Project Discovery a Great Adventure in 1981
Published Monday, June 17, 2002 in The Public Garden; the Portsmouth Herald
By Laura Pope
Twenty-one years ago Indiana Jones exploded into mainstream consciousness in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Swashbuckling, fearless and undefeated in his quest to retrieve treasures, the whip-carrying, hat-wearing Indy added the archaeologist to our growing pantheon of male heroes that already included pirates, soldiers and statesmen.
This was the same summer - in 1981 - that I participated in Project Discovery, an educational public excavation of an archaeological site behind the Mary Rider-Wood House at Strawbery Banke Museum. More than 120 regular citizens, ranging from preteens to retirees, and divided almost equally between the sexes, signed up for the summer-long course, led by me and Harvard-trained archaeologist Gray Gratham.
The program, a brainchild of museum staffer Bruce Follansbee and underwritten by state grants, offered everyday people a chance to participate in a process-driven retrieval of artifacts right on museum grounds.
What attracted most of them to the program was the idea that one didn’t need an academic degree to actually do the excavating, cataloguing, photography, map-making or research. It was a project that empowered and educated, at the same time adding to the already impressive archaeological archive on display and in storage at the Jones House exhibit.
Funny how the name of the museum’s archaeology exhibit house matched that of the movie-screen hero. Completely coincidental was the timing of our dig and the visage of Indiana Jones, but this confluence made for overflow crowds and national media coverage of this banner program in Portsmouth’s 10-acre waterfront museum.
Another extensive dig, at the Follett site, located right next to the Jones House, to examine Puddle Dock wharf remnants, also took place at the museum over the course of that summer, though this one was undertaken by three professionals - Faith Harrington, Elisa Jorgensen and Aileen Agnew. A third dig also began that season - a salvage dig at the site on Deer Street where the Sheraton now stands. This one turned out to be one of the most fruitful, complete and intact historic archaeological sites in New England in terms of ceramic and glass finds.
As we taught classes in excavating, identifying, cataloguing and dating a wide variety of artifacts - from shards of ceramic dishes, cups, wine bottles, pipe stems to bone refuse and the like - interest in the dig and its mission took on a life of its own. Every major and minor television station took turns interviewing students and leaders at both digs; The Associated Press did a story that was picked up across the nation, as we found out from our museum president when he returned from a conference on the West Coast; and visits to the museum rocketed.
Though we did not look anything like the movie hero, we were dirt-covered, trowel-packing truthseekers, out to find evidence, a few centimeters at a time, about the families that resided at the Rider-Wood House.
We did unearth a leather tanning vat out back, and the old outdoor privy did much to verify diets and household wares of residents over time. We glued pots together, made careful lists of our finds and learned to appreciate history and how it is compiled. We did much to quell the snob factor of academia by throwing open the door of the profession to the nontraditional student, the amateur.
Teachers signed up, and so did many a father and son, daughter and mother. Some signed on because they had the summer off and didn’t want to travel. Others had always wanted to try archaeology; a few were earning credits; many didn’t know what to expect. An analysis and interpretation program followed the excavations in the spring of 1982, and for a few of the students, archaeology became a second profession.
When funds for these educational programs dried up - and they did with amazing speed in 1982 - several of the amateurs we had trained took over the laboratory duties. Most all the archaeologists at the museum, a record number in fact, fled to other digs, positions or professions. Still, it was one of those rare times when an innovative idea surfaced, found funding and followed through with incredible results.
Post Script: Following excavations and lab work, the Mary Ryder Wood House underwent extensive renovations, re-opening as an exhibit house at Strawbery Banke Museum, including a select display of artifacts unearthed by Project Discovery participants.