‘Digging Northampton’s History’ excavation at Historic Northampton to examine lives of Colonial residents

Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — A dig through nearly 300-year-old household trash at one of the city’s oldest homes begins next week and is expected to shed new light on the lives of those who lived during Colonial times at Historic Northampton’s Parsons House.

Archaeologist Linda Ziegenbein of Hadley will lead an excavation beneath a floor of the early 18th-century home and rear-yard area in advance of upcoming renovations to the historic property at 58 Bridge St. The dig runs from Tuesday through June 6 and will involve community volunteers, professional archaeologists and as many as 200 area schoolchildren.

“We’ll be doing field work for 15 days,” Ziegenbein said of the grant-funded “Digging Northampton’s History” project. “Without a doubt, we will find something.”

The Parsons House was built in the early 1700s by Nathaniel Parsons, grandson of Joseph Parsons, who was one of the city’s founders. The focus of the dig will be outside the back door of the original house, where it was common to throw trash and where an addition was built around 1790.

Ziegenbein said the floor of that addition will be temporarily removed, uncovering what is expected to be an undisturbed site from the period of roughly 1719 to 1790.

More than one family had lived in the home at times during its history, including many women and children, she said. Ziegenbein said the excavation work will have a particular focus on understanding the lives of the women and children who lived in the house and in Northampton, as well as objects that may offer information about the transition from British rule to independence.

“At one point, there may have been as many as 16 people living in the house, and only two of them men,” she said of research on the home’s earliest occupants. “It captures a fascinating period.”

Asked what excavators might find in the ground, Ziegenbein said it’s always a crapshoot.

“We don’t know what we’ll find until we find it,” she said. “Anything that was thrown into the yard has been effectively covered.”

The nonprofit Historic Northampton owns the Parsons House and made “Digging Northampton’s History” the focus of its Valley Gives campaign, raising $3,500 in donations for the project. The organization also received a $5,000 grant from Mass Humanities.

Nancy Rexford, acting director of Historic Northampton, said one of the exciting things about the hands-on project is that it will provide the public, such as young children and their parents, the opportunity to try something new while learning about the history around them.

Children from Leeds Elementary School, R.K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School and the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley will assist with excavation and artifact processing.

“We’re likely to have a much better idea of the quality of life as it was lived in those houses,” Rexford said of the imminent excavation. “We’ve discovered that there were many more children who were living in these homes than we realized.”

In addition to the Parsons House, Historic Northampton also owns the Shepherd House and Damon House, where a similar excavation took place in the 1980s.

The three-week archaeological dig marks the data collection phase of the project. Ziegenbein and her team will then analyze and conduct research on artifacts unearthed through the summer before providing a report.

The archaeological site will be open to visitors Tuesdays through Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. from Tuesday through June 6. Saturdays are designated as public days with special activities planned, including site tours and activities for kids.

As of this week, a few spots were still open for volunteers who want to assist with the excavation work. To sign up, contact Ziegenbein at diggingnorthampton@gmail.com.

A website for the project can be found at diggingnorthamptonshistory.wordpress.com.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


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