Archaeobotany in the Gardens of Emily Dickinson: Clues & Collections

May 3, 2018

By Madeline Fried

Today, Emily Dickinson is a literary figure beloved for her prolific and unique poetic writings. In her lifetime, however, she was more well known as a gardener than as a poet. She had a deep connection with nature, and she cultivated outdoor garden beds as well as exotic plants within a conservatory in her home. The flowers and plants that she grew provided a framework for her poetic musings on life and relationships.

In an effort to better comprehend the garden landscape where Dickinson spent the majority of her life, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is conducting an excavation and field school at the Dickinson Homestead that seeks to identify the exact location of her flower beds, along with features that include a barn, an orchard, and a well. By identifying the botanical material recovered from the site, we can better understand the layout of her garden.

Material is recovered by flotation, a process that involves running water through a sample of sediment to separate the light botanical material. Flotation samples collected from the second season of excavation in 2017 are being analyzed in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) at the Penn Museum. Analysis of the samples began last semester in CAAM’s ANTH 533 Archaeobotany Seminar taught by Dr. Chantel White and has continued this spring with my independent research project as a Penn Museum Fellow.

Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort) – my watercolor of the live plant and direct illustration of the carbonized seed recovered from excavation.

There is a rare chance to work with historical archaeobotanical material that is so closely tied to an individual. The motivation behind this project is to link the influence of the botanical world in Emily Dickinson’s writing with the physical evidence preserved in her garden. I am complementing my archaeobotanical analysis with connections to her poetry and by creating illustrations of the plants that were in her garden.

One of the first steps in identifying plant species recovered from excavation is to gain access to an appropriate reference collection. Identifications of archaeobotanical material, often seeds, are made visually, using a low-power microscope. While photo references can be helpful, more specific identifications can be made with the help of a physical reference collection of seeds and other plant material. The reference collection housed in CAAM is being expanded to include North American species that may have been growing in Emily Dickinson’s garden.

Drawer from CAAM’s archaeobotanical reference collection.

But how do you choose what species would be likely candidates for the collection? Fortunately, Dickinson was no ordinary gardener. Her plant habit began early. As a young teen, she kept an impressive herbarium of pressed flowers. The original herbarium survives in the Houghton Rare Book Library at Harvard, and the digitized version can be accessed on the library’s website. Because it is so meticulously labeled, the plant species in her herbarium are excellent additions to the reference collection. It is also helpful to gather the seeds of the plants mentioned in her poems for inclusion in the reference collection.

The Emily Dickinson Museum today, where Dickinson spent most of her life.

In the fall, with funding provided by the Penn Museum, I traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts, to visit the Dickinson homestead, which is now the Emily Dickinson Museum. I visited Archaeological Services at UMass-Amherst. Their enormous reference collection, full of seeds from the early 20th century, was perfect for sub-sampling.

The archaeobotanical seed reference collection at UMass-Amherst & sub-sampling from the collection.

In the lab, I have been working on the flotation samples by separating out the plant material under the microscope. By looking at the size, surface characteristics, and shape of the seeds that I find, I can compare them to photos or drawings of known seeds, or to the seeds in the collection.

Looking for archaeobotanical material under the microscope.

Matching the recovered seeds to plants mentioned in Dickinson’s writing is especially exciting. Below are images of Vitis (grape) seeds that have been preserved in Dickinson’s garden.

The samples analyzed so far have also yielded seeds from many weedy plants, as well as more economic and useful plants like Rubus (raspberry) and Myrica pensylvanica (bayberry).

Through careful archaeobotanical analysis, as well as help from landscape reports and written accounts, we can create a more accurate picture of what the Dickinson Homestead would have looked like. The garden landscape that Dickinson occupied for the majority of her life shaped her worldview and provided endless inspiration for her poetry. Although she seldom left the homestead as an adult, Dickinson was able to keep the world at her fingertips in her conservatory and garden.

Dickinson’s time with her garden provided endless metaphors for life, love, time, and loss that she used to expand upon more metaphysical ideas in her poetry. By recovering physical evidence of the plants in her garden, we are able to connect directly to the same plants that fueled her unique insight and beloved writing. My research as a Penn Museum Fellow will continue through the end of the semester, with the hopes of painting a clearer picture of the gardens that inspired Emily Dickinson.

Madeline Fried is one of three Penn Museum Fellows selected for the 2017-2018 academic year. The Penn Museum Fellows program supports and promotes outstanding undergraduate research utilizing collections, archives, or laboratories in the Penn Museum. Over the course of the year, Fellows conduct research under the supervision of a project advisor, provide support and feedback to one another through peer review, and present the outcomes of their projects at poster sessions and academic symposia. 

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

For more information about ongoing archaeobotanical work at the Emily Dickinson Homestead, please contact Pam E. Kosty, Public Relations Director at the Penn Museum, at info@pennmuseum.org.