Digging for History at PSU

October 19th, 2010 by Adam

PLYMOUTH, N.H.-Slowly, a shiny metal trowel skims across the surface of the dirt within a one-meter wide square cut into a lawn, exposing a tiny shard of pottery. PSU student Daniela O’Lena drops her trowel and picks up the dime-sized piece and examines it, squinting in the late afternoon sun.

“It’s a piece of whiteware,” she proclaims.

O’Lena and her classmates in Associate Professor David Starbuck’s Intro to Archaeology class are getting a first-hand look at what lies beneath the lawn of one of the oldest buildings on campus, Holmes House, which was built in 1835.

Starbuck, a veteran archaeologist and well-respected expert on pre-Revolutionary War military sites in the Hudson Valley, wanted to provide students easy access to an archaeological dig without travelling far from campus.

“Students kept asking me, ‘Is there some place we can go and dig this fall?’ Starbuck said. “So, we’re trying to get most of the students from the Intro to Archaeology class out here figuring out how to dig, instead of looking at pictures in the classroom. They’re getting a chance to learn the techniques and raise the awareness on campus that there are truly historic artifacts and features still under the ground on campus…and archaeology doesn’t have to be far away.”

Students digging up artifacts
PSU students Kelli Meattey, left, and Daniela O’Lena, right, conducting an archaeology dig at Holmes House.

Holmes House pre-dates any of Plymouth State University’s academic predecessors by nearly three decades. Because of its potential historic significance, New Hampshire State Architectural Historian James Garvin visited the site this past summer to survey the building before it underwent repairs and he later agreed it might be a good place to host a an archaeological dig. Starbuck said he is somewhat surprised that the lawn area adjacent to the Holmes House is undisturbed.

“We thought this area might have been disturbed or regraded, but instead we’re finding artifacts from the 1800s within the first foot of soil,” said Starbuck.

O’Lena, a Manchester, N.H. native and Anthropology major, asserts the Holmes House dig is great preparation for her future.

“I intend to go on to grad school and major in archaeology and this will definitely help me,” O’Lena said. “It’s definitely an amazing hands-on experience for what I want to do in my life. Its exciting to feel like you’re accomplishing something …you have purpose.”

Starbuck notes the dig, located just a few steps away from a modern academic building, has turned up evidence of a mid-nineteenth century household.

“What we’re chiefly finding is not University-period – it’s before then,” Starbuck said. “We’re finding red earthenware pottery, which really hasn’t been made since the 1870s. A lot of whiteware, pearlware, other types of pottery, some cut nails, which have been made since the 1790s, some buttons, a bullet, brass buckle, some butchered bones, it’s really from the residential period here before it became a campus.”

The artifacts are collected and stored in a laboratory in Rounds Hall, which provides another opportunity for aspiring archaeology students, like Kelli Meattey of Weare, N.H.

“I want to be the person that analyzes it, try to put all this stuff together and figure out where it’s from, who used it and what it was used for,” said Meattey. “This is really interesting, to see where this stuff actually comes from.”

Starbuck and his students will continue the Holmes House archaeological dig until cold weather forces them to stop.

For more information about this release, contact Bruce Lyndes, PSU Media Relations Mgr., (603) 535-2775 or blyndes@plymouth.edu