Earth Movers

Synthesizing a More Vivid Vision of the Past

James the Printer, a Nipmuc Native American who attended the Indian College at Harvard, got his English name from his mastery of the printing press. As a student at the Indian College, established in 1655 for the purpose of educating Native Americans, James laid the type of the Eliot Bible on the first printing press in America, which was located at Harvard. The Eliot Bible was the first version of the English Bible translated into a Native American language in the British colonies.

During a 1979 excavation of Harvard Yard, archaeologists found the printing press letters James the Printer used to create the Bible. The printing type, which could have been used as early as 1663 to print the first edition of the book, now lives in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology surrounded by other objects that have been unearthed in Harvard Yard.

Objects like these are used by historians and archaeologists alike to try and synthesize a more vivid picture of the past. At Harvard as well as in Boston, the primary reward of archaeological excavations seems to be providing students and volunteers with a historical perspective that written records alone cannot always provide, as well as a powerful, tangible means of forging a connection with the past.


It is an understatement to say that Harvard is rich in history. The University boasts nearly four centuries of students, as well as a vast collection of artifacts and documents they have produced. The Peabody, one of over a dozen museums operated by the University, houses more than 1.2 million objects, ranging from copper buttons worn by Harvard students of yore to intricately woven Paracas textiles. But while the University has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and artifacts, much of the history of the institution itself has been lost to time—for every copper button housed at the Peabody, there are countless others that have not been preserved.


That has begun to change in recent decades, as previously lost artifacts have been unearthed from beneath our feet during excavations of Harvard Yard. Off and on for over 30 years, students and faculty members have been digging in the Yard in search of artifacts traceable to both the College and the Indian College, which was closed and torn down in 1693 due to insufficient enrollment.

Many of the items found in Harvard Yard are stored in the Peabody Museum.

The history of student excavations in Harvard Yard began with John D. Stubbs ’80, who opened a dig site in front of Matthews Hall in 1979. It was this dig that brought about the discovery of the printing type used by James the Printer. Excavation work continued in 2005 when Harvard celebrated the 300th anniversary of the building of the Indian College by creating the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project.

The project ultimately took the form of an undergraduate course in the Anthropology Department, “Archaeology of Harvard Yard,” which gives students a first-hand experience in archaeological work using the University’s historic center as an excavation site. “This class focuses on 17th-century Harvard, and in particular the legacy of the Harvard Indian College,” says Patricia Capone, a curator at the Peabody and the current professor of the course. “We are hoping to identify the architectural remains of the Indian College, as well as some of the artifacts of daily life.”

Since its inception in 2005, the course has been offered four more times, with its most recent iteration happening this fall. Tia M. Ray ’12, a proctor in Pennypacker Hall, took the class in 2009. This was an important year for the program—it was in 2009 that the class discovered the first architectural remains of the Indian College. “We were thinking about the way that the archaeology would benefit our knowledge of colonial Harvard, but also what it meant for local tribal communities, specifically focusing on the Nipmuc and Aquinnah Wampanoag communities,” Ray says.

Capone believes that the objects found during these excavations have illuminated students’ understanding of life at Harvard in the 17th century. “It has been interesting so far to note that there isn’t necessarily much difference in the remains of daily life between the Indian College and the other 17th-century buildings at Harvard,” Capone says.

One similarity revealed by the excavations is that enrollees at both colleges were willing to break Harvard’s then-puritanical rules about alcohol and tobacco. During the Harvard Yard digs, students have found a plethora of tobacco pipes and broken wine bottles. The 2009 class used the illicit objects to develop an exhibit that explored their implications for the students’ relationship to rules. According to the exhibit, the European ceramic pipes and the American red clay pipes both speak to the considerable time and resources that students invested in smoking tobacco. Shards of glass from bottles of wine and broken pieces of ceramic ale bottles indicate that students also flouted the University’s strict rules regarding alcohol—a story not often included in accounts of the College’s history.

Capone believes that these findings represent the beginning of a process of discovery that will go a long way toward illuminating the history of the Indian College. “We can now put the Indian College on the map,” she says, “and from there begin to better understand what we’re finding inside the building [and] what we’re finding outside the building, [and] compare its robusticity to other buildings of the time.”


