Archaeology in Harvard Yard

Students in an anthropology class are excavating near Massachusetts Hall and Matthews Hall in hopes of finding evidence of Harvard’s seventeenth-century Indian College.

I’ve had an interest in archaeology ever since I was a little girl. PBS showed Michael Wood’s series In Search of the Trojan War when I was in second or third grade and I was completely caught up in the romance of excavating Troy. I think I really wanted to be Heinrich Schliemann (not having absorbed, of course, that Schliemann was a crackpot who probably destroyed what was left of the Troy of Priam and Paris). I never actually did any archaeology until the last six weeks of my senior year in college, when I enrolled in an historical archaeology course digging at Maine’s Fort Shirley.

What remains of Fort Shirley–an mid-eighteenth-century house that once served as a tavern and courthouse–stands high on a bluff overlooking the Kennebec River. Until the late eighteenth century, a palisade of logs with two blockhouses surrounded the courthouse. One blockhouse served as a jail. Our task was to try to find the footprints of the blockhouses, which would confirm the dimensions and layout of the fort.

What I discovered is that archaeology is dirty and itchy. In May clouds of black flies inundate Maine and our little bluff above the Kennebec was particularly attractive to them. The flies seemed to like the corners of my eyes and mouth and I frequently wiped my filthy hands across my face to get rid of the flies. Back in my dorm room in the evenings, my face was unrecognizable under a layer of dirt and fly and mosquito bites. Mostly my days were spent sprawled on my belly beside my pit, my arms quivering with the tension of slowly scraping my trowel across the dirt, every now and then kicking up some piece of debris: a shard of porcelain, enough redware fragments to make an entire dinner service, and, inexplicably, a seventeenth-century pipestem. (Where on earth did that come from??) On damp days the pits, even though covered, somehow absorbed water and instead of moving dirt we moved small clumps of smelly mud, mud that adhered to our bodies and clothes and made us even more filthy than usual.

Needless to say, I wondered why I had chose this activity to keep me busy during my senior Short Term. I resented the class more the deeper my pit got, until one fine morning towards the end of the five weeks, I was on my belly peering down into my six-foot-deep pit, when I noticed some shadows across the bottom. I scraped some more, and then called over the professor. Sure enough, I was looking at a thick cluster of post molds. A few more inches and the trace of a pallisade wall, ending in a thick cluster that was probably the corner of the blockhouse, were completely visible. That elusive structure for which successive generations of Bates students had been searching, was right in the bottom of my pit.

I was pleased as punch.

I’m glad I did the course now, because I can read reports of archaeological digs from Virginia and Maryland and have some sense of what the material means and what the limits of the evidence are. But I don’t envy those Harvard students now digging up the Yard. I prefer my status as an armchair archaeologist.

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