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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Digging Dartmouth’s Past?

One writer investigates the digging sites of anthropology class “Archaeological Field Methods: Digging Dartmouth,” in which students excavate what lies beneath Dartmouth’s surface.

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Few who walk past the lawn between Parkhurst Hall and McNutt Hall know that the remains of an 18th-century house lie beneath the grass. According to anthropology professor Jesse Casana, the so-called Brown House, built in 1790, passed through different owners before eventually housing Susan Brown and her daughters from 1850 to 1900. 

“It’s kind of like a Dartmouth matriarch home — a group of people who, because of their gender, are basically not mentioned at all in most of the written histories of the College or the Town,” Casana said. 

Casana said the Brown House reveals “one of the real powers” of archaeology — to highlight the lives of people who are “written out of history or not otherwise included in it.” 

“Archaeology is way more democratic than [the historical record] in that it’s the study of material culture — the things that people left behind,” Casana said. “What’s cool is that everybody leaves things behind whether they’re rich or poor or whatever gender or race they are.”

Though the house was demolished between 1905 and 1910, the basement foundation, cellar and privy were preserved underground. Students in Casana’s class ANTH 50.47, “Archaeological Field Methods: Digging Dartmouth,” have spent the past few weeks excavating the remains to learn about how Brown and people from her time lived. 

The students have worked on three different dig sites: two north of the sidewalk between Parkhurst and McNutt, and one south of it. 

One team of students is excavating an underground root cellar that stood outside the main house. According to Casana, the cellar was traditionally used to keep root vegetables but eventually fell into disuse and became a trash dump. 

“It’s filled with … layers of discarded household refuse, but in that refuse is tons of artifacts, including lots of really cool things that tell us a lot about people’s lives,” Casana said. “If someone were to go through your garbage at home very carefully over many days or months, they could probably learn a lot about you.”

Colleen Halleck ’25 and her group are digging into the interior basement wall of the home on the south side of the sidewalk. 

“Our site has been pretty artifact-sparse so far … compared to the other [sites] because it was more known what was over there versus ours,” Halleck said. “I found a bone handle steak knife yesterday, and I pulled it out [and] I was like, ‘This is insane.’”

Meanwhile, on the north side of the sidewalk, Molly Fried ’25 and her team are excavating the building’s foundation wall. 

“We found a bunch of cool old glass bottles [and] some ceramics,” Fried said. “Right now, we’re still kind of up high. We’re waiting to get to the floor of the basement because that’s where all the good stuff is.”

According to Casana, the “biggest and best-preserved artifacts” are likely located on the basement floor — about 1.7 meters underground — because they were already at the bottom of the house when the demolished material of the house collapsed.

Each student holds a special role in their team to make the dig move as “productively and efficiently as possible,” according to Fried. These roles include a project manager, registrar and artifact specialist.

“I am the science specialist [who works with] faunal and botanical remains, which can reveal a lot to us about the diet or different diseases that have been at Dartmouth,” Fried said. 

This term is the second time the class has been offered. Casana first offered it two years ago in 2022, and students also worked on the Brown House site then but didn’t have enough time to complete the project. 

“This year, I built in this whole series of what I call practicums, which are just additional times for digging,” Casana said. “I’m here a lot, but then the students sort of rotate through in smaller groups.”

According to Casana, he had more say over the selection of the site during the first run of the class but encouraged the students to choose the site this term.

“This time, I kind of let the students get in the driver’s seat on some of that, which I think is a better pedagogical way to go about it,” Casana said. “It sort of gives them more ownership over what we’re doing and why.” 

The student teams developed research proposals for different sites on campus and voted on a final site to excavate. According to Halleck, the students used resources such as Google Maps, digital archival maps and the book “A History of Dartmouth College” by John King Lord to overlay what used to be on campus and determine what is currently accessible without interfering with buildings, gas lines or water lines.

Halleck said there was a “collective rationale” for the Brown House because it was one of the most feasible sites and still held many unanswered questions from the dig two years ago. 

“We felt there was a lot still left to be learned about the Brown House, and so we wanted to kind of contribute to that versus starting another project where we may only get halfway through,” Halleck said. 

Fried and Halleck — who both learned about the class during its first run two years ago — said they were drawn to the hands-on opportunity to practice archaeology. 

“It’s crazy because you think about archeology as maybe something that’s happening over in Greece or in Belize or all these exotic places, but really there’s so much of it that can be done here at Dartmouth,” Fried said. 

According to Casana, there are also opportunities for community members and alumni to participate in the excavation. For example, the class held a community day on May 25 where community members were able to help dig, and will host opportunities for alumni during Reunions Week from June 7 to June 14. 

ANTH 50.47 provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anthropology majors and enthusiasts alike to experience archaeology right here in Hanover. While it may be easy to walk a frequented path without much thought, take a moment to ponder what — and whose — stories the layers beneath the ground can tell.

Correction appended (May 29, 5:56 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the digging sites are located in front of Parkhurst Hall and Robinson Hall. They are located between Parkhurst Hall and McNutt Hall. This article has been corrected.