The archaeological footprint of the Indian College and the remnants of students’ debauchery both show how archaeology can offer an alternative story to that provided by historical records. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history, is not an archaeologist but has used the findings of archaeologists to complement information gleaned from historical records.

In Lepore’s opinion, historical records offer only a narrow perspective of the past. “Most of what is interesting in chronicling the lives of ordinary people is not kept,” Lepore says. “Most archives and museums, mostly public places, but sometimes private places, where we keep the chronicle of our lives, [tend] to commemorate and preserve the lives of people who have notable achievements.”

According to Lepore, what was selected for preservation was determined by those with the ability to choose, whether through their positions of power or through their literacy. While such documents provide useful information about the past, they fail to provide a complete picture of the epochs they represent. “Social history is interested in recovering ordinary people’s lives by looking at things they kept for different reasons, like censuses or tax lists or the records of the overseers of the poor in Boston. Those things were kept for purely administrative reasons,” Lepore says.

For Lepore, archaeology’s usefulness lies in its ability to convey information about past lives—the kind of intimate details that written documents often fail to communicate. “To the extent that I, as a historian, use archaeological evidence, it’s often things that could tell us about the lives of people that have been preserved in almost no other way,” Lepore says.

By excavating and discovering lost objects, the modern excavator provides a corollary to written records. Frequently, archaeological discoveries complement the prevailing historiography; sometimes, however, information gleaned from newly unearthed artifacts can pose a challenge to entrenched historical narratives.

“Archaeology, especially in the 19th century, which is when it was founded, felt like the unappreciated younger sister of history,” Harvard History Department Chair Daniel L. Smail says. “The people who wrote history in the 19th century thought that the people who wrote history knew the past, and archaeologists really resented it.”

Smail’s remarks help to explain why, for a long time, archaeology was conceived of as a “handmaiden to history.” This somewhat pejorative nickname, coined by early 20th-century archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume, spoke to the notion that archaeology does not provide any new information, but merely shores up what is already known.

This is a notion flatly opposed by Capone. “Archaeology can offer insights that aren’t necessarily apparent through studying documentary information,” she says. “Archaeology is not conducted solely to verify the historical record but may be informed by it.”


Despite the advent of modern technology and the ability to have visual information at the click of a button, physical objects still have a great appeal to historians and non-historians alike. The value of the artifacts found in Harvard Yard seems to derive less from objective historical significance than from the feelings they are able to evoke in those who unearth them.

“A physical connection to the past is such a powerful thing,” Capone says, and archaeology and the objects that it unveils can serve as that connection. “Archaeology is an example of an individual physical connection to the past, and hopefully one that we can then share through museum interpretation.”

Excavation 1
Students excavate a site in Harvard Yard as part of an undergraduate course in the Anthropology Department.

Historians have long marveled at the power of physically touching objects of the past. It creates a feeling of continuity between the past and the present. “One of the features of archaeological materials in particular is this some sense of immediate contact,” Smail says.

Psychologists have created a name for this sensation.The law of contagion states that a magical connection exists between a person and the object that he has touched. Smail believes that people are attracted to archaeological findings and other historical artifacts because of the connection it allows them to feel between the past and the present.

“When I take my students to handle a medieval object or a 19th-century object from a slave cemetery, it it a completely different experience than reading about it in a book,” Smail says. “The touching of it transmits something into the object.”

This feeling of connection between the past and the present attracts many. However, looking at an archaeological finding from the vantage point of the present also changes the context and meaning of the object. “An object is not only what you are seeing there but also its entire history. So objects carry more meaning that what you might ordinarily assign to them, not only what it has produced but also the memories objects carry,” Ray says. “Objects mean different things in different spaces.”


Of course, Harvard is not the only place in the area that is steeped in history. The city of Boston, officially established six years before Harvard, boasts an illustrious historical legacy that the City of Boston Archaeology Program, founded in 1983, is doing its best to protect.  

