Arts & Culture

Digging history in Harvard Yard

4 min read

It was crowded in the hole in Harvard Yard, with sophomore Reyzl Geselowitz and freshman Alison Liewen crouching in the square pit, elbow to elbow and more than a yard deep in Harvard’s dark earth.

The two were eager to clear the dirt from something sticking out of one wall: a round keyhole cover, green with tarnish but still recognizable. The item was a token of what is already known about the place — a college stood here hundreds of years ago. But it is also priceless treasure for students learning the ropes of a field that pulls human history from the soil.

“This is very exciting,” Geselowitz said. “Instead of learning how to excavate, we’re actually doing it.”

Geselowitz and Liewen were pitching in on the biennial excavation of Harvard Yard, part of a class taught by Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Director William Fash, lecturers on anthropology and associate curators Diana Loren and Patricia Capone, and senior curatorial assistant Christina Hodge. The class, called “The Archaeology of Harvard Yard,” gives students a chance to get their hands dirty, experience an archaeological excavation, and unearth finds that add detail to Harvard’s already rich history.

This year’s finds have shed light on different aspects of Harvard’s past. The semester’s work documented a part of the intellectual life hundreds of years ago, turning up four pieces of lead type used in an old printing press. The letters, including “h,” “m,” and two blanks that denoted spaces in the type, are believed to have been used in the first bible printed in the New World, by John Eliot, who wrote an Algonquian translation in the 1600s.

The dig turned up numerous other items that attested to the existence of buildings here: pieces of brick and roof tile. It also uncovered items of everyday life: pipe stems, oyster shells, and wine bottles — finds that senior Sarah Glass interpreted as evidence that students then weren’t so different from those today.

“It kind of looks like Harvard kids were partying back in the day,” Glass said. “This is our history; it’s just amazing.”

The class’s 45 students began digging in September with hopes of finding remnants of Harvard’s Indian College, which sat side by side with the Old College 350 years ago and reflected the mission of educating and Christianizing the American Indian tribes of Massachusetts.

Representatives of several Massachusetts Indian tribes attended the groundbreaking in September, speaking then of the mixed record of the Indian College. The institution’s mission was simultaneously one that embraced educational equality between European and Indian youth and that partook in a cultural warfare that sought to supplant native values and culture with those transplanted from Europe.

Other tribal representatives, however, spoke of the promise that archaeology holds to fill in the blanks left in their people’s past by finding artifacts that help recover lost language, culture, and tradition.

Despite weeks of digging, the students didn’t uncover the Indian College’s remnants, though not for lack of trying. As the semester progressed, the class’s instructors added a Friday workday to the regular Wednesday afternoon class. They also invited students from Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rowan Flad’s “Introduction to Archaeology” class — including Geselowitz and Liewen — to come and help dig.

Working in two adjacent sites cordoned off from the rest of the Yard by a plastic orange fence, students first removed the grass surface from their meter-square plots and then carefully loosened dirt from the bottom. They put the earth into buckets and then carried it off and sifted it through a metal screen. As the weeks passed, the pile of sifted dirt grew, contained within three-sided plywood frames.

By the time digging halted on Nov. 9, groups of square holes, covered in tarps and plywood to keep the rain out, checkerboarded the area. The treasures removed were awaiting further attention by the students, who were required to sign up for the follow-up class in the spring when the unearthed items will be cleaned, processed, and analyzed. Fash said that every hour of digging typically requires two more hours of processing finds and writing up results.

Fash and Loren said they were pleased with the work over the semester and the find of numerous artifacts of the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, this semester’s work helped identify several potential future dig targets, such as the location of the Old College cellar and the ground surface from the days when the Indian College was dismantled, which Fash said would be the focus of the next class, to be offered in 2009.