The day is warming up after a cool morning. Some people peel to T-shirts as they scrape and sift, crawl and haul, at the
18th-century Strong-Howard House in Windsor. The house, which belongs to the Windsor Historical Society, is undergoing a
major restoration. As part of that, floorboards have been removed in one room. "This gives us the opportunity to dig under
the floor," says Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, aka "Dr. Nick," who's the Connecticut state archaeologist and whose T-shirt says
"Connecticut Archaeology Expo."
Inside the room, several people are down on the dirt. Squeezed between still-in-place floor supports, they gently scrape the surface, which is marked off in one-meter squares. Regularly, somebody lifts a bucket of dirt and hands it through the window to waiting arms.
Outside, people lug the buckets over to screens set up on legs and sift the contents. Every now and then - inside or outside - there's a discovery. "Hey! That's beauty! That's a medicine bottle, probably late 19th-century," Dr. Nick says, taking a look at one find. Several pipe stems have turned up as well, along with such items as nails and pieces of glass. Later, a musket ball will appear.
The workers are all volunteers from FOSA, the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology. They're people from assorted walks of life who relish digging - often literally - into the past. "We find things that have been buried for hundreds of years. It's a great feeling," says Mike Cahill, who served in the Army, then worked for the Department of Corrections. "It personalizes history," says Scott Brady, a retired Hartford fireman, recalling his experience at an earlier dig. "I held a 1638 coin in my hand. It was here before our country. Some English settler lost it."
Dr. Nick says, "The FOSA gang is great. I'm humbled by all that they do for me and my office." His job includes working with towns and developers to protect sites, making sure excavations are done properly, analyzing and caring for artifacts, and helping the public to understand what's happening and why it matters. Looking into the past helps us put our own lives into context, he says. "People should preserve historical and archaeological sites not just as curiosities, but because those sites are about us and who we are."
He's known for tackling tasks with enthusiasm. "It's contagious; it bubbles up," says Bonnie Beatrice, who used to be in banking but is now a potter. FOSA members catch Dr. Nick's spirit; they help with digs, documentation, dollars, and more. Besides on-site activities like crawling around between old floor supports (or walking tightrope-style along them to get from one marked square to another), their assistance includes record keeping, outreach projects, and fund-raising. "Nobody's paid," Mike Cahill says. "It's fun."
Inside the floorless room, Jim Trocci crouches between supports. "You gotta get down and get dirty," he says. He's an IBM technician, a substitute teacher, and a member of both FOSA and the Windsor Historical Society. "I've had a relationship with this house for 20 years," he says. "We keep learning more and more all the time." The historical society's literature tells of Captain Nathanial Howard, who bought the house in 1772 and whose seafaring days included naval service in the Revolutionary War. The hope is that this dig will produce material culture to help the historical society interpret the house and the lives of the people who lived there - back when, Mike Cahill jokes, "There was no YouTube."
In a back corner of the room, people are using a fancy new laser level. Dr. Nick notes that archaeologists often find technology like lasers or carbon-14 dating, that was developed for other purposes, but suits their needs nicely. "Hence, we steal it!" he says.
Archaeology also relies on the steady deployment of ordinary dustpans, masonry trowels, and metric tape measures. "Trowels are the main thing we use," says Mike Cahill, adding that he does keep some more delicate implements. "I have a set of dental tools." (Their uses include removing soil in tight places).
Yankee ingenuity helps. "This is a tool that Ken made," Bonnie Beatrice says. Her husband, Ken Beatrice, a former engineer, couldn't come to this dig, but others are using his device: six metal rods inserted in six dowels that have been painted bright orange, labeled, and strung together. It's a very portable, easily visible version of the "Harrington Pipe Stem Dating Table," which helps archaeologists date an historical site by measuring, in fractions of an inch, a Kaolin Pipe draw hole. The table is named for an archaeologist who determined that the holes' diameters changed steadily over a couple of centuries. Bonnie inserts a rod into the draw hole of a just-found Kaolin Pipe stem and reads a label. "4/64, 1750-1800," she says. She can also tidy up the artifact, using a conveniently attached brush and cleaning wire.
