AUGUSTA — A crew of archaeologists and other diggers armed with shovels, trowels, dustpans and clipboards is taking advantage of the replacement of palisades at Old Fort Western to try to find the fort’s old privy and other clues to the historic property’s story.

The privy — an outside toilet area — could be a treasure trove of artifacts discarded and relatively well-preserved in their otherwise unglamorous landing spot.

And they’re not just looking for the privy, but also for anything hiding underground that can help them better understand what the original fort was like. Linda Novak, director and curator of the fort, said they’d be thrilled if they were to find it or the trash pit. Both could provide better clues about fort life than the smaller pieces found previously at the site.

Most of the artifacts found over the years at Old Fort Western are “sheet scatter,” left from discarded items being thrown on the ground, where they were walked on and broken up to the point the items can’t be reassembled.

“Once something is discarded, if it’s left alone, you can put it back together,” Novak said. “Once it’s walked on, you’ll never get it back together.”

Novak said privies, trash pits and wells are good finds at historical sites because they were often — once their original purpose was discontinued — filled in with trash or whatever else people wanted to get rid of.

At Fort Halifax in Winslow, for example, the privy and trash pit provided pieces of bottles, plates and other items large enough that experts were able to piece many of them back together. She said the nature of the contents of pit toilets and wells also provides artifacts with a soft landing spot and helps preserve them to be dug up later.

“You get wonderful preservation. You get leather, wood,” Novak said of potential privy finds.

ORIGINAL SPOTS

So far, neither the privy nor many artifacts have shown up in the dig, which has been underway for about two weeks. They have found the location of the original palisades of the 1754 fort, which were about a couple of feet inside of where the most recent palisades, installed in 1988, was located. Palisades are fences made of wooden stakes.

Lee Cranmer, a former Maine Historic Preservation Commission archaeologist from Somerville in charge of the dig underway at Old Fort Western, said they started looking for signs of the old palisade posts where the more recent posts were installed in 1988, expecting to find them in the same spot. Instead, the ones dug up so far on the Kennebec River side of the fort were a couple of feet inside the newer wall.

“Either they intentionally missed it, or they measured wrong,” said Cranmer, who has dug extensively at Fort Halifax in Winslow, which was supplied by the fort in Augusta. Both forts were established for the purpose of defending the land claimed by the English along the Kennebec River valley from possible attack by the French and their Native American allies.

The palisades at Old Fort Western are being removed because they are rotten — some of them so much they were tied together to keep from falling over.

They’ll be replaced with similar cedar post palisades. Novak said some aspects of the fort will change when the new walls are put in place, to try to more accurately reflect how they think the fort was built originally.

For example, a new double gate will be placed on what is now the back, or Augusta City Center, side of the fort, where there is currently no gate. Novak said it would make sense a gate would have been there, because that side of the fort is closer to where their boats were kept on the Kennebec River than the current gate is.

The existing Cony Street side main gate will be altered but will continue to be the main visitors’ entrance at the city-owned fort.

They haven’t decided for sure whether the new palisades will be placed atop the site of the original ones, or where the palisades were placed in 1988. But Novak said if they can be returned to their original spots, they should be.

She said one of the only resources for knowing the original layout of the 1754 fort is the Johnston map, which was created that same year. The map shows an outline of the fort, with two 24-by-24-foot blockhouses on opposite corners, and two 12-by-12-foot watch houses on the other two corners. It also shows the still-standing original main building on the site, which housed a store and blacksmith shop and is the only remaining original structure.

“Will it be 100 percent correct? No,” Novak said of efforts to return the fort to as much of its original layout as possible. “But it will be as close as we can.”

The surviving original building later became a house. It was converted into tenement housing until, around 1920, it was bought by the Gannett family, fixed up and given to the city to become a museum, which it has been since 1922. The blockhouses at the site now also were built in 1922.

DIG FINDS

Novak said including the palisade replacement and the archaeological dig, the project is expected to cost about $100,000, funding for which is included in the city’s capital improvement plan.

“The current City Council and mayor are very supportive of the fort,” she said.

Aroostook Fence has the contract for the work, and Novak said the company plans to install the new fence in mid-November. If the weather holds out, the work could mostly be done by Christmas, though it has until May to complete the job.

She said the new palisades will be cedar with the bark left on, which she anticipates will look more authentic than the logs being replaced. She said the original palisades were likely built with whatever wood was available nearby.

The roughly half-dozen diggers paid to work on the site worked methodically on a recent sunny day, removing layers of soil with shovels, then doing more detailed work with trowels or by hand as they carefully scraped back dirt to see what it might reveal. Some of the dirty-kneed workers, whom Cranmer said were all experienced in the field, used dustpans to collect dirt from the pit they were working in, tossing the dirt off to the side onto a pile, where it was later sifted through for any artifacts.

They placed artifacts, including a pig’s tooth, nails, pieces of glass, bits of pottery, at least one tobacco pipe and other small items, in plastic silverware trays, to be documented and bagged up later.

By last week they’d finished their work on the riverside palisade site, where they went down about 4 feet, and had moved to the opposite side of the fort, where a garden is going to be expanded, to start a smaller dig.

Cranmer, who is also on the fort’s board of trustees, said they’d seen some features in the 1-foot-deep garden dig that indicated something might have been there.

“We don’t know what — yet,” Cranmer said.

Tim Dinsmore, a historical archaeologist from the midcoast area working in the garden pit, pointed out an easily visible, much darker section of soil running diagonally across the pit. He said that suggests a trench.

“The soils are excellent here,” Dinsmore said. “The features just pop right out.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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