My First Excavation

October, 2004

by Sabrina Blanco

Sabrina Blanco prepares to dig for buried treasure. Photo courtesy of David Starbuck.

Sabrina Blanco prepares to dig for buried treasure. Photo courtesy of David Starbuck.

Traveling south on Highway I-93, onto Exit 17, we entered the town of Boscawen, N.H. On this Sunday I joined Assistant Professor David Starbuck in an excavation to uncover historical artifacts near the oldest Boscawen household, dating back to the 1730s.

Boscawen is named after Sir Edward Boscawen, an English admiral distinguished for his direction over the 1755 “taking of the Alcide and Lys” in Nova Scotia. The town, close to where the Contoocook River flows into the Merrimack, became the home of English settlers who traveled to America during the eighteenth century. The settlement of Boscawen began in 1734 when pioneers from coastal regions made their way up the valley of the Merrimack River. The fort in Boscawen was built nine years later, in 1743, to provide protection from Indians who were attempting to reach scattered settlements on the western frontier.

During the 45-minute car ride from Plymouth State University to Boscawen, Dr. Starbuck shared stories from his teaching experience at Castleton State College, and his excavation projects in New York. He is a renowned archaeologist throughout New England who has published many scholarly journals and books.

For the two days before our trip I took every chance to tell others that I was about to embark on my first excavation. In my mind, I could imagine myself covered in mud and shoveling dirt out of a five-foot deep hole, unearthing a human skeleton or perhaps the remaining weapons of these people.

At 10 o’clock we drove onto the dirt pathway leading to the Boscawen home. It was surrounded by freshly cut grass and maple trees that follow the path up to the house. Looking up through the car’s skylight, golden leaves were falling away from the limbs of each tree; and an array of red and orange-covered branches formed an umbrella over us. To the left of the driveway is the white house that looks much like other New England homes, except for the Victorian windows and the spotted white exterior, a result of age as the white paint slowly chips from the sides.

About 10 meters from the house is an old-fashioned white barn. The barn is surrounded by the scattered growth of round-leaved ragworts and dame’s rockets in light purple shades, interspersed by tall green grasses and weeds. It reminds me a little of the traditional gardens I’ve seen in England—somewhat overgrown, yet still organized and simple. Behind the brush, not too far back, is the Merrimack River.

Dr. Starbuck soon parked his Saab between the house and the barn. Jill Matteson and Christina Short, both students at PSU, drove up to the house just after we stepped out of the car and had begun to survey the landscape.

Behind the barn we visited a granite stone memorial, in the shape of a traditional rounded tombstone, which was placed by the town in 1899 for an Old Home Day celebration. A bronze tablet on the stone read, “First Fort Memorial, A.D. 1739, One Hundred Feet Square, Built of Hewn Logs.” According to historic records, the proprietors of Boscawen voted in 1739 to build a log fort 100 feet square that would protect settlers in the event of an Indian attack. Today, there are no records to reveal whether the fort was ever built. This prompted Dr. Starbuck to conduct a rather sizable excavation at the site, starting in 1982. Archaeologists wanted to determine the location and size of the fort and they wanted to learn about the lifestyle of people living in New Hampshire during the time of the French and Indian War.

Dr. Starbuck explained that no traces of a palisade wall have been discovered, but a dense scatter of rocks, bricks, clay and 18th century artifacts provides evidence to support a fort structure. In 1985, an assisting archaeologist named Mary Dupre uncovered the full skeleton of a dog. For some time, Dr. Starbuck had left the excavation project in the hands of other specialists, but recently returned to the site to continue his work.

“Our goal is to answer questions that couldn’t be answered by Mary Dupre 20 years ago. She knew that she was on top of, or next to the ruins of the fort, but couldn’t be sure of which building she was in or how extensive the site was. Since then, there has been a very strong sense that the site is early, major, probably the oldest European settlement north of Concord. I’d like to finally have some answers on the extent of the site and what the lives of the settlers were like,” Dr. Starbuck told us.

Jill and Christina joined Dr. Starbuck and me in a tour through the old white house, which is now used to hold paintings that belong to the New Hampshire Art Association. We paid close attention to the architecture inside the house. The ceilings hung low with dark wooden beams lifting them into place. Dr. Starbuck believes that the house was constructed from timbers that were once part of the fort.

