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Archaeological dig reveals 18th century life

By Tess Townsend

Publication: The Times

Published June 12. 2014 4:00AM   Updated June 12. 2014 7:42AM

In the 18th century, a man named Thomas Daniels lived on a 40 acre homestead in what is now Waterford, on land he rented from a justice of the peace, Joshua Hempstead. Daniels farmed cattle and pigs, and hunted wild game. He had a wife and children, and died in 1735 at the age of 45.

Many of these details would remain unknown if it were not for the fact that Daniels' homestead lies at the intersection of Cross Road and Parkway South.

Department of Transportation contractor, Archaeological and Historic Services, started studying the Daniels site in 1999 after performing a fairly routine survey of the area. The survey was part of preparation for constructing the intersection. DOT requires such surveys when planning construction in areas that the department has reason to believe hold relatively undisturbed historically significant sites.

Mandy Ranslow, an archaeologist who works in environmental planning at DOT, said the Daniels site, which now lies beneath concrete, provides a snapshot of what life of an average colonial farmer would have looked like.

"That's a history that, like, my family can relate to," she said.

Findings at the Daniels site are described in a 2013 book published by DOT, "Highways to History: The Archaeology of Connecticut's 18th-Century Lifeways."

AHS President Mary Harper, and husband Ross Harper, senior historical archaeologist with AHS, are among the book's three authors. The Harpers said that in their 30 years working on DOT projects, the Daniels site and two of the three others described in the book are the only ones the couple has excavated completely.

The Daniels site was dug up piece by piece due to its historical value and the DOT's determination that construction could not circumvent the site because any other placement of the intersection would have disturbed wetlands.

Putting together the pieces of Daniels' life and the history of his plot of land involved a gradual and, in some ways, tedious process of sifting through dirt and documents.

Archaeologists, including Ross Harper, started by digging test pits in the area of the site. The first pits were further apart. As the archaeologists founds remnants of the homestead, they started to dig the pits closer together until they determined the homestead's specific location.

Once they had located the homestead, the team began to dig up the site and also did a title search on the property. The search turned up Daniels as the owner. Archaeologists were then able to cross reference that information with the journal of Hempstead.

According to Highways, Hempstead's journal explained that Daniels began renting at age 22 in 1712 and died in 1735. The book states that soon after Daniels' death, the site changed hands to the wealthy New London merchant Matthew Stewart, who ultimately went bankrupt and lost the land.

Artifacts found at the site told the story of how Daniels and his family lived. Ross said that a lot of what archaeologists learned, they learned from Daniels' trash.

As Highways explains, colonial peoples threw their waste out of their doors and windows and let it accumulate in their yards.

Ross said that at the Daniels site, helpful trash included the carcasses of the cattle and pigs that Daniels farmed, as well as the carcasses of animals that he hunted such as passenger pigeons.

Other items archeologists found included dishes and eating utensils. Mary Harper said the Daniels were somewhat ahead of their time in their use of forks, which were just coming into vogue when the Daniels lived in Waterford. Most people ate with wooden spoons and bowls, she explained.

Trash and other items "just makes people come alive," she said.

The Harpers said that a particularly significant finding was that the Daniels house was "earthfast," meaning wooden poles extended from the house into the earth for stability. Mary said the Daniels house was the first earthfast dwelling found in Connecticut. She said the practice was used at the Plymouth Plantation and in other parts of New England.

The Harpers said the team was fortunate to be able to excavate the site thoroughly, since it is now covered by concrete.

"The site is gone," said Mary, "but the site still lives on in all the data."

Waterford Town Clerk and Municipal Historian Robert Nye said documents in the clerk's office played a key role in locating the site, which he said told interesting pieces of local history.

He commented on how the site showed that early Connecticut settlers for the most part had diverse skills. For example, Daniels did blacksmithing in addition to farming and hunting.

"I'm just so grateful and the town should be so grateful that it was discovered because it's all covered up now," Nye said.

T.TOWNSEND@THEDAY.COM

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