Yale Bulletin and Calendar

April 20, 2007|Volume 35, Number 26















Yale students learned archaeological field techniques in a dig at the Henry Whitfield House in Guilford, the oldest stone structure in New England.

State hails Yale's hands-on archaeology
project at historic house

For the past seven autumns, groups of Yale undergraduate and graduate students have risen early on Saturday mornings to travel to the nearly 400-year-old Henry Whitfield House in Guilford, bringing along with them the tools of archaeologists: hand picks, trowels, brushes, tape measures, mapping equipment and shovels.

There, the students -- working with Yale faculty members and teaching assistants -- have dug the grounds surrounding the historic structure, the oldest house in Connecticut and the oldest stone house in New England, in the hope of learning more about early 17th-century life and the state's earliest European settlers. Their excavations, which have been open to the public, took place as part of the "Field Techniques" course offered by the Department of Anthropology.

The efforts of the excavation participants over the past seven years were recently recognized with the nomination of Yale's Council on Archaeological Studies for a Connecticut Governor's Award for Excellence in Culture and Tourism. The award will be presented at a May 1 ceremony at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale. The Council on Archaeological Studies initiated and has supported the collaboration between Yale and the Henry Whitfield State Museum (the house, outbuildings and grounds have been a state museum since 1899).

As a result of the Yale project, "[t]housands of visitors to Guilford have experienced archaeological excavations up close and have learned about Native Americans and the early settlers of Connecticut," wrote Joel E. Helander, municipal historian of the Town of Guilford, in nominating the Yale Council on Archaeological Studies for the award. "They have had the opportunity to see that archaeology is not something you see in far away lands on the History Channel. Public programs, publications and a website have brought information about the digs to people who could not make the trek to Guilford. Dozens of students, who are the archaeologists of the future, can now claim that they learned their trade in Connecticut."

The project was started at the suggestion of Yale geophysics and applied mechanics professor Robert Gordon, a member of the Council on Archaeological Studies, who lives down the street from the 17th-century site.

"The Whitfield House is the first known settlement in Guilford, but the documentary history surrounding the house has always had gaps," he says. "The hope was that Yale excavations there could fill in those gaps."

With permission from the State Historic Preservation Office, Thomas Tartaron, a former assistant professor of anthropology at Yale who is now at the University of Pennsylvania, and Marcello Canuto, an assistant professor of anthropology and director of undergraduate studies in Latin American and Iberian studies, have led the student-training excavations in separate years during the fall semesters.

The Whitfield House was built in 1639 and was first occupied by Henry Whitfield, a minister from England, and his family, who came to America with other Puritans to flee religious persecution in their home country. While Henry Whitfield returned to England in 1651 following a shift in power there, the "Old Stone House" -- as it is popularly known to Guilford residents -- remained in his family until it was sold circa 1670. For nearly 200 years, the house was then inhabited mainly by tenants, who, historians believe, farmed the surrounding land. While the various owners from this period can be traced through land records, no information has been found that sheds light on the people who actually occupied the house over those two centuries.

"The Whitfield House is an ideal site for us to explore because there has been a dissonance between the archaeological evidence and the historical evidence," says Canuto. "Our goal in excavating there was to find this elusive archaeological evidence -- to isolate, as best we could, the 17th-century context that would elucidate the nature of these early settlers: the family and other occupants of the house in its earliest years."

Peter Luehring-Jones '09 was among the students who learned archaeological field techniques in a dig at the Henry Whitfield House.

Since the first year of Yale excavations in 2000, students have spent their Saturdays from September though November digging at various sites around the 10-acre property. In the early years of excavations, both right near the house and in other areas of the grounds, they found all manner of materials -- including oyster and clam shells, animal bones, pottery shards, nails, glass, Native American artifacts and even an old Colgate toothpaste tube from 1907. While some of these finds date to the 17th century, most of the items come from later periods, according to Canuto.

One of the challenges of the site, the Yale archaeologist says, is that both the house and the property have been extensively remodeled and re-landscaped over time, causing disturbance to layers of artifact-bearing soil, and making it difficult to find intact materials. The house was renovated in 1868, 1903 and in the 1930s, and various landscaping projects -- often using landfill -- have been done since the property was converted to a museum. Yale students have found evidence of re-landscaping as deep as 50 centimeters beneath the topsoil.

"The early student excavations led by Tom [Tartaron] really made our team appreciate the extent to which the area around the house had been disturbed by these series of renovations," Canuto says.

When he began leading the project in the fall of 2003, Canuto decided to test the results reported by two amateur archaeologists who had conducted research at the site in the 1970s. They believed that they had found evidence of a Dutch trading post. In a published article, they described finding a floor, a fire pit and post holes, among other discoveries, and suggested that their finds pre-dated the Whitfield House.

Canuto and his team of students debunked the theory that a trading post existed at the site.

"We concluded that there were no floors, no post holes and no fire pit," the Yale faculty member says, noting that his team's finding was confirmed by a state archaeologist. He believes that the soil phenomenon the amateur archaeologists described is actually a result of a landscaping project.

The most important discovery of a Yale team at the site, however, came last summer, when the students and their leaders found what is believed to be a late-17th-century floor.