There were two levels, and one could easily guess that the detail of the house and the space inside probably meant that it belonged to a rather wealthy English family. There was a fireplace made of dark red bricks, with a pot hung underneath to give the idea that it was used to cook food. There was another fireplace in the living room and yet another in the room on the other side of it. I concluded that this was the only means of keeping warm during an 18th century snow season in New Hampshire. The most interesting aspect of the house was the glass around the front door. In the 1700s, crown point was the cheapest form of glass available. These eight-by-10-inch window panes were on both sides of the door, and looked like a whirlwind with a thick middle made of glass. (These glass panes were made in the New England Glassworks Company of Temple, N.H., which operated during the 1780s and was excavated between 1975 and 1978. It was not only the largest excavation of an industrial site from this time period, but was also one of the few 18th century factories ever excavated).

After a detailed look through the house, we walked outside to pick our digging site. Dr. Starbuck had received permission just a day before to dig in the backyard of the house next door. We chose this area mainly because that’s where the sun was shining—and we wanted to stay warm.

All of us worked together to bring the equipment out of the barn and over to the digging site. We had to pass through tangled branches and sticky vines to get there. I carried a metal tripod with sharp spearheads at each end. Jill carried the yellow plastic utility box and we all helped to bring the buckets, sifters, shovels, pliers and other tools to the site. We spent the next hour and a half using the device that was in the yellow box, a measuring device called a theodolite. Dr. Starbuck set up the tripod and installed the yellow theodolite by putting screws through the metal piece at the top of the tripod and up into the bottom of the device.

The theodolite looks much like a microscope, and by looking through the lens an archaeologist can view a single point (like the nail that we place) at a far distance. This machine sets up a grid line so that we can mark the digging squares, which measure one meter on each side. When looking through the lens, you see a circle, and inside it, the nail and a small patch of grass that circles it.

First, we lined up a tape measure so that it was centered at the right spot, then we used the theodolite to measure a straight line to the west. Jill looked through the lens to see if the tape measure was directed in an exact vertical line, according to her position at the tripod. Christina held the tape measure where it was stationed near the tripod, while Dr. Starbuck pulled on the tape measure for more length. I marked a nail at every meter away from the position of the theodolite, by putting the nail next to each meter mark on the tape measure. Jill stood at the tripod, and looked through the lens to see that the nail lined up perfectly with the straight line we had measured with the theodolite.

I used a five-inch long nail to mark each corner of the squares. I then had to label each nail by writing N0W1(North 0, West 1), N0W2 (North 0, West 2), etc. on luminescent orange tags. We followed this pattern for another seven meters. When we finished marking these points, we were ready to measure squares from the line. Dr. Starbuck used two tape measures to construct a right triangle (90 degree angle) from two adjacent meter points on the line. He was able to measure where the other two nails would be placed so that we could make a square. We repeated this process for another square at seven meters away from the theodolite. When we finished, you could see eight nails, spaced a meter apart, extending from the theodolite. There were also the two nails, a meter to the left of the line, at the second and third meter points. There was another set of nails to the left of the seventh and eighth meter away from the tripod.

To finish this process, we wrapped a string from nail to nail to create an outline for the squares that we would be digging. Jill spread out a big piece of sheer black plastic, and we carried over some 15 to 20 inch-long stones to place on top so that it wouldn’t blow away. We put the two sifters on the plastic and prepared to dig, while Tina walked toward the house to begin taking pictures of the site.

Jill asked me, “Which hole do you want?” Looking at the shape of the ground, I noticed that it was higher at the seven meter point, and I picked the furthest spot, hoping that this would bring me luck in finding something good. I brought out a large shovel and started to press it into the grass, making lines just in front of the string that formed a barrier for my square. I started digging up the grass in large chunks, placing each layer on the plastic that had been laid down. After 10 minutes I turned around and noticed that Jill was cutting into the grass, forming a thick layer of grass with a small portion of soil underneath, and rolling it into a ball. I thought, “Oh no, am I doing this wrong?” Dr. Starbuck explained that I was not required to roll the grass, but that it could be helpful in preserving the lawn when the work is finished. We didn’t want to ruin the neighbors’ yard! I continued with my original process and started to ask more questions. Jill continued to dig in the hole stationed at the second and third meter point.

