Nickerson Association Extends Archaeological Dig Of Founder's Site

By: Debra Lawless

Archaeologist Craig Chartier and his son Alden cover significant parts of the dig. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – The site of William and Anne Nickerson’s circa 1664 homestead proved so significant during a three-month archaeological excavation that the board of the Nickerson Family Association, Inc. (NFA) voted unanimously to extend the dig for an additional two months in 2019.

A primary focus of next season will be to locate all of the outbuildings, including the barn and stables.

“We have some tantalizing clues at this end,” said archaeologist Craig Chartier of the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project on the next-to-final day of the 2018 dig in late October. He was standing at the east end of the dig, which is behind the NFA campus at 1107 Orleans Rd. in North Chatham, on land owned by the Chatham Conservation Foundation, Inc. (CCF).

During the final two weeks of the dig the group excavated the remains of what may have been a four-foot square privy. Chartier speculates that the hole was too small for a cellar yet the hole had wooden walls. Five posts were found in the bottom. Also found in it were a thimble and a glass bead as well as assorted fragments of bone, 1660s ceramics and four to five gunflints. Once a privy served its purpose, it was often used as a trash pit. Chartier collected soil samples to be analyzed for seeds and parasite eggs, specifically whipworm, which has been found in other 17th century latrines, including one in Boston. The privy is outside the palisade, suggesting that it was replaced by a later privy inside the palisade.

Of this year’s discoveries, “the most significant thing is the outline of the house,” Chartier said. “It’s bigger than we thought for just two people in what we’d consider a retirement home.” Chartier joked that the homestead was possibly “Cape Cod’s first mansion.”

William and Anne Nickerson were the parents of nine but their children were grown when they moved from Yarmouth in about 1664 to what became Chatham. William was age 60 and Anne was 55, yet they constructed a house enormous by 17th century standards at 44-by-20-to-24 square feet. One theory is that the house was used as a meeting house as the nearest place of worship at that time was Eastham, an arduous trek.

Another significant find at the dig was traces of postholes. These indicate that a palisade or wooden wall up to eight feet high was constructed on the eastern side of the house, leading to the idea that the house may have been fortified or used as a garrison. It has always been assumed that the Nickersons enjoyed warm relations with the local Native Americans. The palisade may contradict that, at least during period of King Philip's War from 1675-1678.

The couple was well-to-do. A chimney at each gable end of the house was “very high class,” Chartier said. That was a style well-known in England and Virginia but was not seen in New England until the 18th century. Found on the site were fragments of a Dutch ceramic frying pan, never before found in New England. The Nickersons cooked on it in a day when others cooked on cast iron. Other luxury items also found were fragments of a Staffordshire slipware candlestick and shards of Italian marble slipware.

“We’re going to be studying the site for years to come,” Chartier said.

The dig wrapped up on Oct. 26. Before 8 a.m. Chartier and his assistants Blaine Borden and Gregory Lott arrived at the site along with a Bobcat team from John Martin Excavating in Orleans. As the sun rose over the trees volunteers drifted in and the crew filled in the archaeological site that they had painstakingly uncovered in order to protect it from weather. The 37-degree temperature was in marked contrast with the opening day of the dig, July 30, when the temperature was 78 degrees in high humidity. The Bobcat, which could work only in areas outside of the 50-foot wetlands buffer zone, departed at noon. The crew continued shoveling and raking until the ground was flat and even at about 1:30 p.m. This fall the CCF will plant oat grass on the site to prevent erosion.

Significant finds during the three-month dig include a bed warmer; the fragment of a sharpening wheel, a unique find in New England; a partial Jesuit ring which would have been used to trade with the Native Americans; a brass button; a Trefid spoon handle; an intact spoon; an intact tobacco pipe; a round knife; loads of Sgraffito pottery; an octagonal silver cufflink with the initial “R;” and a “bale seal fragment” which would have been used when shipping items from England.

The site had a relatively short occupation (20 or 30 years) by a small number of people. This means that each of the artifacts found is associated with everyday life at the time that William and Anne lived there.

The dig was financed by a $48,000 Community Preservation grant from the town of Chatham and through donations from NFA members. During the next few months Chartier will wash and study the artifacts from the dig—about 25 banker’s boxes worth of material. He will issue a comprehensive report on his finds early next year.