Archaeological Services team helps town excavate its history

University of Massachusetts Anthropology professor Eric Johnson and an UMass studentPhoto (left to right): Eric Johnson and an UMass student examine dirt from a shovel test pit as they search for artifacts
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

On a Saturday in Wayland, MA, a team of a half dozen people are braving overcast skies and the chill of December, spread around an abandoned home and nearby field with shovels, measuring tape, and other tools. The team, including a mix of historians and archaeologists from the Wayland Historical Commission, and volunteers and researchers from the University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services (UMAS) is on their last day of field work at the property known as the Dorey House.

“We’ve had 15-20 UMass Amherst students working here over the course of the project, and I’ve really enjoyed giving them a taste of archaeology,” says Eric Johnson, UMAS Director, and Anthropology Ph.D. ‘93. He is a Principal Investigator on the project, along with Julie Woods, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and UMAS Laboratory Supervisor.

The project came about when the owners of the Dorey House decided to sell the property, and discovered it would not meet current zoning regulations.

“The property could not be sold because it would not ‘perc’, meaning no septic system could be installed under today's wetland regulations. So the Town of Wayland was interested in buying it since our town water supply is near the property,” explains Tonya Largy, MA in Anthropology ’01, and a member of the Wayland Historical Commission.

After the town purchased the property, Largy explains that Wayland officials offered the Historical Commission the chance to research the property’s history.

“The Assessor's records have the house listed as built around 1800, but we believe it may be older than that, and so the research was begun to try to answer this question,” she says.

So Largy and her colleagues contacted UMAS about conducting an archaeological survey at the Dorey House. The researchers are working to determine an approximate date for when the structures on the property were built, how they were used, and what the lives of residents were like. Julie Woods says one of the features they hoped to find is a feature called a builder’s trench, often found around a structure’s foundations. The trench is created when earth is excavated just before laying the foundation, so the trench often contains artifacts that can be key to dating a structure if it is found.

Kate Barvick, a senior Anthropology major, oversaw the field work in Wayland and will examine materials found there back in the lab at UMass. She came to campus with an avid interest in archaeology, which was her main reason for choosing the university.

“Archaeology seems exciting and I like the idea of travelling and digging in the field,” Barvick explains. Her previous experience at the UMass Archaeology Field School at the Emily Dickinson Museum has equipped her with the skills she is drawing upon for this project. Barvick was also part of the team that found the foundation of Dickinson’s plant conservatory—an experience that reconfirmed her drive to study archaeology.

“It was an incredible experience. I felt like, this is where the greenhouse was. This is where Emily Dickinson sat writing poetry,” she explains.

At the Dorey House, Barvick leads a team of volunteers who are excavating two one-meter square excavation units along the perimeter of the structure. Materials from the units are meticulously examined and documented by researchers. Among the artifacts they have found in these areas are fragments of 18th century Westerwald pottery. These finds may help the researchers with a secondary goal of the project -- to find evidence of a tavern that records show was in the area during the 1700s. Since the exact location was unclear, the researchers are also digging four smaller excavations called shovel test pits, which are usually dug quickly and in larger numbers to get a sense of an unexplored area. Barvick notes the shovel test pits have revealed bits of rubble, charcoal, and other debris. Part of her spring semester work will be analyzing these finds in the lab, where they may indicate evidence of the tavern as she compares them with materials from the excavation units. She’ll complete a draft report toward the end of semester, as the project will be her Senior Honors Capstone Research Project.

Whatever the results of the research, Barvick feels strongly about her interest in archaeology for a future career.

“You learn history and you know it’s real. It suddenly feels more real when you have a piece of it in your hand,” she says.

-- By Matthew Medeiros, SBS Commmunications Manager Photo Credits: Matthew Medeiros / University of Massachusetts Amherst