As the grass layer of my square was peeled away, a perfectly dark brown square appeared and I asked Dr. Starbuck, “So, what do I do next?” Dr. Starbuck used a spear-shaped trowel to carve soil from the sides of the square. As he did this, he pulled the soil toward him and then used a dustpan to remove the soil from the pit. He unloaded the soil into buckets I had sitting nearby.

Wendy Borghoff ’00, a 25-year-old PSU graduate, drove up to the house and walked into the yard to say hello. For the last four years, Wendy has participated in Dr. Starbuck’s archeology internship in Scotland. [See Plymouth Magazine, Summer 2003.] Wendy watched us work for a short while, and then walked towards the house with Dr. Starbuck to get a tour of the inside. For the next three hours, not including my lunch break, I dug and dug, and then sifted dirt and dug some more. Every hour my arms were getting more tired, and I would take short breaks to let my muscles relax for a moment or two. I continued digging, because I was sure that there had to be something beneath this ground—there was a mystery to it.

After digging and emptying eight inches of soil from my hole, I was discouraged to find that I had apparently picked the wrong square. While Jill found a pig’s tooth and a large bone of some sort, all I uncovered were some small modern day materials like styrofoam and rusted metal—and lots of worms, maggots and bugs. Not only that—Jill’s square looked a lot neater, and I realized that I should have been digging in layers as I slowly got deeper into the soil.

Jill and Christina left at about 2 p.m. to head to Concord for the remainder of the afternoon. Dr. Starbuck and Wendy sat with me for the last hour to help me finish digging the hole. We slowly emptied dirt from the square and created a more clean-cut appearance by carving straight edges and a flat surface at the bottom of the hole. The hole was approximately a foot deep when we finished.

After uncovering little to nothing of importance, we came to the conclusion that perhaps a thick layer of topsoil had been added to level the ground within recent years. If there were things to uncover, it was going to take a lot longer than four hours to find them. When I finished digging, the knees of my jeans were dark and muddy and I was extremely tired from the long day of work. At four o’clock we packed the supplies back into Dr. Starbuck’s car and headed back onto I-93 towards Plymouth. On the ride back I didn’t say much. I was really tired and discouraged with the results of the dig. I kept asking myself, “Do I really want to do this again? Could I actually do this for the rest of my life?”

Later that evening I zonked out on the couch in my dorm room. There was a sense of failure that I experienced that night—that the excavation had not been what I thought it was going to be or that I hadn’t done things right. I wanted to like it, but what was the point if I didn’t find any artifacts?

My initial findings appeared to be useless, but as I thought about the day, I began to realize how much I had learned from the experience. It wasn’t the artifacts that I would find, or the revelation of finding another bone. There is a deeper value when we contribute to discovering our history—an effort to imagine, as I was digging, what these people might have been like or what struggles they may have shared. I discovered for myself, that it isn’t about the artifacts—it is about commemorating the people that might have lived there.

The tour of the house and the history that my professor shared brought the land to life. It wasn’t just soil and artifacts. It was a real place—where real people experienced the joys and fears of everyday life.

Twenty-five people are recorded as Boscawen’s earliest settlers: David Barker, Sinklet Bean, Josiah Bishop, Andrew Bohonon, John Bowen, Philip Call, Thomas Cook, John Corser, William Dagadan, Nathaniel Danforth, William Danforth, Joseph Estman, Edward Fitzgerald, Jacob Flanders, Richard Flood, John Fowler, Stephen Gerrish, Ambrose Gould, George Jackman, Richard Jackman, Joel Manuel, Nathaniel Maloon, Williams Peters, Nathaniel Rix, Daniel Rolfe. People at the fort experienced several attacks by the French and Indians, but Captain Phineas Stevens managed to hold the fort during the series of attacks that took place. The artifacts we discover are the key to finding out how they lived and what they experienced at the time of these attacks. My mission is to learn about the people—the essence of what took place on that land over 250 years ago. Let them be remembered.

Sabrina Blanco is a senior communications major at PSU with minors in anthropology/sociology and expository writing. She serves as publicity intern in the PSU public relations office, assistant residence director for Belknap Hall and undergraduate fellow for the PASS office, as well as participating in numerous campus and community groups. Blanco has been listed in Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities and been honored with many scholarships and awards. She was named to the fall and spring President’s List for 2003-04, and in October 2003 was elected Homecoming Queen.


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