Students hope to dig up artifacts of King Philip's War in Mystic

Kevin McBride, director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, right, and Jackie Veninger, left, a research consultant with the museum, confirm that what student Alex Buckingham has found in her test pit is modern barbed wire. The three were working at the Denison Homestead in Mystic.
Kevin McBride, director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, right, and Jackie Veninger, left, a research consultant with the museum, confirm that what student Alex Buckingham has found in her test pit is modern barbed wire. The three were working at the Denison Homestead in Mystic.

Mystic - Kevin McBride and his team of students from the UConn Archaeological Field School launched a dig at the Denison Homestead Thursday to seek evidence of a stockade and troops preparing to fight in King Philip's War from 1675 to 1676.

The initial dig is scheduled to continue through Saturday. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday the dig will coincide with Open House Day at museums across the state, including the Denison Homestead. In addition to free admission, tours and children's activities that day, McBride, who is also director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, said visitors will have the opportunity to participate in the dig and use metal detectors.

The Denison Society, the field school and Mashantucket museum have combined their research efforts and placed the likely location of the stockade on a bluff behind the homestead where the land drops off steeply in several directions, protecting it from attack. The trees and brush have been cleared to make it easier for the students to work.

"If there's anything up here, we'll find it pretty quick," said Dave Naumec, the military historian at the Mashantucket Pequot museum, as he walked along the bluff Thursday morning.

He said the large open field below is thought to be where dragoons or heavy cavalry drilled with their Mohegan and Pequot allies before heading out on raids against the Narragansett tribe. Today, the field hosts a Sunday farmers market.

During the 17th century, Naumec said, all the land between Denison's land and the ocean would have been open.

George Denison, one of the first English settlers of Mystic and second in command of troops in what is now Connecticut, was given 200 acres on the site in 1654 to train militia.

According to historical accounts, on a rocky knoll overlooking a great meadow with a glimpse of the ocean beyond, he erected a small lean-to or rude home and surrounded it with a stout stockade.

"There's always a lot of anticipation and excitement (with a new site)," McBride said. "But we've learned to be patient over the years. Sometimes we don't excavate something the first day. We usually find something in the last hour."

Naumec said the dig is a "great test of our historical reasoning, modeling and terrain mapping."

In addition to excavating, the students are using a GPS system to map the finds and tie it in with their research.

Naumec said they hope to find horseshoes, armor, shot, nails and other artifacts.

While the wood of the stockade would have rotted long ago, he said, there could be evidence of it through trenches or stained soil.

McBride said the dig will also help determine whether the site should be considered as part of his work to explore Colonial battlefields in the region such as the 1636-38 Pequot War. The work is part of the American Battlefield Protection Program funded by the National Park Service.

While the homestead site is not a battlefield, the dig will help determine whether it is an important ancillary site because troops trained there. If it is, McBride could seek funding for work there.

After meeting with his students Thursday morning, McBride watched them disperse through the field and onto the bluff.

"I'm telling the students it's an automatic 'A' for the first person who finds a horseshoe," he joked.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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