Date December 6, 2023
Media Contact

Digging into Providence’s past, Brown’s in-demand Archaeology of College Hill course opens new site

After seven years of excavation at the former site of a 19th-century Providence family home, Brown students have begun searching for artifacts at a new location on campus.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Fragments of pottery, a ballpoint pen and pieces of slate might not look like much to the untrained eye, but the items signify a successful start to excavations at a new dig site for a course at Brown University called Archaeology of College Hill. 

During the fall semester, students in the in-demand course offered by the University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World began an archaeological excavation of a green space next to Brown’s List Art Building, where a 19th-century home once stood at 58 College St. before it was demolished in the 1960s.

Offered every fall for the past 18 years, the hands-on course enables a thrilling learning experience for students like Jace Damon, a junior concentrating in archaeology.

“Having the opportunity to start excavation on a new site is extremely valuable,” Damon said. “It’s rare for undergraduate students to get the opportunity to do this type of firsthand fieldwork as a part of their coursework.” 

Last year, students in the Fall 2022 course wrapped up a seven-year excavation at a plot at the corner of Hope Street and Lloyd Avenue that had been the site of the Sack family house in Providence. In prior years, excavations focused on various sites on or around Brown’s campus, including the Quiet Green and the John Brown House.

Students began their work at the new site in September and have been chronicling their progress on Facebook and Instagram pages. They are digging in four 2-by-3-meter trenches, each of which is believed to contain archaeological materials, such as the foundation remains of former buildings.

Brown senior Tuvya Bergson-Michelson’s favorite experience in the course happened on Saturday, Oct. 14, when local parents and kids were invited to a Community Archaeology Day and participated in the excavation experience alongside Brown students. One young boy was digging with Bergson-Michelson and delighted in his find: a two-pronged metal hook.

Those gathered at the site were eager to pull it out of the dirt. But, in keeping with course methods, Bergson-Michelson asked the boy to pause so they could take photos and record information about the item using a software called Kiosk, developed by Brown archaeologist Laurel Bestock and software developer Lutz Klein.

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the course is learning about Providence — and involving the community in our research,” said Bergson-Michelson, who is concentrating in urban studies. “I also value how we are trying to discover what everyday life was like for people living in this area in the 19th and 20th centuries.” 

Most of the objects students unearthed this fall have been building materials, including bricks, slate and nails — some early finds in an excavation process that’s likely to last for several years.

Digging into the past to find the perfect place to excavate

When it came to identifying the new dig site for this fall, Fall 2023 Archaeology of College Hill course instructor Liza Davis and teaching assistant Leah Neiman, both of whom are Ph.D. students at the Joukowsky Institute, embraced the task.

Davis and Neiman began the search by comparing modern campus maps to historic maps of College Hill that showed where former buildings were located. Then they scouted several sites, looking for locations with potential to yield interesting artifacts that could safely accommodate the approximately 20 students who enroll in the course each semester. 

“It’s not like you can just dig anywhere and find things,” Davis said. 

Once they identified four promising site options — grassy areas on College Hill believed to contain below-ground structural remains of former buildings — a geophysics company conducted a ground penetrating radar survey on each to help determine which would work best for the course. The survey revealed which areas had most potential to yield intact archaeological deposits, and provided assurance that they were free of obstructions, such as gas and water lines.

Informed by the survey, Davis and Neiman determined the best option was a site by the List Art Building. Archival sources indicated that a house was first constructed there in the mid-1800s, with a record dating back to 1840 describing a 34-by-24-foot two-story wooden structure. 

The instructors combed through census records and newspaper archives to learn more. They discovered that the house was later subdivided into apartments, and in the early 1900s it was home to a concert violinist and teacher who advertised lessons in the Brown Daily Herald student newspaper. In the late 1930s, it housed the now-inactive Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, and in the 1940s, it was owned by Armenian immigrant John Arakel Stone, who was referred to as the “official fitter of class jackets” for junior boys at Brown, Davis said. In 1961, the house was sold to the University, and it was ultimately torn down. 

As students in Archaeology of College Hill explore the new site, they are considering a range of research questions: What were the primary construction materials of the house? What types of objects did the inhabitants of the house buy and use? What does the archaeology at 58 College St. reveal about the early 20th-century immigrant experience? 

With the end of the semester approaching, students have stopped digging and are now processing their finds. This year, after years of sorting work in the University’s Rhode Island Hall, the course began using a laboratory space in Brown’s Biomedical Center, which offers a larger and more secure area for cleaning, drying and analyzing artifacts.

The trenches have been sealed until next fall, when a new crew of archaeologists-in-training will continue the search. 

“It’s exciting to still have all this work ahead of us,” Davis said. “Every time the course meets, we are making progress toward learning more about the history of the site.”