Earth Movers

Synthesizing a More Vivid Vision of the Past

James the Printer, a Nipmuc Native American who attended the Indian College at Harvard, got his English name from his mastery of the printing press. As a student at the Indian College, established in 1655 for the purpose of educating Native Americans, James laid the type of the Eliot Bible on the first printing press in America, which was located at Harvard. The Eliot Bible was the first version of the English Bible translated into a Native American language in the British colonies.

During a 1979 excavation of Harvard Yard, archaeologists found the printing press letters James the Printer used to create the Bible. The printing type, which could have been used as early as 1663 to print the first edition of the book, now lives in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology surrounded by other objects that have been unearthed in Harvard Yard.

Objects like these are used by historians and archaeologists alike to try and synthesize a more vivid picture of the past. At Harvard as well as in Boston, the primary reward of archaeological excavations seems to be providing students and volunteers with a historical perspective that written records alone cannot always provide, as well as a powerful, tangible means of forging a connection with the past.


It is an understatement to say that Harvard is rich in history. The University boasts nearly four centuries of students, as well as a vast collection of artifacts and documents they have produced. The Peabody, one of over a dozen museums operated by the University, houses more than 1.2 million objects, ranging from copper buttons worn by Harvard students of yore to intricately woven Paracas textiles. But while the University has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and artifacts, much of the history of the institution itself has been lost to time—for every copper button housed at the Peabody, there are countless others that have not been preserved.


That has begun to change in recent decades, as previously lost artifacts have been unearthed from beneath our feet during excavations of Harvard Yard. Off and on for over 30 years, students and faculty members have been digging in the Yard in search of artifacts traceable to both the College and the Indian College, which was closed and torn down in 1693 due to insufficient enrollment.


The history of student excavations in Harvard Yard began with John D. Stubbs ’80, who opened a dig site in front of Matthews Hall in 1979. It was this dig that brought about the discovery of the printing type used by James the Printer. Excavation work continued in 2005 when Harvard celebrated the 300th anniversary of the building of the Indian College by creating the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project.

The project ultimately took the form of an undergraduate course in the Anthropology Department, “Archaeology of Harvard Yard,” which gives students a first-hand experience in archaeological work using the University’s historic center as an excavation site. “This class focuses on 17th-century Harvard, and in particular the legacy of the Harvard Indian College,” says Patricia Capone, a curator at the Peabody and the current professor of the course. “We are hoping to identify the architectural remains of the Indian College, as well as some of the artifacts of daily life.”

Since its inception in 2005, the course has been offered four more times, with its most recent iteration happening this fall. Tia M. Ray ’12, a proctor in Pennypacker Hall, took the class in 2009. This was an important year for the program—it was in 2009 that the class discovered the first architectural remains of the Indian College. “We were thinking about the way that the archaeology would benefit our knowledge of colonial Harvard, but also what it meant for local tribal communities, specifically focusing on the Nipmuc and Aquinnah Wampanoag communities,” Ray says.

Capone believes that the objects found during these excavations have illuminated students’ understanding of life at Harvard in the 17th century. “It has been interesting so far to note that there isn’t necessarily much difference in the remains of daily life between the Indian College and the other 17th-century buildings at Harvard,” Capone says.

One similarity revealed by the excavations is that enrollees at both colleges were willing to break Harvard’s then-puritanical rules about alcohol and tobacco. During the Harvard Yard digs, students have found a plethora of tobacco pipes and broken wine bottles. The 2009 class used the illicit objects to develop an exhibit that explored their implications for the students’ relationship to rules. According to the exhibit, the European ceramic pipes and the American red clay pipes both speak to the considerable time and resources that students invested in smoking tobacco. Shards of glass from bottles of wine and broken pieces of ceramic ale bottles indicate that students also flouted the University’s strict rules regarding alcohol—a story not often included in accounts of the College’s history.

Capone believes that these findings represent the beginning of a process of discovery that will go a long way toward illuminating the history of the Indian College. “We can now put the Indian College on the map,” she says, “and from there begin to better understand what we’re finding inside the building [and] what we’re finding outside the building, [and] compare its robusticity to other buildings of the time.”


The archaeological footprint of the Indian College and the remnants of students’ debauchery both show how archaeology can offer an alternative story to that provided by historical records. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history, is not an archaeologist but has used the findings of archaeologists to complement information gleaned from historical records.

In Lepore’s opinion, historical records offer only a narrow perspective of the past. “Most of what is interesting in chronicling the lives of ordinary people is not kept,” Lepore says. “Most archives and museums, mostly public places, but sometimes private places, where we keep the chronicle of our lives, [tend] to commemorate and preserve the lives of people who have notable achievements.”

According to Lepore, what was selected for preservation was determined by those with the ability to choose, whether through their positions of power or through their literacy. While such documents provide useful information about the past, they fail to provide a complete picture of the epochs they represent. “Social history is interested in recovering ordinary people’s lives by looking at things they kept for different reasons, like censuses or tax lists or the records of the overseers of the poor in Boston. Those things were kept for purely administrative reasons,” Lepore says.


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