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New Discoveries - And New Questions - At Chatham Archaeological Dig Site

Brian Morris/WCAI

Last year, archaeologist Craig Chartier and his team of volunteers located the site of the original Chatham homestead of William and Anne Nickerson, two of the earliest European settlers in the area. The high point of last season was the discovery of the homestead’s original hearth. They expected the rest of the house to be fairly small.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Craig Chartier is the lead archaeologist at the Nickerson dig site in Chatham.

“It was just William and Anne who were here. They were in their 60s. It seemed like their retirement home – so we started from there and we started excavating out, and we found that the walls just kept going and going and going,” said Chartier. “Eventually we had a 40-foot long house by about 24 feet wide, so it’s like the first Cape Cod mansion down here.” 

Chartier and his team began digging trenches in other parts of the yard to see if they could find remnants of any other buildings. Almost immediately, they found a large pit filled with shells and animal bones and pottery, all dating back to the 1660s.

“So we started expanding around that. Next thing you know we’ve got this hole that measures probably about 15 feet by 15 feet,” said Chartier. “That ended up going almost 4 feet below the surface. What we found is what we think might be the actual privy. We found a lot of trash in it, and once we got down to the bottom, we found there were actually postholes for wooden walls.”

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
This is a remnant of a wooden post - part of a palisade, or protective wall, possibly built to guard against attack from Native American tribes.

The postholes are this year’s most fascinating find. Chartier theorizes that the Nickersons may have built a wall, or palisade, around their property to defend against possible Indian attack, most likely during the 1670s, at the time of King Philip’s War.  

King Phillip’s native name was Metacomet. He was the son of Massasoit, the sachem who made a treaty with the Pilgrims in the 1620s. But by the 1670s, the goodwill between the native tribes and the descendants of the original Pilgrims had evaporated – and the tribes wanted to drive the English out of New England. Fierce fighting broke out, but it was mainly confined to the mainland. Still, it may have been the reason for constructing a palisade. 

“You can just imagine that someone like William Nickerson living out here, which is basically the edge of nowhere – they were the only families that were living out here in what’s now Chatham. He probably wasn’t really sure about his Native neighbors, ‘cause you never knew what they might be thinking. Maybe he felt that with all the actions that were happening on the mainland there, that possibly something could happen here, so better to be safe than sorry,” said Chartier.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
These bags contain soil samples from the Nickerson site.

Chartier trains his volunteers to recognize the significance of the small objects they find in the soil, like seeds or fish bones – each a piece of a puzzle that can tell the story of the people who lived here. 

Bruce Brockway volunteers with Chartier, and said he’s found a number of interesting objects while sifting through the soil.  

“We found a Native American paint pot, and it had red ochre dye in the bottom of it. We found lots of colonial artifacts: tools, buttons,” said Brockway.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Volunteer Bruce Brockway searches for clues by running soil through a sifter.

There are other, non-archaeological clues to the life of William Nickerson. 

“William Nickerson liked to sue people a lot. And some of the things we find in the court records that he was doing was making tar on the property, possibly also making turpentine on the property, because he was paying people to do those things, and then he sued ‘em for driving over his fields, for leaving wagon wheel tracks in his fields,” said Chartier. 

The Nickerson dig has ended for this season. Now comes the un-glamorous work: cataloging, archiving, and photographing every single artifact from the dig. Chartier hopes to be back with his team next year to continue exploring the site.