Surprising Artifacts Found Underneath Atwood House Floors

By: Tim Wood

>Archaeologist Craig Chartier shovels dirt from underneath the Atwood House while his son, Alden, sifts it for local artifacts. TIM WOOD PHOTOS

CHATHAM – A thimble, a musket ball, 17th and 18th century pottery and ceramics, an ancient arrowhead and half – yes, half – of a pig skull.

Those are just some of the items found by archaeologists sifting through soil excavated from underneath the floors of one of the town's oldest houses, the 1752 Atwood House on Stage Harbor Road, on Monday.

How some of those objects came to be underneath the floorboards of the building, now part of the Chatham Historical Society's Atwood House and Museum, is a tantalizing mystery, said Archaeologist Craig Chartier, director of the New Bedford-based Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project.

“Some may have been discarded by the builder, or during a renovation when the floor was taken up at some point,” he said. “Other stuff could have been dragged underneath by rats, by rodents.”

The Atwood House and Museum is no stranger to odd finds. A year ago next month, a human skull was discovered on the property, and just a few weeks ago a World War I-era grenade was found stored in the basement. Even though the pin was still in it, the device was found to be inert and will be added to the museum's Chatham in the Military exhibit when it reopens next month. After it was determined that the skull was more than 100 years old and probably Native American, it was turned over to the state archaeology board.

In May voter approved $80,000 for the restoration of the Atwood House foundation. Builder David Ottinger began pulling up the floorboards in the three main rooms of the original section of the Atwood House last week and found that the floor joists rested right in the dirt; some were even covered in soil, said Society Board of Trustees member Steve Nickerson, construction manager on the project.

“They started finding things right away,” said Museum Executive Director Danielle Jeanloz. The old joists – basically logs with one side flattened with an adze, Nickerson said – were removed and 10 to 12 inches of soil was excavated and segregated into three piles to create space for a vapor barrier to be installed. The earth around the exterior of the foundation was also dug out.

Jeanloz said initially the museum was not going to hire an archaeologist for the project, but board member Steve Burlingame insisted the opportunity was too good to pass up and agreed to foot the bill to hire Chartier.

Curiously, different types of artifacts are being found in the different piles of dirt, Chartier said. One seemed to contain mostly food waste, shellfish shells and bones. Another, taken from a different room, contained many artifacts from around 1750 to 1780, including the items noted above as well as a piece of an 18th century cast brass sword handle and a 19th century tortoise shell hairpin.

“It's surprising to find so much of it under the main floor of a house,” Chartier said. Sometimes superstition explains things; coins were often placed between doorways for good luck. “Sometimes you find a shoe in a chimney, which was a way to keep witches out.” Nickerson pointed out that it appeared as if some of the joists had been moved from their original position, perhaps indicating that work was done on the floors and foundation at some time in the house's history.

The Indian arrowhead was a curious find because the material is a type of chert, or sedimentary rock, found in New York and is 3,000 to 4,000 years old, Chartier said. It likely came here through a trade between tribes, and may have been found elsewhere and dropped at the site prior to construction of the house, he said.

It's not surprising to find animal remains in 18th and 19th century digs, Chartier said. Among those found Monday were a skunk skull and the bones of other small mammals, including rats, voles and even cow teeth. The half a pig's head is something different. Serving half a pig head on a plate, cut using a saw, was not an uncommon dining presentation in the 17th and 18th century.

“I haven't seen that at any other site,” he said. He plans to consult a food historian he knows who specializes in New England to determine the circumstances of a household that would have served such a dish, which will provide information about the social and economic circumstances of the members of the Atwood family who lived in the house.

Chartier also conducted the recent archaeological dig at the Nickerson Family Association property in Chatham Port, where the site of Chatham founder William and Anne Busby Nickerson's original homestead was found. That site dated from about 100 years prior to the Atwood House construction, so different items were found at each location. Ceramics and pottery found at the Atwood House site, for example, were relatively common British pieces manufactured “at the real state of mass production.”

The Atwood House provides a “slightly different view of the way people were living in the town of Chatham” than the Nickerson site, he said.

All of the artifacts will be cleaned, stabilized and cataloged. Chartier said he will consult with Historical Society official and do research into who lived at the Atwood House during the periods from which the items date, with the goal of trying to match them to the occupants. He'll issue a final report to the society.

The foundation restoration project is supposed to take about six weeks, Jeanloz said. All of the items previously housed in the rooms where the work is being done are in storage, and although the museum will open in early December for the holiday season, it's not likely that the work on the original sections of the Atwood House will be completed by then.

The museum intends to hold on to the items found in the excavation.

“These will make a great exhibit,” Jeanloz said of the objects.

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