Looking at the leftovers: What was for dinner in 19th Century Detroit?

As part of the Unearthing Detroit Project, Sarah Beste and Slava Pallas have designed a research project on the faunal remains from Sector J, Feature4 of the Renaissance Center (Ren Cen). Faunal analysis, also called zooarchaeology, is the study of animal bones. Sarah and Slava are generating a quantitative and qualitative interpretation of the food consumption practices belonging to the residents who once lived in the footprint of the Renaissance Center site. Their study is an extension of a 1978 faunal analysis conducted by Karen Mudar on the remains from other Sectors.

Recently Sarah and Slava took a research trip to Indiana University where they visited colleague Ryan Kennedy, a faunal specialist and PhD student in Anthropology. Ryan works on the faunal remains recovered from archaeological excavations of a 19th-century Chinese immigrant community in San Jose, CA. This project is an excellent analogy to our investigation of the Ren Cen communities, as both were salvage excavations of historic, working-class, and migrant and immigrant communities.

Why did Sarah and Slava need to travel to Indiana to understand collections from Detroit? Sarah Beste describes the reason behind their visit, “We went there with the intent of not only analyz[ing] the [Renaissance Center collection] bones, but to [lay the groundwork for making] our own comparative faunal lab here.” Ryan Kennedy shared an informational “key” with Sarah and Slava that will be fundamental to creating a faunal type collection. “A key allows for not only the identification of the animal, but also further environmental factors. These are all things that help in identification and analysis,” shared Slava.

Back here at Wayne State University, Sarah and Slava are investigating Feature 4, Level 1, located in Sector J. This feature was a privy that contained a dense deposit of animal remains located at the northwest corner of Brush and Franklin Streets. This is where the 100 tower of the Renaissance Center stands today. Privies, or outhouses, are excellent sources of information for archaeologists. In addition to serving as outhouses, privies were used by household residents as trash dumps. Over time, large quantities of artifacts would accumulate in privies. Also, when privies fell out of use, residents often dumped additional trash into them to plug them up. Archaeologically-speaking, privy trash deposits at the Ren Cen were so densely packed that they created anaerobic environments perfect for the preservation of fragile artifacts like textiles, paper, and leather. Ceramics and other temporally diagnostic artifacts in the Feature 4 deposit were used to date the privy’s use to between 1844 and 1848. Sarah and Slava have identified the remains of many cows, goat, sheep, a chicken and a cat in the collection of the Feature 4 privy artifacts. These findings are important because the bones can reveal what and how people ate. This information contributes to Slava and Sarah’s interests in understanding 19th-century dietary practices and food resources in the neighborhood that once stood in the footprint of the Ren Cen.


Sarah shared her research with MichBio high school students in October

Some of the questions zooarchaeologists ask:
What type of animal is associated with this bone?
What cut of meat would have come from this bone?
How was this meat prepared in 19th-century kitchens? What kind of dishes were made with it?
How many different individual animal remains were recovered from the privy?
What type of foodstuffs did this community prefer? Have access to?
Did immigrant groups continue to eat the same types of dishes as they did in their homeland? Or did they adopt new dietary preferences when they arrived in Detroit?

Slava shared an example of how the diets, as determined through remains, can tell us more than what was on the dinner table. She discussed the difference in comparing traditional diets with those who had migrated to this area. While the residents may have learned to cook pheasant at their home in France, while living in Detroit they might have substituted pheasant with a similar animal such as pigeon. In other cases, Slava describes how cultural context of the archaeological finds is extremely important to interpreting historic diets. “Ryan Kennedy [Indiana University] is finding a lot of butchered cat bones,” she said. Since Ryan studies an area associated with Chinese immigrants he know this was culturally and economically appropriate. In contrast Slava presents another situation, “Had this been a French neighborhood, [the butchering of cat bones] could be an example of starvation, because culturally [cats are] something they didn’t eat”.

This is a great lesson in the importance of understanding an archaeological collection in context. Finding a diet of butchered cat bones can reflect an entirely different historical situation based on external factors. While this foodway was ordinary to the Chinese immigrant populations of San Jose, the same find in the French-American communities of Detroit would suggest desperation for food or a low socioeconomic status. Where cat may be cultural cuisine to some, to others consuming cat meat is a survival method.

In their faunal analysis, how did Sarah and Slava determine if the cat found in the Feature 4 privy was eaten as food or if it just suffered an unfortunate death? Slava answered this question confidently stating, “there are no butcher marks”. Sarah added that these bones came from the first level of the excavation, or in other terms, the top of the privy. “The cat probably fell in. There are no other cat skeletons in the other features,” Sarah stated.

There are a lot of different animals in the Feature 4 privy of Sector J. I wanted to know: What does this range of foodstuffs (as represented by the variety of animal bones) tell us about the area in the 19th century? Why would the people living here be eating so many different types of meat? Slava responded, “It could just be availability of animals.” She elaborated, “If you’re cooking a soup which calls for mutton, but the farmer is bringing in many goats from Ohio”, she claims, “you just have to substitute”. The remains recovered reflect the availability of animals, and upon further analysis this reflects the means and resources of those eating them.

Sarah and Slava have recently finished calculating the minimum number of individual animals. Minimum number of individual (MNI) counts are conservative calculations used by archaeologists to determine the lowest number of an element (i.e.bone, ceramic vessel) possible. For example, Sarah and Slava recovered two left femurs of a goat, so there must have been two goats in the household assemblage.

From this point, Sarah and Slava are going to combine their quantitative analysis with historical records and other comparative collections to interpret their findings. They recently presented their results in a research poster at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Seattle. Slava notes that she really hopes to learn more about the communities’ diets in 19th-century Detroit, and after this conversation, so do I!

On January 9th, 2015 Sarah and Slava presenting their findings at the Annual Meeting of the SHAs in Seattle, WA.

On January 9th, 2015 Sarah and Slava presenting their findings at the SHA Conference in Seattle, WA.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s