Joe Bagley is leading this fight as the official City Archaeologist. In addition to serving as curator for the archaeological collections at the City Archaeology Lab, Bagley is response for ensuring that modern construction projects do not get in the way of the continuance of Boston archaeology. “I’m more on the reactionary side of things, so my role in the city is to review how potential projects or construction, development, or modification to building or landscapes can impact the archaeological sites,” Bagley says.

The City of Boston Archaeology Program is not currently working at any dig sites, but they are sorting through about 40,000 objects that they uncovered at a recent site, the Clough House in Boston’s North End.

Built in 1715, the Clough House is currently owned by the Old North Church. In 2013, the church decided to build a new walkway in the old house’s backyard. City code required that the land be examined by archaeologists before construction could begin. During the examination, Bagley and his team unearthed an abundance of artifacts from throughout the house’s history. In the 1700s, the Clough House was only ever inhabited by a single family at a time. That changed in 1808, when the house was converted to a tenement and many immigrant families from Ireland occupied it for roughly the next hundred years.

“We are using these 40,000 artifacts to compare how the people in the house lived and how life changed in that house between when it was lived in by five people who were relatively wealthy in the 18th century and then later on in the 19th century when it was lived in by 25 people at the same time,” Bagley says.

In all of this work, Bagley, the only paid member of the City of Boston Archaeology Project, relies on community volunteers interested in history and archaeology. Only about a third of them have previous archaeological experience, but Bagley does not view this as an obstacle. “Having volunteers on the site slows things down in a good way and allows us to do some really good work,” he says. “I find that as long as I have people with me that have done [archaeology] before that can help if there are a lot of [inexperienced volunteers] on the site, that volunteers that have never done archaeology before are the most careful and concerned,” Bagley says. “They are the first people to stop if they think that something is going wrong.”

Bagley is not the only one who benefits from having volunteers on site; he has seen how the volunteers themselves gain new experiences and encounter objects that connect them more closely to the history of their communities. “They are making a discovery that predates themselves, that predates their family, or that predates their community,” Bagley says. “But it is their history because they found it.”


Archaeological digs like the ones led by Bagley in Boston and the one in Harvard Yard produce thousands of artifacts that help those involved to develop a more complete understanding of history—an understanding that can then be shared with the public. This is the aim of Anthropology 1131, the complementary course to Anthropology 1130, which focuses on how to present the students’ findings in the Peabody’s exhibit “Digging Veritas.”

Because of the lack of display space, Bagley uses Facebook and Twitter to display as many of his findings as possible and provide visitors to the websites with an instantaneous connection to current archaeology. “We don’t have to convince people in Boston and Cambridge that history matters; we just have to show them that it’s not something that you see on TV, but you can find it outside and it’s going on right now,” Bagley says.

Ultimately, though, most objects discovered during archaeological excavations will never be displayed publically. Around 80 percent of the Boston City Archaeology Lab is devoted to storing the uncovered items, and Harvard’s own collections extend far beyond what is displayed.  

After being excavated and analyzed to the fullest extent, many artifacts are fated to sit in storage until a researcher decides that they can be used to gain new information about history. “One thing that people are always surprised about regarding archaeology is just how not exciting everything that comes out of the ground is. You may have found 40,000 artifacts, and six are worthy of ever showing anybody. The story is the important part. Most artifacts aren’t that interesting to look at as things,” Bagley says.  

Still, these artifacts that will probably never be displayed play an important role in figuring out the story of the past. “It’s really just piecing it all back together and trying to squeeze out as much of the story as you can,” Bagley says.

Archaeological discoveries inevitably offer a new perspective on the lives of the people of the past. Sometimes the artifacts confirm the historical narrative as we know it; sometimes they negate it. Most of the time, these objects illuminate a new facet of history and opens the doors for further exploration.

Excavation 2
The goal of the Harvard Yard excavation is to learn more about the history of the Indian College and other early Harvard structures.

“[History and archaeology] together give us a binocular or stereoscopic view. And when you put the two together you see things you could not see through just one lens alone,” Smail says. “And they tell us different things, but it is like black and white and when you put them together you get color.” Smail’s sentiment illustrates the enthusiasm archaeology inspires in those who have experienced its particular thrill—that of literally touching history.

—Staff writer Emma C. Cobb can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @emmaccobb.

—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jillsteinman.


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