Unearthing History in Waltham

By Ibby Caputo

June 18, 2012

WALTHAM, Mass. — Cairo has its pyramids. Rome has its ruins. But it’s not necessary to go so far away to see history unearthed. In fact, one archeological dig is only a bus ride away from Boston.
On a warm and breezy June day, archeology students crowd around their outdoor classroom: two rectangular trenches on the historic Gore Estate in Waltham. Sweaty and covered in dirt, they methodically dig into the ground, paying attention to every bit of debris.
Archeologist Dave Landon teaches a summer course that gives UMass students hands-on experience unearthing historical remains.
“We love projects like this because it really does kind of go straight at this misconception that archeology is always far away,” Landon says.
This summer’s underground target: a greenhouse built by the seventh governor of Massachusetts, Christopher Gore. It’s part of an innovative agricultural movement that took place in New England in the early 1800s. Co-teacher Christa Beranek says the students are likely to find a variety of artifacts under layers of soil.
“Probably down there there’s greenhouse structure, there’s destruction debris from taking apart the building, lots of brick and stone and mortar and remnants of things from the greenhouse, lots and lots of glass, planting pots, nails,” she says.
Technology provides clues
In the month before the class started, Landon and his team spent days mapping out the area using electromagnetic radiation. It’s an off-the-shelf technology used in an innovative way. And it spared Landon’s students from the arduous hit-or-miss process of figuring out where to dig.
Just as planes navigate by radar, sending waves out into the atmosphere, the electromagnetic detection machine sends microwaves into the earth. When they hit a rock or a patch of clay, they bounce back.
Using historical maps as a general guide, the precision of this data helps target the exact location of hidden structures. But the archeologist’s goal is to form a cohesive narrative about the past, and that can’t occur until what’s underground is unearthed.
Today’s big find
While some students dig, others sift through dirt as if looking for gold. They mostly find pieces of ceramic and glass, but every so often, something unexpected turns up. The big find so far today? The base of a flat-bottomed drinking glass, which, it seems, was used as a tool. The broken edges have been chipped in the same way a flint stone is chipped into an arrowhead.
Volunteer Phil Cook says the process of digging and sifting can be a little mind-numbing, but it is totally worth it when you find something unexpected.
“You're out here for 8 hours a day, especially in the heat,” Cook says. “Your eyes kind of widen when you see it sticking out of the ground and you really don’t know what it is at first.”
An understanding of history gives context to the dig, but some artifacts — like the broken base of the tumbler — yield more questions than answers.
“Someone was here making a tool out of broken glass,” Landon explains. “Why would there be this handmade tool here when they really had the ability to buy any tools they wanted for this greenhouse?”
Landon says a lot of times artifacts like these found in New England are associated with Native and African Americans. “So who exactly is working here and what kind of skill set are they bringing?”
The dig's next phase
The answers to the past will not come quickly. This portion of the excavation will round up at the end of June. Then the UMass team will spend a few months analyzing the artifacts before beginning the next phase of excavation at the same site in October.
“We’re going to use every bit of evidence we can get — any kind of historical evidence, or artifactual evidence, or archeological evidence — to try and understand, try and imagine the greenhouse when it was in use and people were moving in and out of it,” says Landon.
The story promises to slowly unfold. And right here in New England an archeological adventure is underway.

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