Archaeology at the Charnley-Persky House
Although the lack of an extensive documentary record on James and Helen Charnley—the original owners of the house—made us hope to uncover archaeological data that directly relates to them and their residence on Astor Street, we are interested in analyzing and interpreting the entire site, regardless of its affiliation with a particular time period or person. And of course, other have lived and now worked in this house since the Charnleys left it.
Archaeology, and historical archaeology in particular, has been used to give voice to those who are not typically in the documentary record. For much of the cases, these are those who are not middle to upper class white men; they are women, people of color, the working class, children, other others.
Moreover, archaeology gives a glimpse into material culture patterns that were formed by what people actually did—not just what they wrote that they did, or said they did. Unlike the documentary record—found in archives, diaries, etc.—the archaeological record can capture, as James Deetz, one of the founder’s of the field states, “simple people doing simple things, the normal, everyday routine of life and how these people thought about it” (1996:11); not things that would ordinarily be noted or recorded. Deetz defined archaeology as “the study of past peoples based on the things they left behind and the ways they left their imprint on the world” (1996: 4).
To be clear, historical archaeology is not meant to be a mere handmaiden to history; it’s not just something to verify the documentary record against. It is indeed another line of evidence, a material one, that must be assessed critically along with the documentary and oral historical records.
Likewise, excavation is only one part of archaeology. So though Indiana Jones (a grad of UChicago like Graff) would most likely have passed on this project—there are no idols, holy relics, and there is clearly too much paperwork for his taste—we are pleased to have the chance to show you what we are starting to learn about the people who lived in and around the Charnley House from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th centuries.
The Excavations: 2010 and 2015
Extensive renovation work at the Charnley-Persky House in 2001-2003 involved digging a trench on two sides of the building to install water-proofing material below grade. When an eight-foot-deep trench was dug at the back of the house, it revealed a rich deposit of nineteenth-century refuse. Staff members of the SAH worked to document and preserve materials from the area, with the desire to professionally excavate the site at a later date to coincide with further renovations to the structure. In 2008, Pauline Saliga contacted Rebecca Graff, having heard of her work on excavating the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition site in Jackson Park, to have a professional excavation of the site, to link the scholarship on the built environment to that found archaeologically—the social history.
Graff and Mary Leighton directed the 2010 archaeological field school through DePaul University's Urban Historical Archaeology Field School program. Over twenty undergraduate students worked for five weeks to uncover artifacts and features at the site. In 2015, Graff, with Tiffany Charles, directed excavations through Lake Forest College, assisted by a digital humanities grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Foundation, where they were joined by ten students from Lake Forest College, Beloit College, St. Olaf College, Northeastern Illinois University, and Chicago's Lane Tech High School.