History Beneath our Feet

Written by Dave Kindy   |   Photography by Jack Foley and David Lan

An Archaeological dig unearths evidence of an early Pilgrim settlement.

It was the last day of the 2018 archaeology dig on Burial Hill in Plymouth. Students were sifting through the soil looking for artifacts and detritus from the original Pilgrim settlement. All of a sudden, the quiet sounds of scraping were replaced by excited shouts of surprise: they had found something—and it was big.

“There’s an old archaeology joke that you always find something on the very last day,” chuckles David Landon, one of the dig’s project directors. “This year, our last-day artifact was a big piece of plate iron. We exposed a small section of it and at first it looked like some kind of iron artifact—maybe a shovel or hoe. It turned out to be an unusually large piece of sheet iron.”

For Landon’s team, a find of this type is exceptional. The student excavators were excited. They hoped the artifact might be a breast plate or some other form of armor because of its size. However, they now believe it to be raw material that a blacksmith would have used to make iron implements.

“What it was doing at this location is not known because this site was not a blacksmith shop,” says Landon. “The best we can determine, it was a merchant’s home and the owner may have been planning to use the sheet iron in trade.”

Landon is the associate director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He leads the dig—formally titled the Plymouth Colony Archaeological Survey—with Dr. Christa Beranek. The two lead a team of about 20 student archaeologists whose goal is to find artifacts from the original Pilgrim settlement in the hopes of pinpointing the exact location of the village nearly 400 years ago.

Launched in 2015, the Plymouth Colony Archaeological Survey is a collaboration between the University of Massachusetts Boston, Plimoth Plantation and the town of Plymouth. The survey team is based at Plimoth Plantation while conducting fieldwork and uses the museum’s collections as a resource for artifact identification and analysis.

The team return to the dig site each June and work for about a month. While it may seem like a short amount of time to be looking for artifacts, their findings keep Landon and his students busy for the rest of the year. “For every hour that we dig, we spend up to seven hours studying and researching everything we’ve found,” he says.

The survey site, which is located on Burial Hill at the edge of School Street, has produced numerous artifacts that date to different points in time, including stone tools used by Native Americans, pieces of Pilgrim pottery and even pen nibs from the 19th century when there was a school on the hill.

Among the 17th-century artifacts being studied are musket balls, pieces of a smoking pipe and other pottery, trade beads and a lead-stamped seal that had been crimped to a bolt of cloth, dating from the reign of Charles I (1625-49). The dig even turned up a calf’s skeleton that had been butchered.

The research team hopes that in time they will be able to definitively locate the original fort and even the palisade that protected it. In 2017, the dig located several post holes that were believed to be part of the wooden wall that surrounded the village, but the holes turned out to be pillars for buildings.

“We’ve narrowed down what was inside and outside the settlement but we’re still looking for the palisade,” says Landon. “The post holes we found are definitely from a structure that was part of the original settlement.”

It was at this 17th-century home site that the sheet iron was discovered. Measuring about 1 1/2 by 3 feet, the corroded metal plate was found in a small cellar with a cobblestone floor. Other artifacts located at the site included glazed earthenware such as borderware and redware, and the lead seal.

“The lead disc is stamped on both sides,” says Landon. “It was used to indicate where the cloth was made or if the taxes were paid. It’s important because it helps us date what we’ve found.”

While Landon is a trained scientist and approaches this project with the utmost professional bearing, he gets as excited as a kid in a candy store when he thinks about the implications of his research. “We’re working in an area that could have been the home of Myles Standish or John Alden,” he says. “It makes you think: Is this their trash we’re digging up?’”

The Plymouth Colony Archaeological Survey is supported by a three-year $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. However, Landon is working to secure additional funding so that his team can continue to dig for artifacts through 2020. His team is working with Plimoth Plantation to develop an artifact exhibit that will be open to the public next year.

As Plymouth and surrounding communities prepare to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in 2020, Landon’s team hopes this year’s dig will uncover more clues about this pivotal point in history.

For more information, visit fiskecenter.umb.edu.