July’s First Friday: buried treasure

In 2010 Tom Keyes and his wife bought an 1817 colonial in Sandwich – or at least he thought they did.

At our First Friday Breakfast in July, Tom told us what he discovered about his house, and how it became an archeological site and topic of learning at Sandwich’s STEM program for middle schoolers.

The discovery started during the renovation, when they took down the false ceiling and found hand hewn beams. Tom loves history and knew they would not have been hand hewn in 1817, so they called in a local archaeologist who found a harlequin ceiling, dating the house to pre-1650.

Tom described how architectural details that had been entombed in the ceiling and walls were exposed – roof shakes, 18th century federal corn paper, growth charts from 1876. In one wall, he said, there is a tree holding up an I-beam. Not a piece of a tree – an actual tree with sawn off branches.

They retained the harlequin ceiling and hewn beams, while leaving gunstock beams and pegs for trammel chains exposed, and restoring the prick post.

“This house keeps telling all kinds of secrets,” Tom said. For instance, they call it “the Lincoln House” in town because the swag over the front door is a memorial to President Lincoln. In researching this, he discovered that the woman who owned the house had likely been a light skinned former slave who married an Englishman and moved north to protect her son.

As restoration turned into an extensive preservation job, it became evident that the house began as a 12’x18′ room. The roof was raised later, adding a second floor. They also discovered the foundation dates to about 1810, revealing that the house had been moved. A test hole on the knoll where they assumed the house had originally been produced artifacts. “Historic archaeology is rooting through people’s trash,” Tom said. “The house won’t tell its own story; you have to seek out the answers.”

Finding not much of importance, they backfilled the hole. But then Tom’s 7th grade niece asked if they could have a field trip so they cut another hole, unearthing the house’s original location by Shawme Pond. There they found a 17th century H hearth and a whale vertabrae that had been used as a chopping block – probably from 1650.

There have since been more field trips. Setting up units for students to work with the archaeology team, they found what turned out to be the root cellar of an older house behind what they thought was the original. “Young kids are doing true archeology on a rare 17th century site,” he explained. “[The land] hasn’t been plowed, so it’s intact.”

A year and a half ago Tom formed the North Atlantic Archaeological Collaborative, with the mission of educating. “No one is getting to see what is coming out of different sites,” Tom told us. If something is found on privately owned land, it stays with the property owner and risks being lost. They want to bring it to the masses.

They will be excavating the early 17th century root cellar at the end of the summer. What’s down there? He can’t wait to find out.

As for artifacts, they stopped counting at 9,000. “Every kid that comes finds an artifact,” he said. Artifacts at the site date between 3,000 and 9,000 years old and include a Sir Walter Raleigh pipe – only five of which have been found.

With its view of the pond, the site of the dig would be a tempting place to build a new house, but as Tom says, “I’m not about to build on Cape Cod’s version of Stonehenge.”

Check out this episode of eSteamers with Tom Keyes.

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