Hear the term “archaeology” and what comes to mind? People kneeling in dusty trenches with trowels? Pyramids and bits of pottery? Indiana Jones?
Journalist Marilyn Johnson spent years accompanying archaeologists on their work assignments as she prepared her 2014 book Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, and in her travels discovered that modern-day archaeologists do much more than dig in the sand or dirt for pot-shards or remnants of old tools. Two of her chapters explore the work currently being done that illuminates relatively recent history: the American Revolution.
Today, Newport, Rhode Island is most famous for its Gilded Age mansions and sailing (we go there regularly to sail around Newport harbor, staying right on one of the wharves). But during the American Revolution, the harbor was of strategic importance to the British, one of their last strongholds in the Northeast. When, after the Battle of Saratoga was won by the Americans in October of 1778, the French agreed to formally ally itself with the new nation, the British became deeply concerned that the French navy, second only to the British navy, would try to seize Newport. So, in the spring of 1779, the British naval commander in Newport was ordered to scuttle as many British ships as possible to block most of the harbor from French attack. 13 British ships, of various sizes, were deliberately sunk.
This action was well known by historians of the Revolution, but there have always been some questions about the identities of some of the sunken vessels. By the 1980s, British researchers became particulary curious to find out if one of the ships could be that of arguably the most famous 18th century explorer in British history: Captain Cook, the Brit who “discovered” Hawaii and New Zealand. Cook circumnavigated the globe in his ship Endeavour by 1771; using another ship, he later returned to Hawaii (he called them the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of his chief sponsor, the Earl of Sandwich), where he was killed (and perhaps eaten). What had happened to the Endeavour? Was it one of the ruins at the bottom of Newport Harbor?
A female archaeologist received funding from the state of Rhode Island to research those ruins. Working on a shoestring budget (she had to clean houses in her spare time to be able to afford her rent), she eventually found artifacts identifying one of the ships as being the “Lord Sandwich” – but that was the name the ship was given when that noble had donated it to the British navy at the beginning of the American Revolution. With the help of British researchers who examined old ship registries in London, she learned that Cook’s ship Endeavour had actually been owned by Lord Sandwich- and that was the ship the lord had donated for the war effort.
This was big news back in England – it would be like an archaeologist here finding a canoe used by Lewis and Clark. It gave the Newport archaeologist enough publicity to boost her funding a little bit (she doesn’t have to clean houses anymore!), but her budget is still sparse. One way she raises funds to continue her underwater archaeology is by offering monthly excursions out to the site of the wrecks!
About ten years ago, a real estate developer bought an empty lot next to a pizza restaurant on Route 9 in Peekskill, New York. Historians had suspected for years that this site, located on what was the Peekskill Supply Depot during the American Revolution, might yield artifacts from the 18th century, and under New York State law, the lot had to be examined by a team of historic conservationists. But more than uniform buttons were found (much to the disappointment of the land developer): skeletons were found there. In fact, so many human remains are there that archaeologists and historians now believe that the lot is the largest burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers in the U.S.
I’m familiar with Civil War cemeteries (Gettysburg and Elmira), as well as cemeteries such as Arlington, but what I didn’t know was that the federal government does not fund cemeteries for American Revolution or War of 1812 soldiers. This is a serious problem in states like New York and New Jersey, where many battles were fought in those two wars. And, in fact, despite all of those bodies buried in the Peekskill empty lot (several of which have been identified), there is still little anyone can do to honor those brave men who sacrificed their lives for a new nation.
What these two stories remind us is that history is all around us, not just in museums or historical associations. Old buildings, like barns or houses, can yield troves of information about the way ordinary people lived and died. We can live the way we do because of the way people lived fifty, 100 or even centuries ago. We should not be so quick to dismiss the past as being irrelevant to our lives today.