Sometimes it takes young eyes to see the meaning of very old things.
Geoff Martin, 18, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover might not know exactly what life was like in Colonial America, but he knows people did not smoke the way they do today.
They used clay pipes, each more than a foot long, and pieces of these cumbersome smoking instruments tended to break off often, littering the ground like today’s cigarette butts.
Martin is a student volunteer in the academy’s Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology. He is helping the museum catalog artifacts that were excavated last summer from test sites at the Danvers homestead of Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged during the Salem witch trials in 1692. Recently, Martin determined the approximate age of one smoking pipe by measuring its diameter: It was five-64ths of an inch, which put the pipe’s production date between 1710 and 1750. Pipes became narrower with time as fashions, pipe-making tools, and the availability of tobacco changed.
Last summer’s test digs were fruitful, and this summer the academy will run a five-week archeology course for high school students at the homestead – the first time it is undertaking a dig since the 1980s.
The Robert S. Peabody Museum was once at the forefront of archeological research. According to its director, Malinda Blustain, museum researchers were responsible for discovering the origins of corn cultivation in the Americas, and were among the first to describe the applications of carbon dating to archeology. With the retirement of the museum’s director in 1983, however, the facility encountered financial difficulties, stopped conducting archeological digs, and changed its focus from research to teaching. Student volunteers at the museum are still cataloging items that were excavated from a Native American gathering place in Ipswich in the 1950s.
Still, allowing high school students to be actively involved in a dig is something new. During the height of the museum’s research work, there wasn’t much connecting what the museum did and the school, Blustain said, and it was mostly doctoral students and professionals who worked on the projects.
It is unusual for a high school to undertake an archeological dig because these projects tend to be expensive, according to Ben Thomas, education and outreach coordinator for the Archaeological Institute of America, North America’s largest archeology organization.
“Typically,” he said, “that is done at least at the university level or a government level.”
Thomas said that although he has heard of places that have accepted high school students to do little projects on an excavation, the bulk of the work is usually done by college students.
At Andover, the summer course will be taught by Nathan Hamilton, an anthropology professor from the University of Southern Maine, while Salem State College geologist Peter Sablock and his students will do remote sensing to help determine what is located underground.
In addition to the smoking pipes, last summer’s test digs at the Nurse homestead revealed 19th-century glass medicine bottles, pieces of pottery, shoe buckles, buttons, and a heap of scrap metal from sardine cans, according to Bonnie Sousa, who works at the museum.
“I’m sure everyone here will tell you they saw more sardine cans than they wanted to,” she said.
Also found were Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years, such as spear heads and stone flakes left from the making of stone tools.
“One of the things you find out as an archeologist is a good piece of land is a good piece of land,” Blustain said. The land where the Nurse house sits was favored by both Europeans and Native Americans because of its fertile soil, the nearby creek, and because it did not flood, she said.
Blustain said she does not expect to find any witch paraphernalia at the site because she does not believe Nurse was a witch.
“She was just a housewife,” Blustain said. “Her biggest problem was that she was hard of hearing, so when they asked her … she didn’t respond.”
Nurse was 71 when she was hanged. She had never admitted to practicing witchcraft, and according to testimony by Israel and Elizabeth Porter in her defense, Nurse said, “I am as innocent as the child unborn. But surely what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of, that he should lay an affliction upon me in my old age?”
The Salem community began to suspect that Nurse was a witch after a resident, Ann Putnam Sr., who suffered from hallucinations and fits, had a vision in which Nurse urged her to sign in a little red book and threatened to tear her soul out of her body, according to historical sources cited in Paul Boyer’s and Stephen Nissenbaum’s book, “Salem Possessed.”
Nurse’s name was cleared by Salem courts at the beginning of the 18th century, and today an obelisk in the homestead’s graveyard honors her as a “Christian martyr.”
Her tragic fate helped preserve the parcel, however. Since 1908, the 27-acre homestead has been owned by historic organizations – including the Rebecca Nurse Memorial Association, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and most recently the Danvers Alarm List Company, a Revolutionary War reenactment group – and, because of that, has escaped the developments that have overrun surrounding properties, Blustain said.
A visit to the homestead today feels like a trip back in time. An unpaved road leads to the house, and birds can be heard singing loud and clear in the green fields, their songs unblocked by the noise of traffic. The red house that stands on the property is thought to have been built sometime during the 17th century.
Artifacts found during the excavation will help historians learn more about what life was like in the American Colonies at the time of the Salem witch trials, such as what percentage of the goods Colonists used were made locally as opposed to being imported from Europe, Blustain said. Historians also hope to find out more about Nurse and her family and establish when the house was built, as well as to learn when and for how long Native Americans occupied the site.
One thing archeologists will not be looking for is Nurse’s grave, Blustain said. It is thought that her family secretly brought her body back to the house after she was hanged, and buried her in an unmarked grave on the property.
According to Joanna MacDonald, whose parents, Josie and Bob Osgood, currently live in the house as caretakers, a psychic who was invited to the property a number of years ago said Nurse was buried in a vertical position, near one of the entrances to the dwelling. MacDonald said no one knows exactly where that could be because the locations of the doors have changed over the years.
Danvers town archivist Richard Trask said the only other archeological dig connected with the Salem witch trials was undertaken in 1971, at the site where the Rev. Samuel Parris’s house stood. That house was home to a Barbadian slave named Tituba, the first to be accused of witchcraft after she supposedly had a vision in which a man told her to harm the community’s children.
Trask said the excavation of the Parris site, which was purchased by the Town of Danvers and is now a small town park on Center Street, revealed thousands of objects from 1681 to 1784, including coins and a pair of earrings.
The five-week Andover course, which will include digging, processing, and cataloging data, begins on June 26 and is open to all students who will be entering grades 9 through 12, including those not enrolled at Andover during the school year.
The course costs $5,800 for boarding students and $4,000 for day students, but financial aid is available. To sign up, contact Blustain at 978-749-4493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.