None of this is speedy. "You need a lot of patience. It's not like Indiana Jones," Mike Cahill says. Not that anybody minds. People haul buckets, dust off pipe stems, chat, and joke. They find a small pointed object which nobody recognizes. "It's a thing," Cynthia Redman says firmly. She asks Dr. Nick, "Do you agree with our identification?" Dr. Nick grins. "That is different," he says, turning the object over in his hand. It goes into a little canister, for later study. There's chuckling as Dr. Nick recalls a larger mysterious find made in the state a few years ago. Mostly buried, it looked at first glance like bone, possibly a large bone. Workers called in extra help to continue digging, very carefully; soon they identified a bathtub. Cynthia was thrilled with this day's finds. "We found a beautiful handmade nail and thin, thin glass," she says. "I always wanted to be an archaeologist," she adds, "but a girl in the 50's was not encouraged to be one." A retired development coach for an insurance company, she's now FOSA's president, heading a group that helps support archaeology in Connecticut and encourages youngsters and adults alike to get interested.
FOSA members have raised money for computers, a camera, field equipment, and more for Dr. Nick's office. Some spend winter days in a UConn lab, helping to catalog artifacts. FOSA outreach projects include presentations at various events to show how proper, respectful archaeology helps us to know a little better the folks who once lived here before the settlers came, or on colonial farms, or in 18th-century towns, or in bustling 19th-century centers of industry.
Several FOSA members help out with an annual "Archaeology Field Day" at Smith Middle School in Glastonbury. Students rotate throughout that day, so that everyone can try everything. "One group digs with us," Bonnie Beatrice says. "Another does the atlatl; they go after a mastodon." That is, they use a model of an ancient spear-throwing device to attack a sturdily constructed beast, about five by six feet, that's been painted and furred.
October is Archaeology Awareness Month, and on the weekend of October 5th and 6th, FOSA outreach reps will be at Hammonassett State Park in Madison for the Hammonassett Festival Celebrating Nature and Native Americans (an event that will include the World Atlatl Championship). FOSA always welcomes new members, and those interested can check out its info-packed website, www.fosa-ct.org.
The site even includes a sort of "Archaeology 101 condensed," that gives a brief summary of archaeological principles and practices. It also carries reports on last year's work by Dr. Nick's office, which ranged from helping to repatriate the remains of a Lakota Sioux who died in Connecticut in 1900 while working in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, to conducting an archaeological exploration of an 1890's Jewish farming community in Montville. (Dr. Nick says he has "no two days alike)."
The website's list of "Dig FAQs" starts briskly with: "How can I participate in a dig?" You must be a member of FOSA, which usually helps out at relatively small sites where there are no funds to hire a contract archaeologist. "What should I bring? What should I wear?" Bring a trowel and wear "stout shoes," the site advises. "A brown fedora is optional; a bullwhip is probably unnecessary." And, "What about souvenirs?" The answer is: "No souvenirs; no exceptions." That's a cardinal rule of ethical, scientific archaeological work.
At the Strong-Howard House, Jim Trocci makes the same point. "We're not antique collectors," he says, looking up from his cramped operations in the dirt. "We're history collectors." Christine Ermenc, the historical society's executive director, comes by to see the folks who are so carefully collecting bits of Windsor's history. "It's amazing," she says. "They're all volunteers." She looks forward to seeing them again. "The team will be come back in a couple of years," she says, "when we take down the chimney."
Click on each of the images below, of some of the items uncovered during this excavation, to bring up a larger view
and to "walk" backwards and forwards through them.
Nicholas F. Bellantoni, Ph.D., Connecticut State Archaeologist, heads the Office of State Archaeology at the
Connecticut Archaeology Center, Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, UConn.
The website for FOSA, Friends of the Office of State Archaeology, is www.fosa-ct.org.