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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Windham History: Can you dig it? - By Walter Lunt

Utilizing shovels and smart phones, state archeologists uncover 250 year old artifacts from the site of Windham’s old province fort

Archeologist Amy Mitchell gave the sifter a stiff shake; centuries old dirt dropped through the quarter-inch screen mesh, leaving behind curious dark colored objects, mostly soil chunks and small pebbles. But then, “Hey, a button!” exclaimed Mitchell, picking up a small, round object. Fellow archeologist Megan Theriault, who had just filled the sifter, put aside her shovel and examined the tiny silver thing. She wiped away dirt which revealed a crown over two hearts in raised relief. The find drew the attention of three other archeologists working the first day of a three week dig at the Parson Smith House atop Anderson Hill on River Road in Windham. 

Later, over lunch, Theriault consulted the Internet on her smart phone. The button, it turned out, was a cuff link, English in origin, possibly dating from the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s.
Because the Windham site may be historic, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission is conducting an archeological study, before road construction begins on an area near the road bed. The purpose of the investigation is to learn, once and for all, the exact location of the ancient fort, which protected early settlers during the late years of the French and Indian Wars. The fort location’s possible designation as a historic site could influence how the Department of Transportation proceeds with work on widening and improving River Road.

Leith Smith, historic archeologist and project manager, said that if soil and artifact discoveries lead to well preserved fort remains, the commission will recommend that DOT further expand the survey to uncover all that can be learned about fort construction, cultural resources and its relationship with surrounding homes like the nearby Parson Smith and Anderson-Lord houses.

He said earlier digs at the site, in 1979 and again in 1981, revealed the probability, but no clear evidence, of the precise location of the fort and that one goal of the current investigation is to learn whether DOT work might negatively impact a historic site. If the current survey uncovers clear evidence of the fort’s existence within the construction area, the state would either have to re-engineer River Road around the site (an unlikely scenario) or designate the commission to closely monitor road construction. The DOT plans to lower the hill by about four feet in the area where the fort may have been situated.

In addition to the cuff link, other first day finds from the one-foot square by 20-inch deep test pits included:
 A dark colored piece of flint, probably from England and likely part of the gun flint used on flint lock rifles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ceramic bits, known as Rockingham stock, possibly originating from New Hampshire or Vermont.
Rose head, or L-shaped nails, possibly hand-forged in the 1700s.

Archaeologists Theriault and Mitchell also identified small pieces of brick, and clay pipe stems, both from the 1800s, and both very common finds at various archaeological sites across the state. Theriault smilingly referred to the pipe stems as “cigarette butts of the age.”

Smith maintains the first-day finds at the Windham site do not necessarily confirm human activity associated with the fort. He said science cannot rule out that the artifacts were associated with mid-18th century homes in the area.

He said a significant discovery for the 5-person team would be disturbances in the soil that indicate a line of palisade fencing, believed to have surrounded the fort. He explained that during their time at the site the small test pits will be enlarged into what he called block excavations, measuring several yards square.

Written history, especially primary source materials, can also aid archaeological digs. Smith said Parson Smith’s personal journal, a copy of which is kept by Parson Smith House owners, Donald and Elaine Dickinson, might reveal clues on the location, layout and make-up of the fort.

The Windham Eagle will continue to report on progress at the test site.

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