An archaeology and local history program for Great Salt Bay Community School students will end after 15 years as a result of school budget cuts.
The Phoenix Program, which provides enrichment opportunities for students, funds the archaeology program, but the Phoenix Program was hit hard in a difficult budget process this year.
Great Salt Bay seventh-graders participated in the four-day workshop, which incorporates classroom study and field work, May 20 to 23. The program fits into the grade’s study of Maine history.
The week began with a lecture by local archaeologist Tim Dinsmore about archaeology and how it tells the story of the area and, in particular, of the role of shipbuilding in the early history of Damariscotta and Newcastle.
For the next three days, a small group of students assisted Dinsmore with a dig at the site of the Bryant-Barker Tavern on River Road in Newcastle.
The late 18th century shipbuilder Nathaniel Bryant owned the tavern, which served as a place to conduct business and hold meetings as well as a place to drink alcohol.
The students acted as archaeologists and learned how to map the site, how to excavate artifacts and how to interpret the history of the site using their findings.
This year, the students worked in the front yard of the tavern site. The building itself collapsed many years ago. Dinsmore discovered the site in 2001 and has been excavating and studying it, along with the adjacent Hale site, for more than a decade.
The students uncovered fragments of brick and redware, a common, inexpensive ceramic material; rusty nails and shards of glass, all routine finds at the site.
The dig also turned up some unusual items, including the base of a wineglass and a fragment of an ornate clay pipe, both manufactured in Great Britain.
“The wineglass stem was truly a difficult find, because usually the glass gets smashed in the dirt,” said student Matthew Wilson, who excavated the glass.
The wineglass fragment is the most complete fragment of its kind to be found at the site, Dinsmore said. The pipe fragment is also unique, as it bears a unique pattern he has not previously seen at the site.
Wilson explained how to identify hand-forged and machine-cut nails and how the presence of both can provide clues about the age of the site, as machine-cut nails were unavailable before 1790.
Another student, Keyden Leeman, said the group pauses when they reach a different soil layer because the layers, or strata, can indicate a different time period or historic activity.
The students remove soil carefully with special tools and techniques. “You don’t want to dig down because you could destroy artifacts,” Dylan Soohey said. “You have to keep your trowel level.”
The students use hedge clippers to cut roots. “The reason you don’t yank up roots is because you can destroy artifacts or features,” Leeman said.
The term “feature,” in archaeology, refers to objects like fireplaces or wells that archaeologists excavate and study “in situ” or in place because they are too large to remove from the site without damage.
The young archaeologists sift the soil they remove in a large box with a screen bottom.
“You shake it vigorously, and once most of the loose sand is out, you look for artifacts,” Brianna Farrin and Zoe Hunt explained. “After you’ve picked out almost all of the artifacts, you shake it again, just in case, and then you dump it out.”
Jane Owens, a volunteer who frequently works with Dinsmore at the site and at his Walpole laboratory, said the program “gives kids a connection to their own geography, the social history of the area … what happened before to make it what it is now.”
When you pick up an artifact, “you’re touching it for the first time in hundreds of years and you’re looking at it and interpreting it in terms of the social history of the area,” Owens said. “I think that’s really important, to know what you’re made of.”
The students write about their findings and will give a PowerPoint presentation on the topic in June.
Dinsmore and GSB Phoenix Program Director Alison Macmillan said they would like to be able to continue the program if an alternative funding source can be located.