Science & Tech

Student diggers take Harvard’s roots from dirt to display case

5 min read

Peabody Museum opens new exhibit on treasure from Yard digs

Emily Pierce ’10 was up to her hips in Harvard Yard, standing in a square hole in the ground, carefully scraping soil as she sought bits of archaeological treasure: a button here, a piece of bone there — clues that together could weave a tale of Harvard’s early years.

It was the fall of 2007, and Pierce was one of dozens of Harvard College students drawing the stares of passersby for more than their dirty fingernails. Like Pierce, the other students stood and squatted in similar holes in a gridded complex occupying a chunk of Harvard’s Old Yard. The students were taking part in “The Archaeology of Harvard Yard,” a course offered every other fall that seeks to unearth pieces of Harvard history buried beneath the Yard’s otherwise manicured turf. (Click here to see a video of the dig.)

Pierce and her classmates took their places weekly, carefully scraping and sifting their way down through time, seeking clues to the Indian College, Harvard’s first brick building and fourth of any kind, constructed in 1655 to house American Indian students, whose education was an early mission of the University.

A year later, the finds of Pierce and her classmates — the bones, buttons, pottery shards, and even type from the press that printed North America’s first Bible — are cleaned up and on display in a new exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

“Digging Veritas: The Archaeology and History of the Indian College and Student Life at Colonial Harvard” opened Monday with a reception and ceremony that featured museum staff, faculty, students, and members of the New England Indian community.

“It’s really amazing seeing the fruits of my labor all last year on display,” said Pierce.

The exhibit stemmed from three classes offered since 2005. The first two, in fall 2005 and fall 2007, were student digs in Harvard Yard while the third, last spring, was a lab class where students cleaned, identified, cataloged, and analyzed what they found. The classes were led by Peabody Museum Director William Fash, the Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology, by Peabody Associate Curators Diana Loren and Patricia Capone, and by Senior Curatorial Assistant Christina Hodge.

During brief comments at the exhibit opening, Fash said it was particularly gratifying to open an exhibit that reflects student efforts from start to finish.

“The ones who made it all happen are the students,” Fash said, after thanking faculty and staff involved with the project. “Not only were they jumping in and out of holes, they were washing and figuring out how it all works. …  I couldn’t be happier that this is student-dug and -curated.”

Indira Phukan, a senior who took the Yard dig class in fall 2005 and then did the analysis last spring, said much of what she discovered — different kinds of pottery shards, for example — had to do with eating. She found herself imagining what students of the day ate and how they might have gathered their meals. She said that her team uncovered a lot of cut bones, indicating meats were sliced up rather than cooked whole. They also found lots of oyster shells, indicating that seafood was a big part of the early students’ diet.

The stories told through archaeology, Phukan said, are as much about what’s missing as what’s found, however, and that’s the case with the Yard digs. The foundation of the Harvard Indian College was never found.

“There are a lot of things missing. We never found the Indian College,” Phukan said. “It shows that we have to keep digging.”

The exhibit shows that students in the 17th and 18th centuries were in some ways like students today. They lived and learned —and sometimes broke rules — at Harvard. Despite bans on smoking and drinking, the digs turned up many bits of ceramic tobacco pipes and fragments of glass wine bottles, as well as bones of cows, sheep, pigs, and turkeys.

Perhaps the most precious find was metal print type used in the first printing press in America, located in the Indian College. The press produced the first Bible printed in North America, written in the Algonquian language; it’s known as the Indian Bible or the Eliot Bible. The exhibit displays the metal type alongside a complete copy of the Bible, borrowed from Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan from Connecticut and a graduate student at the Harvard Extension School, worked over the summer to help put the exhibit together. She and other curators examined the material found in the digs, read student papers about the findings, and came up with display ideas. Sayet said she didn’t know much about the Indian College before working on the exhibit and said she learned that of the handful of native students who entered the college, only one, Caleb Cheeshahteamuck, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, would graduate, in 1665.

The search for Harvard’s roots will continue next fall. Fash said the class “The Archaeology of Harvard Yard” will be offered again.

“In September of next year we will have shovels in the ground,” Fash said. “We plan to find out as much about Harvard’s Indian roots as possible.”