Seeking Bradstreet: Going From the Material to the Digital

As an archeologist, I have excavated everywhere, from the deserts of Jordan to the hills of Tuscany in pursuit of cities, villas, and tombs, but never before have I dug to discover the life of a poet. That’s why I jumped at the chance when Dr. Christy Pottroff, BC Professor of English, invited me to excavate at the house of Anne Bradstreet. My Digital Scholarship Group colleague, Ashlyn Stewart, joined me to learn about the process and material aspects of the project as we prepare to collaborate with Dr. Pottroff on turning this archaeological endeavor into a digital one, starting with the use of my digital skills to create a record of the artifacts via photogrammetry.

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) is one of the most important American poets. Her 1650 volume, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, is recognized as the first book of poetry published in the New World–by a man or woman. It was a bestseller in London and is even said to have featured in the library of King George III. One of Bradstreet’s most famous poems describes the lamentable destruction of her North Andover, Massachusetts home, which burned down in 1666. The grief she expresses over the loss of her books and other most prized possessions is gut-wrenching. (Image: Frontispiece from The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Prose and Verse, 1867)

In the present day, a small team of archaeologists and American literature scholars, led by Dr. Pottroff and Dr. Donald Slater, an archaeologist with a colonial history background, are seeking to learn more about what life was like for Bradstreet and her household almost 400 years ago by excavating the newly discovered remains of that very house, which was, paradoxically, preserved by the fire.

Me, Antonio LoPiano (far left), working with the team to excavate the kitchen area of the Bradstreet residence

Past tragedy, as is often the case in archeology, provides invaluable insight into the everyday lives otherwise lost to time, and the destruction of Bradstreet’s house is no exception. With every artifact—a thimble, a mouth harp, or fragment of pottery—a small piece of the story is told. We can learn who spent their time in the various spaces of the house and how they occupied themselves. We can begin to understand what the rhythms of daily life must have been like for those living there, and perhaps even, if we’re lucky, how they saw themselves within the world around them. That is why each artifact, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is of the utmost importance.

My colleague, Ashlyn Stewart (right), excavating the kitchen area of the site

In order to ensure that the record of these lives is preserved and is able to be studied for years to come, I have been using photogrammetry to produce 3D models of selected artifacts and their archaeological contexts. This process involves taking hundreds of high-resolution photos to produce precise and accurate volumetric models of the original artifacts and the structural features of the house. The 3D results of this process afford many more possibilities of interpretation than a traditional photograph thanks to their ability to be rotated in 3D space, zoomed, and even have raking light applied to them to bring out inscriptions and surface detail. Ultimately, the models will serve as a non-perishable record that can be shared with colleagues around the world who share an interest in the life of this important poet and her time.