Notes from the Field: Packrat Middens

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November 16, 2012 by rhodiproject2012

Although we are only in the early stages of visiting and surveying Rhode Island’s historic and cultural sites, we are already learning about many new, and often unexpected, treasures housed right here in our state. Our recent visit to the Roger Williams National Memorial provides one particularly noteworthy example, where my fellow field surveyor and I learned about a unique piece held in their collection: the rat midden.

Do you know what a packrat midden is? I did not. Truth be told, I initially heard “rat mitten,” and was conjuring up images of a scene akin to this, or perhaps a stranded knitting project similar to Adrian Bizilia’s Squirrel Sampler Mittens:

Photo by Adrian Bizilia

But of course, the word is midden, not mitten, and in reality a packrat midden is a pile of debris collected by packrats over time, and looks more like this:

Photo by U.S. Geological Survey

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, midden is a term that means, quite simply, “garbage pile.” Packrats love to gather little treasures and scraps for their piles, which they store near the nests in which they live. In order to create the midden, and to claim in as their own territory, the packrats urinate on the piles, which, over time, crystallizes and preserves the objects that have been hoarded. Because a packrat tends to collect items from a relatively short radius (up to around 100 meters) from its nest, the rat midden is a powerful archaeological tool for understanding the history of the environment immediately surrounding it.

This brings us back to the Antram Gray House, where the Roger Williams National Memorial visitor center is located. The house was built circa 1730, so it is easy to imagine what may have been preserved in the rat midden that the National Park Service found in the attic eaves of the historic house. The house has served as a private residence to many in its almost 300 years, including a watchmaker and dressmaker. These were two examples given to us by the site manager when she was explaining the concept of the rat midden. Among the other debris and scraps in the midden, there are watch parts and scraps of fabric which were stolen away by packrats hundreds of years ago.

Today, the Roger Williams National Memorial’s rat midden is stored in off-site storage, and therefore not available for on-site viewing. But you may want to ask the staff their about it on your next visit there, to get the full story of the discovery.

For more information on rat middens, see the U.S. Geological Survey.

For more information on the Roger Williams National Memorial, see their website, or visit 282 North Main Street in Providence’s College Hill Historic District, open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.

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