Digging up history

Archeologists explore 18-century life through finds at Newton site

Archeology students unearth a brick-floored dairy at the Durant-Kenrick Homestead, where finds included a gun flint (inset at right) and shards of glazed ceramics. Archeology students unearth a brick-floored dairy at the Durant-Kenrick Homestead, where finds included a gun flint (inset at right) and shards of glazed ceramics. (Photos by the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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Archeology is often imagined as an exotic enterprise, something undertaken far off in the sands of Egypt, or at ruins in ancient cities like Rome.

Where it’s not typically expected is amid the clamor and din of urban life.

But a recent dig at an 18th-century house in Newton is a reminder that archeology is relevant everywhere - and that our own backyards can be rich with artifacts and history, authorities say.

This summer, University of Massachusetts Boston archeology students spent several weeks meticulously digging around the 1730s Durant-Kenrick Homestead at 286 Waverley Ave., unearthing a number of artifacts and even portions of some structures. The items discovered are now being analyzed in a lab at UMass Boston, with a full report of findings expected early next year.

The area around the Colonial structure is “really well preserved archeologically,’’ said Christa M. Beranek, a project archeologist at the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at UMass Boston, who led the dig. “We had a number of good finds.’’

They included a 6-foot by 10-foot outbuilding likely used as a dairy, a stone-lined well, the disturbed foundation of what was probably a 19th-century barn, stone chips from 18th-century construction, and numerous trash deposits.

Ultimately, the findings “put the house back into its landscape a little bit better,’’ said Beranek, noting that they also serve as a reminder of the city’s agrarian past. “Newton used to be a real farming area,’’ she said.

Historic Newton, a public-private partnership between the city and the Newton Historical Society, serves as the property’s steward. The nonprofit undertook the dig before embarking on an expected $2.3 million project - paid for through Community Preservation Act money, donations and grants - that will restore parts of the structure, add an educational wing and a limited-access elevator, and enable more interactive programs, according to its director, Cynthia S. Stone.

Because of the property’s historical value, the archeological analysis was required by state and national preservation regulations before the project could go forward, Beranek said.

Still, said Stone, “we would have wanted to do it anyway,’’ out of a sense of curiosity and a respect for the past.

The circa-1730s structure is endowed with centuries of history.

For starters, Edward Durant III - whose father built the house, which originally sat on 97 acres along with several outbuildings and barns - was involved in numerous town committees that responded to national issues when the Colonies were on the verge of the Revolutionary War, according to the research of independent scholar Mary Fuhrer.

The Kenrick family, who took over ownership in 1790, operated the largest plant nursery in New England from the site, according to Stone. They had around 200 species of pear trees, and varieties of apples, flowers, berries, and ornamental trees. They sold plants to people throughout the country, changing the landscape of the United States, Stone said.

In the 1920s, Arthur Dewing purchased the house - by that time its land had been reduced to just 2 acres - and restored it, according to research by Lucinda A. Brockway.

In 1985, Dewing’s heirs established the Durant Homestead, Brockway reported.

“The people that lived in the house were very engaged in their community, even on a national level,’’ Stone said.

The archeological dig is examining their day-to-day lives.

Beranek said she and eight archeology students first used ground-penetrating radar to get a preliminary reading of the subterrain. Then, in June, they began excavating, a slow process that involves repeatedly removing layers of dirt, sifting, mapping, and taking photos.

Using shovels and mason trowels, they peeled away the layers of time in test pits, going down 5 feet in some places, and just 18 inches in others.

Throughout this process, their biggest discovery was the sunken dairy, with its brick floors and walls. It was likely used in the late 18th or early 19th century for processing milk into butter or cheese, Beranek said, then was filled in during the 1850s with construction rubble and trash.

Other findings included the stone-lined well in the backyard that was likely filled in during the early 20th century; remains of construction debris - primarily from chipping foundation rocks - from when the house was originally built; cobblestone driveway edgings; and trash deposits spanning from the Revolutionary War to the mid-19th century.

Now, all of the items are in the UMass Boston lab, getting separated, sorted, scrubbed, cleaned, identified, dated, and catalogued. Eventually, they’ll be pieced together, and some items will be treated so they don’t continue to degrade or rust, said Beranek. Drawings and maps will be created, and soil samples will be tested for plant remains.

“The lab component goes on for a long time,’’ said Beranek, who specializes in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and has worked on houses in Concord and Lexington. “For every day in the field, you need to plan on three to five days in the lab.’’

When UMass is done with them, the artifacts will be returned to Historic Newton, where some will be put on display at the house, according to Stone. The dairy, meanwhile, will eventually be opened as an exterior display at the historic building, although Stone said the logistics for that haven’t been worked out yet.

In the end, the lab work will shape a story of the house and its residents: what their everyday life was like, what they ate, what they chose for dining ware and knickknacks.

Beranek said it’s a story that’s becoming more and more difficult to tell.

“There are no more 18th-century sites ever being made,’’ she said. “They’re a nonrenewable resource, essentially.

“We have as many of them as we’re ever going to have.’’

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