The Pilgrims stepped ashore in Plymouth in 1620, no question. But efforts to pin down exactly where they lived on the first Thanksgiving, and the few precarious decades afterward, have been elusive.
On Tuesday, archeologists from the University of Massachusetts Boston said they have discovered what is believed to be part of the original settlement, a conclusion reached through calf’s bones, musket balls, 17th-century ceramics, and brownish soil where a wooden post would have stood.
Kathryn Ness, curator of collections at Plimoth Plantation, a nonprofit museum that was UMass’ partner on the project, said the discovery could fundamentally alter what is known about the everyday life of the Pilgrims.
“Knowing where it is, and that there are pieces that have not been wiped out by construction, will absolutely change what we understand about that settlement,” Ness said. “Archeology helps support the historical record, but it also speaks to those who weren’t writing — the illiterate, children, the animals.”
David Landon, a UMass Boston archeologist who has been digging with his team in Plymouth for the last four summers, said: “We’re thrilled. I’ve never worked harder for something more exciting.”
The breakthrough occurred on Burial Hill, a rise that includes a centuries-old cemetery where historical lore had long placed part of the first settlement. But archeologists had never dug there before — partly through concerns about disturbing the graveyard — until Landon and his team put together a meticulous, sensitive plan to work on the margins.
What they found this summer — in a 17th-century trash pit and in the stained soil that indicated a post hole — told the team members they were turning the very ground where the first settlers lived. The key to that finding was the discovery of a calf’s bones underneath a layer of discarded household artifacts that dated from before 1650, Landon said.
The 102 original Pilgrims and their earliest descendants raised domesticated cattle, unlike their Native American neighbors. So, the discovery of calf remains from that time — as well as a post hole to support a wooden house or structure — is compelling evidence that a sliver of the original settlement existed there, Landon said.
“People have never found part of the 17th-century settlement in downtown Plymouth,” Landon said. “For the first time, we found part of the built environment.”
That the area had never been found seems baffling, but knowing approximately where the village had been located suited a great many people for many years. Plymouth Rock, after all, is only an educated guess of where the Pilgrims stepped ashore.
Archeologists also faced the complications posed by layer after layer of development and construction.
“It’s buried underneath a town that grew up for hundreds of years,” said Landon, associate director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archeological Research at UMass Boston.
The news was welcomed by people with connections to the Pilgrims.
A descendant of four of them, Darlene Gardner of East Bridgewater, said the discovery now can help put boundaries on a settlement whose dimensions have long been suspected but never formally determined.
Desiree Mobem, director of the Alden House Historic Site in Duxbury, where the Pilgrim couple John and Priscilla Alden moved after leaving Plymouth in 1627, said she watched some of the dig this summer.
“It’s an unbelievable finding when you consider how much of Plymouth has been built on that,” Mobem said.
The UMass team numbered up to 35 people a day and worked on the site from late May through June, Landon said. What followed has been painstaking and time-consuming work to clean, examine, and inventory the artifacts.
“This is the hard part,” Landon said. “We obsess over each piece of pottery, figuring out exactly what it is.”
The team also found beads that were intended to trade with the Native Americans, he said.
“Our heart was excited about this all summer, but it took a while to convince our head what we actually found,” Landon said.
Undergraduate and graduate students who made up much of the team lived at Plimoth Plantation. The plantation made its public lab available to the students, who worked with the artifacts as visitors watched.
The excavation has shown that Burial Hill also was used by Native Americans before the Pilgrims arrived on a wayward voyage they had thought would take them farther south. The archeologists discovered a stone-tool workshop and pottery on the site, among other Native American artifacts.
Peter Drummey, librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society, said the finding is “extraordinary.” The written record from the period is significant, but the physical evidence is scant, Drummey said.
“Thinking of the past through documents, you have essentially a two-dimensional description,” he said. But with the artifacts unearthed through archeology, he added, that view expands to three dimensions.
The dig marked an early triumph in Landon’s goal to find evidence of the settlement before 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. He has two years remaining in a $200,000, three-year grant for the work from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“We all have this stereotypical image,” Landon said. “What we’re interested in is what we can say about the reality of it.”