RICHMOND — Archaeologists digging up history at the site of a former Fort Richmond hope their work will help provide a glimpse into the life of a soldier in the 1700s and the answer to a long-standing question about the fort.
The excavations are taking place to make way for the planned new Richmond-Dresden bridge.
The artifacts they dig up in the project are expected — once they’ve been cleaned of the dirt that’s encased them for as much as 300 years — to be cataloged, preserved and curated at Old Fort Western in Augusta.
“We’re trying to learn about fort life, the life of a soldier,” said Leith Smith, an archaeologist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “We have a whole range of research questions we’re trying to answer.”
Among those questions: Was the dig site next to the Kennebec River, near the head of the current Richmond-Dresden bridge, home to just one or both of the structures known as Fort Richmond?
Historians were already confident that the site on the Richmond side of the bridge was the approximate location of the second Fort Richmond, built in 1740 and standing until it was dismantled in 1955.
But evidence dug up by archaeologists at the site recently indicates that it could also be the location of the previous Fort Richmond, in existence between 1721 and 1740. Its location has thus far been unclear.
Smith said some believe that the older fort was farther upriver. But he said they’ve seen indications in the dig so far that both forts were in the same spot at the current dig site, including period artifacts and what appears to be a foundation of a building later filled in and covered in cobblestones.
State archaeologists started the data recovery phase of the project a couple of weeks ago, focusing on and around land where the new bridge is expected to be built, starting next year, just north of the existing bridge. A smaller team worked on the site at least briefly during each of the last two summers, trying to get an idea of what is beneath the ground at the historic site.
A crew of about eight is expected on the site starting this week. Starting around mid-May and continuing into fall, the crew will be looking for volunteers to join them.
“We’ll try to engage lots of volunteers to get involved in the project,” Smith said. “We’re hoping to have people able to help out in the field, doing excavation and screening of the soil, sifting for artifacts. Also, we’ll be doing some processing and washing of artifacts, some in the field and some at Fort Western in Augusta.”
Artifact processing expected to take place at Old Fort Western will be coordinated with Linda Novak, director of the 1754 National Historic Landmark fort, the oldest surviving wooden fort in New England.
Novak said the fort’s board has accepted the proposal to take the artifacts, but it must still be accepted by the Augusta City Council because the items would be stored at Augusta City Center, adjacent to the fort. She goes before city councilors May 10 seeking approval.
The Fort Richmond artifacts would join artifacts already at Fort Western from excavations at the Augusta fort site, as well as the Cushnoc Trading Post, which was south of where the fort now stands in Augusta.
“We’ll store them and make them available for research,” Novak said of the artifacts. “Four forts — Richmond, Shirley, Halifax and Western — were so closely connected. It should be a lot of fun to process the artifacts. It’ll be interesting to see the comparison, between Fort Western and Fort Richmond.”
Smith said he likes the idea of Fort Western becoming a repository for Kennebec River artifacts.
Smith said one significant discovery they’ve already made at the Fort Richmond site is the palisade walls are much longer than previously thought. Thus, the fort is bigger than previously estimated.
He said earlier testing at the site discovered the remains of, potentially, at least eight different structures within the fort site, two of which they are working on now.
They’re looking for clues, in the dirt, as to what each of the buildings was, and who lived there.
“We retrieve these to teach us about the function of the different buildings — looking at artifacts, we can tell the difference between officers’ quarters and enlisted men,” Smith said. “There was supposed to have been an armorer here, he could have a separate trash pile where his stuff was going. Things like bones, food remains, can tell us about what people were eating, which is important.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647