Shining the light on Duxbury’s past

Written by Administrator
 | Tuesday, 11 August 2009 20:52


They were always there, hints about Duxbury’s past, hidden just a few inches in the dirt.

Last fall, the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society led an archeological dig on Chestnut Street with the aim of conclusively proving where the town’s second meetinghouse was located.

The dig was a success, and Craig Chartier of the Plymouth Archeology Rediscovery Project presented the findings to a packed house in the King Caesar barn Thursday morning.

Chartier and DR&HS Executive Director Patrick Browne thanked the over 150 people who showed up at the dig site to volunteer.

“We were stunned at how many volunteers we got,” Browne said. “It was a tremendous project –– great fun.”

The excavation proved a long-held belief that the town’s second meetinghouse was located in the open lot next to the town burial ground on Chestnut Street.  Once Chartier got back to his lab, he was able to pinpoint the exact location of the meetinghouse. A last-day discovery also revealed the building was the only known meetinghouse in America built using an ancient form of construction called post-in-hole.

Chartier told the crowd about the pieces of information he, using historical documents, assembled about the second meetinghouse, a building Duxbury residents used as a house of worship, a courthouse and even to store  gunpowder and other munitions.

“It’s a big detective story, doing archeology,” he said.

For example, he knows that at least one side of the building was shingled, because they have the bill from the carpenter. He can say with authority that the meetinghouse, at some point had box pews, because the records of their sale exist (box pews were sold to well-to-do community members to raise money for the meetinghouse.)

Chartier also laid out the details of the artifacts found by the volunteers. Although an initial sweep of ground-penetrating radar showed the promising outline of what he thought was the foundation of the meetinghouse, those shadows turned out to be only the roots of trees, and it wasn’t until after much digging that the stones of the foundation were unearthed.

The dig turned up thousands of artifacts –– 6,856, to be exact. Although most of those were construction debris, meaning bits of brick and glass, the shards of history told Chartier much about the meeting house as well as the Native Americans who used the site before the Pilgrims.

The group did find 172 Native American artifacts, mostly flecks of stone from tools. They did find several projectile points, the oldest of which range from 3,000-2,500 years old.

“It was a small camp where people would come and finish tools,” Chartier said. He said the site was more of an “overnight stopping place” than a proper village.

Workers also found fragments of 18th century ceramics, which could have been discarded by workers either constructing the meetinghouse or tearing it down. Several pieces of ceramic pipes were found, as well as a shoe buckle, a stick pin and a copper button.

Among the construction debris were hundred of nails and nail fragments, as well as pieces of brick, window glass and leading, which told Chartier that the meetinghouse had older-style diamond paned windows.

In fact, many of the aspects of the meetinghouse indicate an older design. On the last day, as the site workers were clearing some of the foundation rocks, they discovered a series of darker soil stains that Chartier said indicates wooden posts being sunk deep into the ground. He said this indicated “post-in-hole” construction, an older technique  that was usually used for temporary housing, or if a building had to be constructed quickly.

Chartier said this find was the most historically significant discovery at the dig.

“People assumed this construction method wasn’t used in the 18th century,” he said. “It’s the only site in Massachusetts that has this kind of construction into the 18th century.”

He also said it’s the only colonial meetinghouse built using this kind of construction –– period.

Chartier thanked the volunteers who came out for the two-week dig and painstakingly excavated, photographed and catalogued the thousands of artifacts unearthed on Chestnut Street.

“It was a model of public involvement in archeology,” he said. “People who are conscientious and interested in what they’re doing, do an awesome job.”

The findings will be on display in the Drew Archives in the Wright building sometime in the future.

The dig was so successful that the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society are planning on conducting their own archeology project, from Sept. 21-27 at the King Caesar House. Browne called the event a “mini-dig,” saying the front yard is the only land at the house that hasn’t been disturbed over the years. He hopes that the dig will unearth artifacts illuminating the lives of the home’s inhabitants over the years.