Overview of archaeological investigations

The first step in the archaeological investigations at the Handy House involved what is called “remote sensing”.  This involves getting an idea of what is under the ground without actually digging. Remote sensing includes ground-penetrating radar, proton magnetometer survey and soil moisture analysis. Although remote sensing cannot always tell the archaeologists exactly what is under the ground, it can show them areas of interest which can be investigated. (Process 1a or 1b).

The next step was for the archaeologists to look at the project plans for the renovations and figure out what areas of the house were going to be disturbed. These areas were also compared to the “areas of interest” located by remote sensing. The areas that were going to be disturbed were given the highest priority for archaeological investigations.

Following this, 50 x 50 cm exploratory test pits were excavated at 5 meter intervals in the areas that were going to be disturbed. All the dirt was screened, and the artifacts were removed and placed in bags. It was important for the archaeologists to excavate slowly and carefully, so they can record how deep the artifacts were found. These test pits were not just used to dig up artifacts, but also to locate historic or Native American features. A feature is an archaeological term for a variety of things that can be found under the ground. A feature could be a concentration of artifacts, the remains of a structure or a Native American cooking hearth, among other things. (process 2)

At the Handy House, a number of historic features were found. The next step was to try to identify these features. This was done by extending the 50 x 50 cm test pits into larger excavation units in order to get a better understanding of what the feature was. The features were not fully excavated, but rather uncovered and documented. (process 3)

After this, the next step was for the archaeologists to work with the Westport Historical Society and their contractors to see if the features could be avoided, and as a result, preserved and protected, or if they would have to be completely excavated and all the information recorded.

Three of the four historic features found at the Handy House were avoided by construction, and preserved for the future. One historic feature, the Handy House Midden, could not be avoided and needed to be fully excavated. The next step in the archaeological process involved opening up a larger 1 meter x 1 meter excavation unit on this feature. Construction is very destructive to the ground, and anything within the ground. However, archaeology is also destructive. The feature is destroyed as archaeologists excavate it. Therefore, it is necessary to excavate a site slowly and carefully, recording all the information. The notes, drawings, photographs and artifacts are all that remain of the feature after it is excavated. (Process 4)

After all the artifacts were removed from the midden, they were cleaned and catalogued in the archaeology laboratory. During the cataloging process, the artifacts were identified, which helped the archaeologist figure out how old the feature was. In the case of the Handy House Midden, putting a date on the feature was a little more complicated. The Handy House Midden is believed to be a “secondary context midden”, meaning that it had been re-deposited from its original location due to early 20th century construction. (process 5)

Finally, after the excavations were complete, the artifacts cleaned and catalogued and the notes were taken, a report summarizing the dig was prepared. This included the archaeologist’s interpretations of the findings at the Handy House, as well as recommendations for the Westport Historic Society in case more renovations or construction needs to be done at the Handy House in the future.