CAMBRIDGE - Serious pay dirt came at 23 inches when a trio of sweaty undergrads working one of 15 deepening holes in Harvard Yard last week unearthed two tiny pieces of printing press type, pegged at nearly 3 1/2 centuries old.
"One minute you're just digging so carefully, centimeter by centimeter," said Devon Sherman, a sophomore from Duxbury who made the find with seniors Brennan Bilberry of South Dakota and Alyssa Wolff of New York. "The next minute you're holding real history in your hand."
It wasn't the antiquity of the lead type that triggered hurrahs, but the connection to the history of Harvard and native Americans. The rectangular bits, according to archeologists supervising the excavation, will probably prove to be from the press that produced the first Bible printed in North America, a 1661 edition of scriptures written in the Wampanoag dialect of the Algonquin language.
The press was housed in the imposing brick edifice of Harvard Indian College - once the centerpiece of America's oldest institution of higher learning, now nearly forgotten.
With shovels, trowels, and sifting trays, Harvard is seeking its Indian soul.
An archeological project led by the university's Peabody Museum is probing for the foundations and other remains of Indian College and other "lost" Harvard structures. There's also hope that the dig will yield artifacts that might give a picture of how Indians and whites interacted as students and scholars during the earliest decades of English settlement. This was an era when neither the survival of New England nor Harvard was particularly certain.
Founded in 1636, Harvard was formally chartered in 1650 for "the education of the English and Indian youths of this country, in knowledge and godliness."
That multicultural mission - Massachusetts Puritans wouldn't know the term, of course, but some embraced the notion that whites and Indians could be bound by scholarship - would peter out in a few decades, disappearing almost entirely amid the bloody 1675-76 conflict between natives and settlers known as King Philip's War.
For some years, however, the rough-hewn Cambridge campus was a place where Indians and whites pursued knowledge side by side. Both were required to know Latin and Greek to win admission. And wampum was legal tender for tuition - the cost of a year at Harvard was 1 pound, 6 shillings, 8 pence in English currency. Or roughly 1,900 beads of purple quahog and white whelk.
Wampum, whose value lay in the artful stringing of the polished shell, served as cash for Indians and whites alike - and formed an integral part of Harvard's bare-bones endowment in early Colonial times. (One early president complained that college coffers contained too much "counterfeit" wampum, according to Samuel Eliot Morison's "Three Centuries of Harvard.")
The first brick building on a campus now famous for its weathered brick was Harvard Indian College, built in 1655, at a time when other Harvard buildings were made of wood.
"It's shocking how few people even at Harvard are even dimly aware of that history," said Tobias Vanderhoop, 33, a member of the tribal council of the Aquinnah Wampanoag of Martha's Vineyard. Vanderhoop is earning a graduate degree in public administration at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Two of his Aquinnah forebears attended Harvard, class of 1665.
"After which came a fallow period for Indian admissions," he noted wryly. "It lasted about 300 years."
Records suggest the Indian College building may have been demolished before the turn of the 18th century. Specialists believe, however, that portions of its foundation still lie under present-day Matthews Hall and may extend a couple of hundred feet under Harvard Yard. It is in this part of the yard that undergraduates and instructors of Anthropology 1130 - the dig is also a formal class - are excavating 15 precisely shaped shafts that will soon extend 6 feet into Harvard's hallowed dirt. Digging will stop in late November, when winter's frost sets in.
"Students are getting credit and field experience," said William L. Fash, director of the Peabody Museum. "Moreover, they are helping investigate a little-known but critical part of Harvard history. We know so very little - a few dates, a few names [of Indian students]. We know the building was brick. But we hope to learn more about what must have been an amazing cultural contact."
Overseeing the 45 students at the dig are archeologists Patricia Capone, Diana Loren, and Christina Hodge.
The printing type is the main Indian connection found so far, but students have also uncovered bits of beautifully glazed earthenware dishes, scraps of blue-and-purple German stoneware dating from the late 1600s - from beer steins, most likely - centuries-old clay shingles, Colonial bricks, and hand-wrought nails. Plus wine bottles and clay pipestems galore.
"Even in the Puritan era, the level of alcohol and tobacco consumption at Harvard appears to have been, well, notable," Capone said. "Perhaps all that emphasis [on godliness] put everyone in need of a stiff drink."
Indians and other aboriginal Americans are often ambivalent about archeology.
"Where nonnatives see 'discovery,' native people often see 'desecration' " of sacred places, said Carmen Lopez, director of the Harvard University Native American Program and a Navajo. "But this is thrilling, to have Harvard trying to connect with the Indian people who were among its very first students."
Although college-educated Puritans often became ministers, Harvard was not affiliated with any denomination. English and Indians were required to complete courses that included grammar, logic, arithmetic, astronomy, metaphysics, ethics, natural science, and Hebrew. Historians speculate that Harvard's intention might have been to groom Indians as spiritual leaders of New England's "praying towns," or settlements of Christianized Indians. But promising Indian youths may also have been dispatched to Harvard by tribal sachems as envoys - or even spies, of a sort - to suss out the ways of the English.
"Yes, of course, Harvard was trying to inculcate Western values and ways of thinking," Lopez said. "But the Indian students also seem to have been an elite, chosen by their tribes to go learn the ways of the newcomers. They were students, yes, but also diplomats for their people."
There's no certainty in how many Indians attended Harvard during the Puritan period. The names of only six survive: Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, an Aquinnah Wampanoag who graduated in 1665; Joel Iacoombs, an Aquinnah who was to have been Harvard valedictorian in 1665, but died in a shipwreck just before graduation; John Wampus, class of 1669, a Nipmuc who quit Harvard to go to sea as a mariner; and Eleazar, last name unknown, class of 1679, a Wampanoag.
Additionally, John Sassamon and James Printer attended in the 1650s. Printer, as an apprentice, helped produce the 1661 Indian language Bible - titled "Up-Biblum God," in Wampanoag - and may have handled the type discovered last week. The last Indian known to have studied at Colonial Harvard was Benjamin Larnell, class of 1716.
Not until the 1970s would Indians again become a presence at Harvard. Today, about 130 Indians, Inuit, and native Hawaiians are enrolled - 60 as undergraduates and 70 as graduate students or PhD candidates, according to Lopez.
For Tiffany Lee Smalley, an 18-year-old freshman, the Indian College dig is at once a fantastic college course and an intensely personal adventure. Smalley, raised on Martha's Vineyard, is the first Aquinnah Wampanoag admitted to Harvard as an undergraduate since the 1660s.
"To know that my ancestors went here makes me feel close to home. It is almost as if they called me back here," said Smalley, taking a quick break from troweling artifact-laden dirt and tweezing centuries-old shards of earthenware into a Ziploc bag. "It's amazing to be on this ground and know they walked here. I feel like I'm seeking the true footprints of my people's past."
Colin Nickerson can be reached at email@example.com.