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Archeologists dig into what’s buried on Burial Hill

Plymouth graveyard was part of town’s original settlement

Students, archaeologists, and volunteers take part in a dig on the edge of Burial Hill in Plymouth.UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS BOSTON

A professor of historical archeology, David Landon has been leading an archeological dig at the edge of Plymouth’s historic Burial Hill graveyard and at other Pilgrim sites for most of a decade.

Six years ago, anticipating Plymouth’s celebration of its 400th anniversary — a celebration severely curtailed by the untimely arrival of the COVID pandemic — Landon wrote that the new exploration of the town’s old sites “would be designed to help create a scholarly legacy for the 400th anniversary, teach students and teachers the archeology and history of Plymouth and its place in the 17th-century Atlantic World, and engage the public in a meaningful consideration of the period and its impact on both Settler and Native communities.”

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Landon is associate director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at UMass Boston. The center undertook the investigation of sites within the bounds of the original Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, a site that has been studied in the past, with the belief that more could be learned through contemporary methods.

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society will host a public tour of Burial Hill led by Landon on Saturday, Oct. 1. “Dr. Landon will share some of the exciting discoveries made during the multiyear archeological project conducted on the edges of the historic graveyard at the heart of Plymouth’s downtown,” the society’s executive director Anne Mason said.

Plymouth’s Burial Hill lies within the colony’s original walled settlement that stretched from the top of the hill down to the waterfront, encompassing much of what is still regarded as Plymouth Center today. The town’s palisade wall came down in the 1670s and the earliest gravestones on the hill, Landon said, go back to the 1680s.

The Fiske Center’s archeological dig took place on “the edges” of Burial Hill, Landon said. The hill had been used for housing inside the wooden palisade fence in the early Pilgrim period. The site had not been “systematically” examined by current methods, Landon said, and “it took some careful work” to show the town that the digging would remain on the edge of the cemetery and would not disturb any burials.

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Beginning in 2012, the Fiske Memorial Center employed ground-penetrating radar around the cemetery’s edges to determine where to dig and where not to. Other sites within the original Pilgrim settlement area were also examined in the investigation that ran from 2012 to 2019, and again in 2021.

“It took us a while to find what we were looking for,” Landon said of choosing where to dig in the surrounds of the graveyard.

The dig focused on the lower edge of the hill located along School Street, which runs in front of the town’s historic “stone church,” First Parish Church, and continues below the hill in an area that includes some 19th century buildings. Landon said the town had previously undertaken a considerable reshaping of the School Street side of the hill in preparation for its 300th anniversary in 1920.

The Fiske Center’s “archeological fieldschool survey” used contemporary technologies to overlay historic map data, Landon said. This enabled participants — archeologists, students, and volunteers — “to recognize the margins of the cemetery.” The survey discovered the remains of two buildings that were part of the original settlement and recovered artifacts, he said. In a building that had fallen in on itself, diggers found pottery, bottles, cutlery, livery items, and other “trade goods.”

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These include a “coin weight,” a metal slug merchants placed on a balance scale to check that a coin offered in payment was not underweight, he said.

The markings on the slug, the dig’s piece de resistance, identified its maker and dated the artifact to a period before the 1620 colony, Landon said. Expert analysis revealed it was made between 1577 and 1603 and must have been brought to the new colony by European settlers.

The dig also uncovered remains of one part of the settlement’s 17th century fence. Other findings included cutlery, pottery, broken pipe stems, pins and beads, and small artifacts. No graves were uncovered. In excavations elsewhere, the project dug on Coles Hill, where those who died in the first starving winter were buried, or in Brewster Gardens, a town park near the waterfront that proved too much of a wetland to be amenable to archeology.

Landon said the survey also uncovered evidence of use of the area outside the settlement by Indigenous people likely coming to the settlement for trade or talks during the period of 1620 to 1660.

“One of the real highlights,” Landon said, “was that we had members of the Mashpee tribe” — the descendants of the Wampanoag group that helped the Pilgrim colony survive its first years — “out digging with us in the exploration.”

That connection was significant, he said, because “archeology as a discipline doesn’t necessarily have a great reputation” among Indigenous people stemming from exploitative practices in the past.

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There are no excavations this year, Landon said. “We’re at a pause to catch up with reporting and interpretation.”

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society is calling its free, one-hour Burial Hill tour beginning at 1 p.m. on Oct. 22 “Pits, Posts and Palisades.” It’s part of the society’s ongoing “History in Progress Series” on local historical events. See the society’s website, plymouthantiquarian.org, for more information.

“The tours are great,” Mason said, “because the people are really excited about history. “It’s a fun opportunity to think about the actual landscape where people were living in the past.”

For those unable to attend, a video recording of the tour will be released on Nov. 5.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.