Brandeis students digging up Concord’s hidden history

Looking for clues about a farm’s former inhabitants, from Native Americans to German prisoners of war

Photos/Mike Lovett

Left to right, Emilia Boess, Erik Howden and Jennifer du Breuil conduct a survey at McGrath Farm in Concord, Massachusetts

Brandeis students plan to literally dig up the untold story of one America’s most historically significant towns this semester.

McGrath Farm, a former part of the Colonel James Barrett Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, which served as an arsenal for the Concord Militia during the Revolutionary War, is the site of an archaeological dig conducted by professors Andrew Koh and Travis Parno and their students.

“When people hear ‘Concord,’ they think Revolutionary War and transcendentalism,” said Koh, assistant professor of classical studies and anthropology and the Florence Levy Kay Fellow in Chemistry. “But oral history says there could be more going on here.”

The Barrett Farm’s connection to the Revolutionary War is well documented. On April 19, 1775, the British army set out on its march from Boston to Concord to seize munitions and military supplies, including those believed to be stored at Barrett’s Farm. The British were met with armed resistance in Lexington and Concord in what would be the first skirmishes in the Revolutionary War, made famous decades later by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” commemorating the “shot heard ‘round the world” at the North Bridge.

According to local lore, freed slaves, Italian and Irish immigrants and German prisoners from World War II attended to the farm in the years following the Revolutionary War. Native American fire pits and stone tools give silent testimony to an even much earlier history.

It is this lesser known history that attracted Koh and Parno, who is a lecturer in anthropology, to the site.

“We want to talk about the other things going on here in Concord,” said Koh. “And it’s not just about digging things out of the ground in the short term. It’s about doing it right: conserving things properly, studying them properly and storing them properly so they can be available to future generations.”

Students in Parno’s and Koh’s courses, “Archaeology in Theory and Practice” and “Materials and Methods in Archaeological Chemistry,” respectively, started working the site in early September and will continue on the dig as long as weather permits. The teams have been working three sites on the 10-acre property and already have found ground stones, ceramic sherds and a dateable milk bottle that will help shed insight on the farm’s inhabitants following the Civil War. At the southern end near the Assabet River, they expect to find signs of Native American activity and a dairy barn connected to the Middlesex Central Railroad that ran through the parcel.

“I want to pursue a career in archaeology, possibly in a museum or something along those lines, so this opportunity is incredible,” said Savannah Bishop, a junior from the D.C. area. “It’s so cool. It’s a hands-on and interactive experience.”

Koh’s Concord connection – he is a Concord resident, a member of the town’s historical commission and chair of its archaeology advisory committee – paved the way for Brandeis students to have such a hands-on experience so close to school.

The project, which has been over two years in the making, is a joint venture between Brandeis and the town of Concord. Both Koh and Parno want this to be a sustained venture for future students, as well as a blueprint for other cities and towns to follow. Concord voiced its strong support last April in town meeting by allocating $10,000 from its Community Preservation Act Fund to implement the project.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” said Koh about the partnership between Brandeis and Concord and the opportunity it affords the students. “I have to thank the town, as well as Brandeis and the full support we have received from Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren, our departments and Experiential Learning and Teaching at Brandeis.”

Experiential Learning and Teaching, which has provided vans to transport students from campus to Concord, aims to help students deepen what they learn through active learning and reflective processes that connect theory to practice and facilitate the synthesis of new ideas.

“It’s not just about the digging or the classroom reading,” said Daniel Langenthal, the director of Experiential Learning and Teaching at Brandeis. “It’s about helping the students connect and relate what they are learning to what’s happening around them—in this case, connecting the past to the present.”

The artifacts found during the dig will be given to the town of Concord for safekeeping, though Koh is seeking a more permanent place of storage. Both professors have been preaching patience to their students, as the dig is still in its infant stages. But the whole team is marveling at the fact that it’s conducting research in Brandeis’ own backyard.

“It’s phenomenal to have this course offered at Brandeis,” Bishop said. “It’s happening so close to us. All we have to do is hop into one of the university’s Experiential Learning vans and we’re there in minutes. It’s amazing, being able to discover new history.”

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