‘Putting together the pieces’: Archaeologists survey site prior to bridge work in Old Lyme
Old Lyme – A plan to move Route 156 about 60 feet to the north as part of a bridge replacement on the East Lyme border means moving history, too.
The proposed project, first floated in the spring of 2019, involves the bridge over the Four Mile River.
Roughly half an acre on the Old Lyme side of the river has been undergoing phased archaeological surveys since late that same year.
The home of a 19th century sea captain once occupied the site, according to the archaeologists conducting the survey.
A request to the state Department of Transportation made Wednesday for details on scope of the bridge replacement project – including an estimated timeline and any anticipated road closures – was not fulfilled by press time.
A report documenting the first two phases by Mansfield-based Archaeological and Historical Services, Inc. was obtained by the Day, but is not publicly available. Federal law allows agencies to withhold documents relating to the nature and location of permitted archaeological sites.
The firm was contracted to do its investigation after the state Department of Transportation’s environmental planning division requested a review of the site’s “archaeological sensitivity,” according to the report.
The third and final phase of the firm’s work began this past September on a patch of lawn where the homestead of a 19th century working class mariner and farmer once stood.
Mary Guillette Harper, president and owner of Archaeological and Historical Services, said in a phone interview Friday that “thousands and thousands” of artifacts are being transported from the sandy soil on the western banks of the river to her laboratory in Storrs.
There, Harper’s archaeologists will clean, identify and catalog the artifacts. Then they can start “putting together the pieces” of history, she said.
“Because when you’re in the field and you’re pulling out broken shards of pottery, there’s no time to say ‘hey, let’s see if it all fits back together’ because stuff is shattered and it’s all over the place,” she said. “But back in the lab, you can start to do that.”
Kate Reinhart, an archaeologist with the firm, was at the site this past week as staff members spent the final month of the project digging into a largely untold story. She said details of the kind of artifacts they’d discovered are being kept under wraps until the excavation is complete.
“Basically we’re just here to investigate the remains of a 19th century sea captain’s house,” Reinhart said. “Captain John Waite.”
She was one of several staff members wearing reflective vests atop winter coats as the wind blew over trenches where displaced earth revealed to them evidence of a “middling mariner” family more than 200 years ago.
Harper said the site is important because it tells the story of the mariner-farmer: A combination of hardscrabble livelihoods common at the time but invisible in most history accounts.
“If you’ve been around Old Lyme, you can see some really fancy sea captain mansions,” she said. “This was not that kind of ship captain.”
A filing with the Connecticut Historical Commission appended to the report detailed the site’s significance.
“Many families in 18th- and 19th-century Connecticut, especially those living near the coast and along tidal rivers, combined seasonal farming and maritime activities in their household economies,” the document said. “Despite the great scale and scope of Connecticut’s maritime history, very few domestic sites of this type have been identified archaeologically.”
Harper said the effort to recognize the site as historic included the DOT’s Office of Environmental Planning and the State Historic Preservation Office. Both of those agencies concurred with the archaeological firm’s determination that the site was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
“If a site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, that says it’s very significant in terms of what kind of information it can tell us about the past,” she said.
When it comes to archaeological matters like this, Harper said it’s eligibility – not actually applying for and being added to the National Register – that matters. That’s because a site only has to be determined to be “National Register-eligible” by the State Historic Preservation Office and the DOT’s environmental planning office in order to incur all the protections that a National Register-listed site gets, according to the archaeologist.
US law governing highways requires “all possible planning to minimize harm” if there is no feasible alternative to preserving a historic site as part of a federally-funded project.
But Harper said strict federal standards and topographical constraints left the DOT engineers without room to deviate from their original design for the bridge replacement.
“So I think they were pretty much trapped,” she said of the agency. “They could pretty much only go right where they’re going now.”
So the archaeologists are stripping the site in order to preserve it, according to Harper: “It’s not in the ground anymore, but all the information is being taken away.”
Old Lyme Town Historian John Pfeiffer, an expert in the history of the local Nehantic Tribe, said this week he was surprised “that they came in without any notice” to the town historian or the historical societies.
“They have basically kept us out of the loop,” he said. “We could have been in a position to assist them in documentation at the very least.”
Harper acknowledged Pfeiffer’s concerns when she said her team’s arrival “is usually something the municipal historians find out about when we get there.”
She said state guidelines don’t mandate or encourage coordination with local historians “because it’s really a state project.”
Pfeiffer lamented the communication gap.
“It is unfortunate that when cultural resource studies are carried on in various communities that are most interested in their own histories, the data derived from studies rarely makes it back to the local agencies and societies,” he said.
A 2021 list of pending bridge projects from the DOT put the cost of the replacement at $7.3 million to be covered by federal and state funds. Construction was estimated then to begin in 2023.
DOT’s online bridge database rated the overall structure of the 1982 bridge as poor.
Both Old Lyme First Selectman Tim Griswold and East Lyme First Selectman Kevin Seery said they hadn’t been updated on the status either. Both recalled that an initial presentation indicated the project would allow one lane of traffic to remain open throughout to eliminate the need for a detour due to road closure.
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