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Editorial: Historic Northampton dig offers look at living history



Thursday, May 21, 2015
Today, toss household trash out your back door and the health board might visit. At 58 Bridge St. in Northampton, authorities are on the lookout for a serial litterer. It’s a bit of a cold case — and if they find some trash, they’ll celebrate.

Historic Northampton has hired an archaeologist to conduct field work at its signature Parsons House property. The nonprofit plans structural repairs on the house, but is first showing its commitment to understanding the stories this historic site can tell by removing layers of soil in search of artifacts from 1719 to 1790. Linda Ziegenbein of Hadley and a small team began work this week to sift through dirt beneath a floor of the 18th century building and in a nearby yard.

The house was built by Nathaniel Parsons, whose grandfather, Joseph, was one of Northampton’s first European settlers. The project arrives as Historic Northampton presses to overcome years of financial troubles. Its leaders say they want to expand community support for what they do, and the little dig underway offers an opportunity to do that. Nancy Rexford, the group’s acting director, says she’s pleased to provide families with a chance to experience history. If she’s lucky, they will leave with a better understanding of this group’s importance to Northampton.

Ziegenbein’s project has enlisted community volunteers and invites people to stop by to watch. On the next three Saturdays, the center will offer guided tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Young children will be able try their hands at archaeological excavation at a pretend dig site, or play games popular with children in the Parsons family in the 1700s. Before the dig wraps up June 6, as many as 200 area schoolchildren will visit to help with the processing of artifacts.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ziegenbein was in back of the Parsons House supervising homeschool students and a few adult volunteers as they scraped and brushed dirt from small, square excavation sites, digging down 10 centimeters at a time. They then ferried dirt in plastic buckets to a large screen mounted on a frame of 2-by-4s. As the dirt fell through the screen, bits of bone, plaster, brick chips, stones and “lots of nails” remained for closer inspection.

Earlier, they’d found an old ax head, which was now sitting, carefully labeled, on a shelf inside the Parsons House.

The lives of children, and women, are important to the questions Ziegenbein brings to this project. Research suggests that more than one family occupied the home in its early days, with as many as 16 people living in it at one point, 14 of them women and children, according to Ziegenbein. She hopes to find artifacts that will shed light in some way on the nature of the household, and on the transition from English colonial status to self-rule in Northampton. The period under study includes the American revolution and, incidentally, the founding of the Gazette in 1786. “It captures a fascinating period,” Ziegenbein told the paper. “Without a doubt, we will find something.”

After collecting all the artifacts it can, Ziegenbein’s team will spend the summer studying what it found and document its work in a report. The effort is paid for through a $5,000 grant from Mass Humanities and $3,500 raised through the Valley Gives campaign.

Along with stopping by on the three Saturday “public days,” anyone interested in the dig can visit Tuesdays through Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. People can also follow the excavation’s progress by visiting a diary Ziegenbein is keeping at the website diggingnorthamptonshistory.wordpress.com.

The artifacts pulled in the next three weeks will not change Northampton’s history, but they will surely make the 1700s feel closer than ever.