"A golden rule in archaeology is to go from the known to the unknown," says Canuto. "So, after being in a quandary about what part of the property to pursue next, we decided last summer to take a very careful look around the perimeter of the house -- which we know for a fact to be a 17th-century building."

While Yale students conducted a dig close the colonial-period structure in the first year of the Yale-Whitfield project, the excavation seven years later was more successful. About 80 centimeters below ground, the Yale team found a compact earthen floor, upon which were pipe stems, animal bones and ceramics, including pottery that came directly from England.

"We believe this was a 'living' 17th-century floor -- the original soil on which 17th-century inhabitants lived," says Canuto. "If we're right, we now have a context directly related to the behavior of the earliest inhabitants of the house."

The find, according to Canuto, makes the most recent excavation season "the most exciting one."

It will now be up to others to further explore this discovery, says Canuto, as last autumn was the final season for the Yale project.

"Over the years of the project, we've collected a lot of material that we now have to study and publish," Canuto says. "Part of our collaboration includes an understanding that we would make public our findings, so we will now turn our attention to that." In addition, he says, the original goal of the project has been achieved.

"We hoped to find material from the 1600s, and we finally found it," he comments.

Yale students have played an important role in the study of the materials found as part of the "Field Techniques" course, which features a laboratory component in the spring term. Thus, in the spring, the students had the opportunity to spend time cleaning, labeling, cataloguing and analyzing the artifacts they uncovered during the fall excavation.

"It's a full-on experience for our students -- not something they can forget about," says Canuto. "They develop a real camaraderie while doing the excavation, and the hands-on nature of the experience makes for a fun learning experience, where they are not just taking notes in a lecture class."

Richard Burger, the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology and chair and director of graduate studies in archaeology, says the Whitfield House project also helps clarify the students' interests.

"It provides a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to take their classroom image of archaeology and then put it to the test in the field," he explains. "It can be very exciting to allow people the opportunity to discover if they actually enjoy doing archaeology or just like the idea of archaeology."

Jason Nesbitt, a doctoral student in anthropology and a teaching assistant in last fall's "Field Techniques" course taught by Canuto, says that in addition to learning the essentials and practicalities of archaeological field work, including the use of high-tech mapping equipment, the excavation experience allows students to hone their research skills.

"Students come back and do research on artifacts such as animal bone and pottery, or they investigate early architecture techniques, for example," he says. "For most students, it is their first field experience. About five out of seven students in each class will ultimately continue in the field and will work on archaeological projects throughout the world."

Since all of the excavations were also open to the public, the project has also given others interested in archaeology the chance to witness fieldwork firsthand.

"It became a kind of attraction for people to wander over to see what we were doing," says Canuto. "Students would have to interact with museum visitors, thus representing Yale to Guilford and the wider world. Parents would come over with their kids, and sometimes the kids would ask if they could do some excavating. We would welcome them, and they'd talk to us about Yale and about archaeology. If you can awaken an interest in the field in someone who is 15, that's a great thing."

Karen J. Senich, director of operations for the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, applauds the Yale project for its community benefits.

"In addition to uncovering and promoting Connecticut's rich cultural heritage, this ambitious project aligns with the commission's mission of supporting community involvement by allowing state residents and visitors to watch the excavation and encouraging volunteers to participate."

Likewise, Mike McBride, director of the Henry Whitfield Museum, says he is grateful for Yale's seven-year involvement with the site.

"The Henry Whitfield Museum has so little primary documentation prior to the 19th century, and the building has been altered considerably over time, so it's wonderful that we are able to use archaeology to answer age-old questions and better interpret the site to visitors," McBride says.

While this phase of the seven-year proj-ect is complete, Canuto says that there may be opportunities in the future to return the Henry Whitfield Museum with Yale students who have a passion for archaeology.

-- By Susan Gonzalez


Peabody paying tribute to its famed murals

Gift will launch major new series at Yale Press

State hails Yale's hands-on archaeology project at historic house

Annual Community Service Day to be held April 28

Psychology professor Marvin Chun is appointed new master of . . .

New undergraduate organization hosts talks by female leaders

Findings shed light on behavior of fundamental particles called neutrinos

Research by chemist Mark Johnson's lab clearly reveals . . .

Event will explore the ways in which progressives support . . .

Health issues faced by China's migrants is focus of symposium

International conference will examine contemporary Taiwan and its legacy

Conference to explore future of South Africa in the next decade

Exhibit traces centuries-long quest to understand cancer

Symposium honors birthday of infectious disease expert Dr. I. George Miller

Yale researchers urge education to halt high rate of . . .

For their 'final exam,' Yale students will stage dances in New York City

Abstract works by Nancy Rubens are on display at Slifka Center

Yale's Asthma Care Team will offer free community screenings . . .

UC-Berkeley student is named the new Yale Younger Poet

In Memoriam: José Juan Arrom

Yale Police adds 10 new officers to its force

Insurance reform advocate and alumnus is honored with fellowship

Yale Books in Brief

Campus Notes

Bulletin Home|Visiting on Campus|Calendar of Events|In the News

Bulletin Board|Classified Ads|Search Archives|Deadlines

Bulletin Staff|Public Affairs|News Releases| E-Mail Us|Yale Home