Spanish piece of eight found at dig near Hamilton House in South Berwick

Posted July 11, 2012, at 5:54 a.m.

SOUTH BERWICK, Maine — “At first I thought it was just a shell,” Whitney Parrish, a University of Southern Maine student from Portland said. “But before I discarded it I sprayed it down with some water and noticed the unique markings.”

And it’s a good thing she wasn’t too quick to act on her initial presumption. As it turns out, her irrelevant “shell” turned out to be something much more significant — and historical.

What Parrish found was actually a silver Spanish coin known as a real or “piece of eight.”

Although the coin has indistinct markings and has been severely damaged from several centuries of weathering, the digits 6 and 8 as well as a cross characteristic of Spanish coins from the 1600s and early 1700s indicate it is most likely from this time period.

“From a historical and archaeological perspective, this is a pretty interesting discovery,” Parrish said. “On the other hand, all of us have been finding very exciting things throughout the duration of this project,” she said, her gaze directed at a group of volunteers sifting dirt and digging holes.

Parrish and her fellow volunteers are taking part in the Old Berwick Historical Society’s archaeology project directed by Dr. Neill De Paoli, an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College and expert in English settlements and Anglo-Indian and English-French relations in early northern New England.

And while Parrish’s discovery on July 2 is remarkable, it was never part of the project’s original focus.

The coin’s discovery was made on a parcel of land in proximity to the historic Hamilton House in South Berwick. Many believe the site consisted of a 17th-century dwelling and tavern run by Humphrey and Mary Spencer from about 1696 until 1727. Historical documents also suggest this locale contained a fortified garrison which was used during the conflict-ridden late 1600s and early 1700s.

“It was most likely used by citizens during this time period as a defensive structure or stronghold,” De Paoli said. “It was probably retrofitted for protection during the Anglo-Indian Wars from 1675 up to around 1720.”

Although no evidence has been found thus far to indicate the existence of such a stronghold, the team has uncovered foundation stones, clay pipe fragments, and stoneware dishes and flasks.

All these support the theory the site was used as tavern three centuries ago.

So how exactly did this Spanish coin make the journey all the way up to South Berwick?

According to De Paoli, it has to do with a lack of currency in the colonies during this time period.

“A shortage of currency led to Spanish coins making their way into the English colonies after being minted in South America and traded in the Caribbean,” he said. “This find is an example of how an artifact helps tell the story of a region’s economy and people’s livelihood hundreds of years ago.”

Currently, the coin is in the hands of the Old Berwick Historical Society, located at 2 Liberty St. in South Berwick.

As De Paoli and Parrish stressed, the historic information, and not the monetary value, is the goal of the archaeology project.

“History is priceless,” Parrish said.

(c)2012 the Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.)

Visit the Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.) at www.fosters.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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