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Archaeologists Unearth Remains of 18th Century Maine Fort
06/05/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Rooks

For decades, an important piece of Maine history sat buried under the front yard of an old farmhouse in Richmond - hidden, for years, beneath a flower garden. When archaeologists finally discovered the site in 2010, it set off a race against the clock. And time is almost up. Jennifer Rooks has more.

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Arch dig 5

The remains of an 18th century fort take shape beneath a yard in Richmond, as archaeologists comb through the site.

Right near the banks of the Kennebec River, on Front Street in Richmond, more than a dozen people are wielding shovels, brushes, sifters, and trowels, combing through wet clay.

They're uncovering the remains of an 18th century fort called Fort Richmond. And they have to work fast, at least by archaeological standards.

"We are certainly racing against time," says Leith Smith. "It's been sort of rescue archeology, which is a term that's been around since the 60s. This is very much a rescue project trying to gather as much information as we can.

Arch dig 6Smith, with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, is in charge of the dig. He and his crew have until mid-June - or maybe July, if they're lucky - to finish it. That's because this summer, the state will begin building a new bridge over the Kennebec (the old bridge is in the background, right). And the new road will go right over the Fort Richmond site.

"It's 80 years old. It's lived its 75-year-old bridge life," says project manager Nate Benoit. Benoit says the old bridge - a steel truss bridge - is corroding, and is too narrow for modern traffic.

"This is a critical crossing," he says. "It's over the Kennebec, it's a long way around. North all the way to Gardiner and all the way down to Bath and it's important to the communities to use this bridge."

Fort Richmond had three incarnations. First, it was a military garrison, designed to protect new landowners.

"When the first garrison was built in 1721 by the Presumscot proprietors they were attacked, but we don't know what that attack meant - whether the Indians yelled obscenities at them or they fired at the fort or approached the fort in a big group and then ran away," Leith Smith says. "But needless to say in 1721 and 1722, the fort was, in theory, attacked."

Arch dig 9After that, the Massachusetts General Court approved construction of a larger fort, which was built immediately. Seventeen years later, in 1740, the British fortified a number of defenses, and built the final Fort Richmond.

But until now, much about Fort Richmond was a mystery. Historians knew the location of the final site, but had not found the first Fort Richmond, or the garrison. What they discovered during this dig is that they are all in the same place.

Lee Cramner used to be the head of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and has come out of retirement to get in on the action. "The structure of the fort itself is pretty amazing," Cramer says, "and the way they built one fort on top of the other and move stuff around it's quite a challenge to cypher it out and figure out what's going on."

Arch dig 7Archaeologists have so far unearthed walkways, walls, a cistern, chimney bases, cellars. But Leith Smith says they haven't found many artifacts. "And, in fact, the fort itself was kept very clean during its existence - a sort of military cleanliness I guess."

Most of the interesting artifacts - ceramics and pipes - appear to come from the 1800's, when the Parks Family lived here, and used the fort's abandoned cellars as a convenient place to dump their trash.

Smith is still hopeful that his dig group will find privies or trash pits associated with the fort, but time is running out. The old bridge can be seen from the site and serves as a constant reminder that soon, any digging will have to stop.

"We've got basically a month left," says Leith Smith, "and still lots of ground to uncover and lots of questions to answer."

MPBN volunteer Lucas Randall Owens produced this piece. Thursday, June 6, on Maine Calling, you can learn more about archaeology in Maine. Leith Smith and archaeologist Bruce Bourque from the Maine State Museum will join MPBN's Jennifer Rooks to answer your questions about this project and others in Maine. Maine Calling airs tomorrow at 12:15 on MPBN Radio.

Photos: Jennifer Rooks


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