September 29, 2014

Terra Less Incognita

A Springfield Armory archaeological dig yields valuable findings

Staff members from UMass Archaeological Services (UMAS) have been hard at work helping Springfield, Mass., fill in a significant blank space in its historic maps.

Throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, Springfield was the nation’s center of precision engineering, a thriving hub of technical innovation and a magnet for generations of highly skilled laborers. During that time, however, city maps—even the insurance maps showing every building, chimney, fire escape, water line, steam boiler, and gas engine—featured a gaping white expanse at the site of the United States National Armory.

The need for such secrecy was obvious. From 1777 until its closing in 1968, the armory—which was in fact a campus comprising an ever-evolving, infrequently mapped series of buildings—served as the primary center for the manufacture of the nation’s military firearms. It produced hundreds of thousands of Springfield rifles during the Civil War, more than a million Model 1903 rifles used during World War I, and more than 4.5 million of the World War II M1 rifles praised by General George S. Patton Jr. as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” The armory went on to produce the M14 as well as machine guns, grenade launchers, and other equipment.

After the closing the National Park Service’s Springfield Armory National Historic Site was established on part of the land, and the rest was given over to house Springfield Technical Community College and the Springfield Technology Park. When a need recently arose for more parking for technology-park tenants, it was decided to tear down two-thirds of the armory’s long-vacant, 200-by-480-foot Building 104.

That structure has a substantial claim to historic significance. It was constructed in 1939 for the manufacturing of all of those M1’s so crucial to the allied victory in the Second World War. But UMAS staff and other historians and archaeologists sensed that under its five-inch-thick concrete pad lay further historic riches.

“Building 104 was built over early military structures from the late-eighteenth to the first half of the nineteenth century,” explains UMAS Field Supervisor Tim Barker. “From about 1782 to 1842 were constructed a magazine for the storage of black powder, two military storehouses, an ordnance yard for the storage of artillery, and a blockhouse. We knew this from assorted written sources, but lacked maps detailing specific locations.”

Last March UMAS staff dug 48 test pits inside the building to gather information about past use of the site. Based on their findings they refined their estimates of where the older structures had been located and then worked with the demolition team to assure that the least possible damage was done to the dig site during the dismantling.

The dig proper began in early August, on a tight schedule. It yielded more than 100 archaeological features, including a 5,000-year-old Native American stone blade, an early nineteenth-century meerschaum pipe fragment, post holes and a foundation stone from the storehouse, a decorative key, an enameled tin plate, a bone handle from a comb or brush, a Civil War minié ball, a charcoal pit including chunks of defective 1903 rifle stocks, a brass button fused to a fireplace base from a World War I barracks, and some later relics, including a whisky jar and some soda bottles, seeming to date from the 1930s.

“We found a lot more than we expected we would under that floor,” says Research Assistant Professor Eric S. Johnson, director of UMass Archaeological Services. And thanks to their findings, Springfield can now fill in some of that blank space from its historic past.