UMass Boston’s Fiske Center Digs Up History in Newton
January 17, 2012
“I imagine if the Durants were here they would ask why we were digging through their trash,” jokes Danielle Cathcart as she explained her role in an archaeological dig organized by UMass Boston’s Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the Durant-Kenrick Homestead in Newton.
Cathcart, who is working on her master’s degree in archaeology, was one of 12 students who participated in the dig this summer. The students are now meticulously cataloging and analyzing the results, hoping to fill in missing pieces in the story of the nearly 300-year-old house.
With the help of the Fiske Center and the students’ findings, nonprofit organization Historic Newton plans to turn the preserved property into an education center for the town, said Fiske Associate Director David Landon. The house will be restored and the outbuilding’s foundation will be moved and rebuilt, while a new addition to the house will serve as a curation facility.
The house, located on Waverley Ave. in Newton, was built in the 1730s by the Durant family. In the nineteenth century, the property, then owned by the Kenrick family, was turned into a commercial tree nursery that operated for about 50 years, until the nursery went out of business and lead to the breakup of the property. By the time the house was purchased and restored in the 1920s, less than one of the original 100 acres was left. In 1985, the Durant Homestead was established, but the property was only open to the public one day a year. “People drove by and didn’t know what used to be there,” Landon said. “Part of our goal is to bring visibility [to the property].”
Thanks to the use of geo-physical radar equipment that sends signals into the ground to see what is under the surface, the students were able to dig with high accuracy. “Almost every hole we put in the ground turned up something,” Fiske Center archaeologist Christa Beranek said.
Some of the biggest features that they found were an outbuilding that was used as a dairy, the brick foundation an early barn, a stone well, cobble edging from the driveway, as well as thousands of small artifacts. The discovery of the well was a highlight of the dig. “We saw a depression in the ground and decided to plop a hole,” said master’s student Kalila Herring.
From a lab in McCormack, Herring is working to catalog the pieces of pottery that they collected from the site, analyzing them by color and glaze, the size of the rims, and the exact location where they were found. “Twelve boxes of tiny things to be carefully washed and catalogued,” Beranek said.
Student Samantha Henderson, who is doing her master’s thesis on organic plant remains analysis, took samples of the soil and is using a process called flotation to separate the organic plant remains from any small pieces of artifacts that they can use. “You can find things you’d miss in other samples,” she said.
So far, they have been able to date French ceramics from the time of the American Revolution, and they are working to date the outbuilding by examining the fill that was unearthed. Once they are finished with them, the items they collected will be returned to Historic Newton to be part of the exhibit at the house.
The students are finishing their collection analysis this semester and will spend next semester creating reports. Though it might seem tedious, Beranek and Landon said it is all part of the valuable process of learning about everything that really goes into an archaeological dig. “We put a lot of effort into getting students engaged,” Landon said. “It’s a real project. They’re saving the house.”
He added that projects like this also give students the chance to work with the community and see all the work that digs and restorations entail. Town planners stopped by the site, as well as the historic societies and community members who were curious about what was going on. “We are always out there explaining what we’re doing to people,” Beranek said.
Students also work to ensure that the house isn’t harmed in the restoration process and will return to the site for construction of the historic center, which is slated to begin this spring.