Group digs for artifacts at East Lyme's Lee House to piece together local history

East Lyme — As Mary Farrell of Niantic dug for artifacts on the grounds of the Thomas Lee House Museum on Friday morning, she discovered the claw head of a hammer and excitedly showed that it was in good condition.

She was among a group of 12 participants who dug for shards of pottery, pipe stems and nails, among other artifacts, buried in the ground near the 17th century house as part of the East Lyme Historical Society's "Family day at the Dig."

"It's amazing that it tells a story of who might have lived here and what their lives were like," Farrell said of finding artifacts.

State Archaeologist Brian Jones and local history experts guided the group, which included grandparents, parents and children, and helped them identify artifacts during the archaeological dig.

On the hot August day, the participants worked with trowels to scrape through the dirt in 3-foot-by-3-foot plots, designated for the archaeological dig, in an area on the property near a well and the historical house. They emptied out buckets of dirt onto tables with screens that helped filter out archaeological objects, which they then placed in plastic bags and catalogued on clipboards, and shared their discoveries.

Town Historian Elizabeth Kuchta, a member of the historical society, said the intention of the dig was to learn more about the families that lived in the Thomas Lee House in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

During very early periods, people just tossed broken items or swept them out the door, so to look for the earliest items, it's helpful to start digging around the door area, she explained. Later, people chose a spot — called a midden — away from the house to discard items.

Kuchta said the historical society invited people to join in the archaeological dig on the grounds of the Lee House — which opened to the public in 1915 — as a way to learn more about the Lee family and town history. Last year's dig turned up shards of pottery and ceramics, a jaw harp and a Native American scraper made of quartz, she said. The historical society ultimately plans to display some of the artifacts.

Jones, the state archaeologist, said the quartz artifact found last year could date as far back as 4,000 years ago, while pipe stems could be from the late 1600s to early 1700s, and most pottery shards found are most likely from after the Revolutionary War, as production and consumption ramped up and people changed out their dinnerware more frequently.

In addition to the archaeological dig last year, the historical society also did a simulated dig in 2016 to teach people about the history and the process of digging for artifacts.

Rod McCauley, vice president of the East Lyme Historical Society, said it's important to get community members involved. He pointed out that some of the participants potentially could become future students in Reed's high school anthropology class or one of Jones' future students at the University of Connecticut, and future archaeologists.

Wil Reed, an anthropology teacher at East Lyme High School who leads students on digs in town, said Friday's event not only exposes people to archaeology by doing hands-on work and shows the importance of local history, but for him as a teacher, it also means 12 new people who could spot artifacts and contact him.

Michael Hrymack of Montville, who is involved in Civil War re-enactment, said he remembers going on a dig when he was in elementary school in Pennsylvania, so he thought it would be a great idea to bring his 13-year-old daughter, Morgan, to the dig.

"I think it's really cool," said Morgan Hrymack, who found shards of pottery with her father. She said she was thinking during the dig about what the inhabitants of the house would have used the artifacts for and how they lived.

Another participant, Lillith Davies-Smith, 16, of New London, has wanted to be an archaeologist since she was 6 years old. She returned to the grounds of the Thomas Lee House on Friday for her second year of digging, after having participated in her first official dig last year.

"It was a lot of fun," she said. "It's always been my dream."

Last year, she discovered the jaw harp on the grounds of the Thomas Lee House, which local author Jim Littlefield then wrote about in an article. Davies-Smith said it was really exciting to find such an artifact during her first dig.


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