls and Exeter College in Oxford, England, sponsor a joint field school dig for their students. This is the only time of the year visitors can watch archeologists work at the site.

During each field school month (usually mid-June through mid-July), the museum and field school also hosts Archeology Days for one weekend. During this weekend, a variety of experts on Native American culture have exhibits or do demonstrations, and visitors can get involved by throwing spears with atlatls (a type of lever) or making pottery.

The field school students and archeologists will be continue to work at the site through mid-July.

For more information:

My previous visit

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

Have you ever attended the annual Archeology Days at the Indian village? Have you visited any archeology site? Is so, where?

Native Americans’ Day in South Dakota

Crazy Horse National Monument II

Photo at Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota by Deb Hultgren/Flickr: Creative Commons

Since 1990, South Dakota has honored Native Americans’ Day as a state holiday on the second Monday of October. (I’m a day late.)

According to the S.D. Legislature, “Native Americans’ Day is dedicated to the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state.”

In honor of all Native Americans (not just those in South Dakota), here’s a list of my previous posts with Native American connections:

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE GAME OF SILENCE by Louise Erdrich

Interview: Caroline Starr Rose, author of BLUE BIRDS

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: 5 Lessons from Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O’Dell

Dance is Unusual Form of Storytelling (For Me)

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill

Annual Archeology Awareness Days at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

Chickadee by Louise Erdrich (My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge)

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Three things I learned from Island of the Blue Dolphins

American Indian Artistry at the Old Courthouse Museum

For more information about Native Americans’ Day, Crazy Horse, and the Crazy Horse Memorial in the South Dakota Black Hills, see the Crazy Horse Memorial website.

Annual Archeology Awareness Days at Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village


Archeodome in Mitchell, SD--photos by Deb Watley

Thomsen Center Archeodome in Mitchell, S.D.–photos by Deb Watley


Last weekend my family and I attended Archeology Awareness Days at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village at Mitchell, S.D.

The archeology site, which is South Dakota’s only one open to the public, was an Indian village 1,000 years ago.

One feature of the special weekend is the variety of experts who do demonstrations of various Native American skills, such as flintknapping, the making of stone knives and arrow or spear points. My sons enjoyed playing traditional Lakota games demonstrated by Mike Marshall of Mission, S.D.

The big draw for me is that the weekend coincides with the archeology field school that is in session each summer. The field school consists of archeologists and students from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD, and from Exeter College in Oxford, England. The month of the field school is the only time the public can watch archeologists dig at the Indian village.

An unusual thing about the site is that because it is a permanent site, the Thomsen Center Archeodome has been constructed over one small area of the village, allowing temperature control. Not many other field schools take place in air-conditioning! The building also houses a lab and display areas.


Examples of stone knives

Examples of stone knives


Cache pits began as food storage units and eventually became trash receptacles.

Cache pits began as food storage units and eventually became trash receptacles.


The Archeodome sits over an old part of the village where the residents worked outside.

The slight depressions in the foreground are the locations of earthen lodges.


My kids loved throwing the atlatl, a type of spear.

My kids loved throwing the atlatl, a type of spear.


We’ll be back to the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village!

What archeological sites have you been toured?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Three things I learned from Island of the Blue Dolphins

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

Since I love both historical fiction and children’s books, I recently challenged myself to read all the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction winning books. But, to start things off, I read O’Dell’s first children’s book, and possibly the one he’s most known for, Island of the Blue Dolphins.

O’Dell had written non-fiction, short stories, and novels for adults. But once Island of the Blue Dolphins was published in 1960 and then received the Newbery Award, one of the most distinguished awards for children’s literature, he continued to write more historical fiction for children and earned the Newbery three more times.

At the beginning of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana is 12 and lives in a village on a small island. A ship full of Aleuts, captained by a white man, comes to the island to hunt sea otters. The captain makes a deal with Karana’s father so the tribe can share in the results of the hunting. But the captain and the Aleuts double-cross the villagers. In the resulting battle most of the tribe’s men are killed. The hunters leave, and the villagers survive for months on their own. However, their elderly leader knows they need help, so he takes a canoe to the land far to the east. Eventually a ship comes for the villagers, but the weather is bad and the ship only stays long enough to load the villagers and what they can carry. In the hurry and confusion, Karana sees her little brother is left alone on the island. She jumps overboard and swims back to her brother. But the ship sails on and doesn’t return.

Not only is the book set in a historical time-period, but O’Dell based the story on a real woman’s experience.

There really was a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island, off the coast of Southern California, for 18 years (1835-1853). People on the mainland knew about her, though, and a priest at the Santa Barbara Mission asked Capt. George Nidever to watch for her when he was otter hunting at San Nicolas. Nidever did find her and brought her back to Santa Barbara. He thought she was about 50 years old, but apparently they could communicate only through sign language. Unfortunately, the woman lived less than two months after coming to the mainland, and she was buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.

San Nicolas is now a base of the U.S. Navy, and archeologists have worked on the island for years. But recently, some archeologists found a cave where the woman may have lived or used for storage. Here’s a link to the Los Angeles Times article about that potential find: “‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ woman’s cave believed found”.

O’Dell used the facts for inspiration, but he changed things for the sake of the story.

For example, Karana probably wasn’t on the island as long as the actual woman was, and Karana was much younger than the woman. This last detail made Karana’s story work for kids. However, according to the Scott O’Dell website, O’Dell didn’t realize his story would appeal to kids until children’s author and friend, Maud Lovelace, admired the manuscript.

And although he fictionalized the story, O’Dell was respectful of both the woman and her culture.

