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Archaeological dig aims to uncover mystery behind Fairlee homestead

  • Volunteers Kai Harris, left, of Thetford, Vt., Beatrice Green, of Orford, N.H., and Sam Harris, mother of Kai, dig at the site of an old homestead in the Fairlee Town Forest on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Fairlee, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bill Fitzhugh, of Fairlee, Vt., determines that a fragment found by Beatrice Green, of Orford, N.H., is bone at the site of an archaeological dig in the Fairlee Town Forest on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Fairlee. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Volunteers approach the site of an old homestead in the Fairlee Town Forest on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Fairlee, Vt. Coins found at the site are from the 1820s. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Arlene Guest, of Fairlee, Vt., sifts through soil she collected at the site of an old homestead in the Fairlee Town Forest on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Fairlee. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2020 9:53:26 PM
Modified: 10/24/2020 9:53:24 PM

Beatrice Green remembers the first time she saw the site deep in the Fairlee Town Forest.

“It looked like nothing to the untrained eye,” said Green, 20, of Orford. “Mr. Fitzhugh was like, ‘That’s a house.’ ”

Mr. Fitzhugh is Bill Fitzhugh, a Fairlee resident who is leading a small group of area students and other volunteers in an archaeological dig of an old homestead. Since mid-September, they’ve been there excavating the site six days a week, weather permitting. The project was given the green light by the town of Fairlee.

“This is my return to New England archaeology after 50 years,” said Fitzhugh, a senior scientist, curator of North American archaeology and director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History. “This is the first colonial site I’ve ever excavated.”

Most years, Fitzhugh splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Fairlee, where he lives with his wife, Lynne. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been spending the majority of his time in Vermont. The homestead in the forest west of Lake Morey has been known for decades.

“I just decided to use my skills here and bring the kids in,” he said during an interview at the site on Thursday. “We want to make the Fairlee Forest more than a logging preserve.”

One of the students on the dig is Kai Harris, a 16-year-old junior at Thetford Academy. He heard about the project from one of his teachers.

“He thought of me because he knows I like to dig in the dirt,” Harris said.

Since he started volunteering on the project, Harris has developed a talent for puzzling together broken pieces of pottery to start to form the objects they once were.

“I’m not sure how the pieces ended up so far away from each other,” he said, looking over a serving dish of some sort he’d started to reconstruct. The pieces were found scattered at various locations around the site.

The artifacts are slowly painting a picture of what once was there. Based on the pottery, pennies, a pipe and other objects found, Fitzhugh said it is likely the site was occupied in the late 1700s or early 1800s. They’ve also found pig teeth, which indicate that the area in the woods was once grassland.

“Pigs are what you would bring to a site when you’ve just cleared a site,” he said, adding that the animals would contribute by eating roots and shrubs. “Then you’d bring in your sheep and cows.”

It was likely abandoned by 1830, when economic conditions made it more difficult to eke out a livelihood at the site.

“This was kind of the margins of where you could survive in those days,” Fitzhugh said.

Green is majoring in anthropology at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., but is taking the semester off and living at home in Orford due to the pandemic. She welcomed the opportunity to get her hands dirty in her field of study.

“My favorite part of the project has been the experience of getting to work on an archaeological dig,” Green said. “This is a great opportunity for me to see how a dig works, what the techniques are, how you record the data, how you take care of the artifacts.”

She has been there since the beginning, helping to clear the site using hand tools. The first layer was filled with roots.

“That’s backbreaking,” Green said of clearing them.

Their efforts were soon rewarded as they began to uncover bricks, pieces of pottery and rocks that indicated that people once tried to build a life there. Green has also been examining historic records, including property maps from 1858 and 1877, to try to identify the site’s homesteaders.

“No names directly correlated directly with the site,” she said. “We think that people were inhabiting the site earlier than that. We need to look earlier to find the correct names.”

Harris has been joined on the dig by his mother, Sam Harris.

“It’s been a lot of fun to do with him,” Sam Harris said. “It’s been good for me to do something outside and different.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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