RICHMOND -- Leith Smith and Bill Burgess are digging for buried historical treasure in an otherwise typical, modern-looking front lawn overlooking the Kennebec River.
It's not a pirate's chest full of gold coins and jewels they're after.
The pair, state archaeologists, are digging for history, one shovelful at a time, working to document the site of one, and it appears likely two, Colonial forts.
They're documenting what they believe to be the site of Fort Richmond, which stood from 1740 to 1755, and an earlier fort they believe was on the same site as early as 1721. They're doing so to make way for a new bridge across the river between Richmond and Dresden.
"The main thing is to document it before it gets bulldozed away," Smith said of the artifacts and other evidence of the two old forts which gave settlers to the area shelter from the French and sometimes-hostile Native Americans.
The deteriorated 80-year-old swing bridge that takes traffic across the Kennebec River between Richmond and Dresden is targeted for replacement in 2013.
As part of the preparation for its replacement, archaeologists have been investigating what's beneath the ground at the bridge site. While they are only in the second of likely three phases of work there, they've already found a lot.
"Yeah, this is a cool site," Burgess said.
Historians already had some idea the site on the Richmond side of the bridge was also the approximate site of the second Fort Richmond, built starting in 1740 and standing until it was dismantled in 1955.
Smith, an archaeologist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, believes they have confirmed the location was the site of the 1740 to 1755 fort. He said there also appears to be evidence of rebuilding, of a stone wall built over rubble. That would indicate a period of demolition and rebuilding, which may well indicate that the earlier, 1721 fort may have been on the same location.
As the sun beamed down and trucks and other traffic rumbled over the narrow steel bridge nearby, Smith and Burgess focused on continuing to trace out the remnants of the fort's old palisade walls.
One discovery they've already made is the fort's palisade walls were significantly longer than previous documentation indicated --at least 168 feet -- and still counting -- compared to the previously thought 96 feet, Smith said.
"So the palisade is like twice as long as it was thought to be," Smith said. "And I think I know why."
He said two Indian raids on the fort are believed to have cost the fort dwellers their livestock.
"You can't help but wonder if they extended the palisade walls out, to provide a grazing area for their livestock," Smith said. "Nobody had any idea that was there. That's something new."
Smith said he doesn't anticipate that any archaeology work will slow down the bridge replacement -- even if the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which he hopes will occur.
He said if it is so designated, crews, likely next summer, will work to strip the upper layer of soil away to examine and document the site before it is disturbed for construction of the new bridge, near or on the site of the current span..
"I've been in archaeology all my life, and I don't know of a single project that has been held up," by such research, Smith said.
Friday, Smith and Burgess, himself a Richmond resident, dug a trench a few feet down in the lawn of Jill and Paul Adams, who own the home at the site, searching for evidence of the palisade wall. They've located two corners of the palisades, and hope to find the other two -- and thus determine its perimeter and dimensions, next week.
"If you can define the fort's perimeter, you're golden," Smith said. "Because everything else should be within those palisade walls."
Smith said the Adams' have been very accommodating and supportive of their archaeology work, despite the disturbance to their otherwise well-kept lawn.
In digging at the same site last year, they found artifacts including pieces of imported German stoneware, Dutch tin, glazed ceramics, animal bones, wine bottle glass, bricks, and hand-wrought nails.
They noted most of their work involves examining the different colors and textures within the layers of soils. Soil that has been disturbed -- such as to build a fort wall or building foundation -- is a different color than undisturbed soil.
Courtesy Kennebec Journal
“Treasure – If it’s out there, we’re going to find it!” (Tommy Vawter)
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