When I read Island of the Blue Dolphin as a kid, I don’t think I focused on the history aspect. In fact, I only found out it was based on an actual person within the past few months. I thought it was a story about a girl who figured out how to use what she had to survive on her own. That seemed to be a theme in many of my favorite childhood books.

Finally, there is very little dialogue in the book, yet it works.

Other than her pets, Karana is alone for much of the book, so there are many pages with no dialogue. Perhaps that was more common in books 50 years ago, but now that would make for a hard-sell. The current trend for novels (and not just kids’ novels) is lots of action and a fast pace. But, Island of the Blue Dolphins is full of action. Karana battles the elements, fights wild dogs, tries to sail in a leaking canoe, hunts a devilfish, and makes a few friends (one human and many non-human). These may not be big-explosion-type actions, but they are actions that have huge stakes for Karana.

O’Dell used the first person point of view, too. So, although Karana may not be talking to others a lot, it feels like she is talking directly to me, the reader.

The next book I read for the challenge will be Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, 2013 winner. Join me, and we’ll talk about it April 29.

Have you read Island of the Blue Dolphins? What did you learn from it?

Archeology Toolbox: Geophysics

Big Stock Photos

Big Stock Photos

Archeologists are known for digging in soil to find forgotten or lost artifacts, buildings, cities, and even human remains. But a shovel is only one of the tools archeologists use, and it is not always the best one.

Sometimes archeologists use tools and techniques that allow them to “see” underground without digging.

This past Sunday, Steven DeVore, a geophysicist for the National Park Service, spoke at a Sioux Falls-chapter of the South Dakota Archaeological Society program at Augustana College. Since one of my characters in the novel I’m writing is an archeologist who uses various geophysical techniques at a South Dakota dig site, I attended the program to learn more.

I learned there are about five or six different techniques that can be used, and archeologists might use just one or a combination of all of them, depending on the ground conditions and the goal of the surveying. Some of the techniques use probes that insert electricity or microwave energy into the ground and can get readings from various depths. Then the results can be compared to each other and aerial photos or old maps to help identify things like structures, hearths, pits, fence lines, trails, utility pipes, and graves.

The fascinating thing is how the archeologists can understand the mapped results of the tests. DeVore showed slides of a number of sites where geophysical techniques were used. I saw lots of blobs and dots, but I could also see straight lines which are usually man-made. Other times, I could see circles with a dark spot in the center. Those were probably outlines of Native American earth lodges with the remains of a central hearth.

DeVore mentioned that the equipment they use is expensive to buy, but with them archeologists can map out large areas of land in very little time. Plus, geophysics can give a big-picture view and understanding to an entire site, where digging can give great detail in very small areas. Another advantage to using geophysics is that whatever is buried doesn’t have to be exposed by digging, which in turn, “destroys” the site. It’s also very useful in finding graves without disturbing the human remains.

I learned two specific details I hadn’t known before. The first one is a common-sense thing. In a resistance survey, the archeologist sends electricity through the ground. They can’t do this one if the ground is too wet! Common-sense, but I hadn’t thought about it, and I certainly don’t want my character electrocuting himself or anyone else!

The other cool thing I learned is that archeologists sometimes use remote controlled model airplanes or drones, outfitted with cameras, to take aerial photos. Doesn’t that sound like fun? I may have to add that detail to my story!

American Indian Artistry at the Old Courthouse Museum

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Last week I attended the monthly meeting of the Sioux Falls chapter of the South Dakota Archaeological Society (SDAS). Usually the group meets at Augustana University, but last Thursday the group met at the Old Courthouse Museum and toured the American Indian Artistry exhibit.

The exhibit had examples of baskets and pottery; bows, arrows, and clubs; bowls and horn spoons; but the focus was on the painting, beading, and quilling used to decorate moccasins, clothing, bags of various sizes, handles of clubs, and knife sheaths. The moccasin in the above photo is similar to the ones at the museum, except the ones in the exhibit had beads, and the one in the photo looks like it has quilling.

I’ve seen beading before, but quilling was new to me. In traditional quilling, the women would soften porcupine quills, in their mouth, and then flatten the quills, either between their teeth or with a bone tool. Then they would sew these in rows, like an embroidery satin stitch. Many of the designs were also painted. I don’t know if the quills were painted before or after the sewing. And I don’t know if they used needles or made holes in the skins with an awl. Can any of you tell me?

I was so impressed by two things at the exhibit: First, beading and quilling must have taken an immense amount of skill and time. I’ve done enough embroidery and cross-stitching to have an idea of the work involved. And I nearly always followed a commercial pattern; only once or twice did I make up my own design. I wonder if the beading and quilling would have been a winter occupation? Can you imagine doing that by firelight? And without a magnifying glass?

The second thing that hit me is that we crave more than just survival. We also crave beauty. Especially if it is symbolic to us. That makes me think of the movie The Monument Men (which I still haven’t seen). Is art important enough to die for? I don’t know. Maybe. But, it is certainly a gift to us to have so much of the world’s art preserved. Life is so much better when it includes some kind of beauty, whether it’s visual art, music, or literature, etc.

Just for fun, there’s a third thing that impressed me at the exhibit. The museum displayed lots of bags of various sizes and uses, all decorated with paint, beads, and/or quills, so maybe I shouldn’t let myself feel frivolous for loving colorful purses! How do you combine functional and beautiful?

If you’re in the Sioux Falls area, Augustana College and SDAS are hosting a program about the use of geophysics in archeology, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Mar. 16 in the Gilbert Science Center on campus. The program is free and open to the public.