Campus & Community

The archaeology of Harvard Yard

3 min read

Beneath the soil, beneath the feet, are fragments of Harvard’s beginnings

Studying the archaeology of Harvard Yard is a collaborative project of the Harvard Anthropology Department and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Four buildings made up the 17th century Harvard campus. Two of these, the Old College and the Indian College, were near the present archaeological excavation.

The features and artifacts excavated this semester confirm the presence of a refuse zone, likely from the Old College building of 1638, the first college building in America, and long gone from the Yard. Among this semester’s finds are 17th century clay roof tiles, diamond-pane window glass, many handmade bricks, clay tobacco pipes, a lead musket ball, and a piece of flint for a firearm.

By learning more about the refuse of daily life, researchers and students can better understand the role of learning in early American colonization. With no maps or drawings existing for the Yard in the 17th century, archaeology contributes key information on the early life of students and their College.

Students in “Anthropology 1130: The Archaeology of Harvard Yard” dig in rectangular pits, inside areas sectioned off by twine, a few centimeters at a time. The class excavates in partnership with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
By learning about the refuse of daily life, the class can address the changing nature of education from what began as a 17th-century religious institution to its evolution as an 18th-century secular one, while also learning about aspects of students’ daily lives.
Charles Michael ’20 displays an ink bottle from the 1800s unearthed at the site, possibly made by Carter’s Ink Co. in Cambridge. Other artifacts include clay tobacco pipes, a lead musket ball, and a piece of flint for a flint-lock firearm.
Colin Criss ’17, left, displays some recently excavated artifacts to Tom Tiffany ’71, center, and Meryl Strawbridge ’71.
Patricia Capone (back to camera) explains to alums how the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project explores the University’s early days and mission.
Rachel Harner ’17 (left) bags an artifact for safekeeping. Organizing, maintaining, and cataloging the artifacts are important aspects of the excavation. Instructor Patricia Capone (right) explains the project to alumni from the Class of ’71 visiting the class on site in the Yard.
Found artifacts include a key, possibly from the 19th century, and a two-cent coin from 1864, the first year two-cent coins were minted. Other artifacts include 17th-century clay roof tiles, diamond pane window glass, handmade bricks, and animal bones, which likely were part of students’ diet.
William Mendez ’17 displays a ceramic shard unearthed that day. Ceramics were used in dining, food storage, and food preparation.
Ronni Cuccia ’19 (from left), Alyssa Mehta ’18, and Lexy Hartford, a fourth-year digital teaching fellow, examine excavated debris in a sifter.
Julia Thomas ’17 (left) empties a bucket of dirt into a sifter as Betsy Peinado ’19 looks on. Moving the sifter vigorously back and forth causes the dirt to fall through, while keeping pebbles and artifacts on the screen.
Detail of a soil color chart. Students try to match the actual color of the soil to a color in the chart to identify the soil depth and the corresponding age of any artifacts found.
Instructor Diana Loren, center, lays out the plan for the afternoon’s excavation.
Ailie Kerr ’20 measures the depth of her unit: 67 cm. The excavation proceeds in a precisely organized fashion, with the bottom of the pit always being kept level.