April 18, 2019
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Archaeologists dig up Surry homestead belonging to family among earliest European settlers

SURRY, Maine — A team of budding archaeologists is working to uncover the period of European settlement in Hancock County, one painstaking trowel stroke at a time.

The students, led by professor Ben Carter of Muhlenberg College, are excavating what they call “the Joy/Flood site,” a mid- to late 18th century home on Weymouth Point, occupied first by Nathaniel Joy, son of Benjamin Joy, who founded Ellsworth in 1763. The modest plot later was occupied by Dominicus and Elizabeth Flood and their nine children from 1786 to 1811.

Though the building is small — it would hardly be called a “camp” today — Carter said the site is shedding light on the lives of a moderately successful family by the standards of the time.

“This is a middle-class home,” said Carter, who grew up in Hancock County. “This was a good, solid, successful family.”

His head in the past

To be a successful archaeologist, one has to imagine the site being excavated as it was, Carter said. This home was likely one story, possibly with a loft. The root cellar — all that remains today — would have been full of curing meats and possibly even brewing beer.

The walls and floors likely would have been made from wood boards produced at the sawmill created by Dominicus Flood’s father, Andrew Flood, deeper into Surry. The Union River, a few hundred feet from the homestead, would have been the major artery for goods and travel. The Floods likely owned a small boat, used for both travel and fishing, Carter said.

“A lot of people from this period are talked about as farmers, and I don’t disagree,” he said. “But these people would not have had a single occupation.”

Artifacts found have included sherds of ceramic cookware and china, bone-handled utensils, slate pencils and a huge stockpile of contemporary brick. The team also uncovered fish and cattle bones in the cellar, which indicate the settlers’ diet.

While property records of the time mention only the men’s names, Carter said the stories uncovered at archaeological digs are most often women’s.

“I don’t mean to say that men are absent, but they are often outside the confines of the home,” he said. “When we excavate a house, we’re most often seeing the lives of women and children.”

A family connection

Carter first was made aware of the site by Stan Richmond, a Surry resident whose family is said to be descended from the Floods. Carter had wanted to dig up a prehistoric site on land owned by Richmond, but the dig didn’t pan out.

But Richmond recalled a site from his childhood, on his parents’ land on Weymouth Point. He’d be out in the woods, picking blueberries or whatever else, he said, and he could see the spot where the building used to be.

“The old wives’ tale is that the door in our house is the same door that was on this house all those years ago,” Richmond said.

In 2008, Carter and a team scratched the surface of the place, and the professor was fascinated. He began digging into the historical record to discover who had lived there. The earliest deed he could find was from the sale of the property by Nathaniel Joy to the Floods in 1786. The fact that no earlier record existed made him suspicious, Carter said.

“We think Nathaniel Joy was basically squatting,” he said. “Squatting was very common back then, and there were actually fairly extensive squatter’s rights.”

A survey from 1773 indicated that someone named Joy — either Nathaniel or his more well-known father — owned the land at the time, and that there was a settlement. But Carter said the land could have been occupied before then.

Carter and a team of students have come back to the site in 2011, as well as this year, and continue to excavate the site. There’s still a lot to be found, he said. This summer, they’ve uncovered what appears to be an addition wall, showing a side of the house that may have been expanded at one time.

Early maps also indicate another building nearby, which Carter hopes to find. But the real holy grail, he said, would be the latrine.

“Latrines are an archaeological goldmine,” he said. “People threw all kinds of things away in their latrines.”

For now, Richmond is just happy to see all the activity at the long-gone home. He said he hopes to someday have the fully excavated site available for the public to see, to learn about the region’s pioneer history.

“It’s wonderful opportunity, having all these young people working here,” he said.

The thrill of discovery

The students — mostly young women — working at the site run the gamut from incoming sophomores to recent grads. Some come from Carter’s school, but others are students elsewhere, working at the Surry dig site to gain hands-on experience.

Megan Postemski, a recent graduate from Muhlenberg College, is on her second trip to the Joy/Flood site, having come first in 2011. She said one can spend hours digging and finding little, but the excitement never fades. After all, she said, each time you run a trowel over the dirt, you might find something.

And sometimes you do.

Postemski was digging near the area suspected to be the kitchen when she saw something unnatural. That’s the first step: This is unnatural, it was left here by man.

It turned out to be a bone-handled spoon or knife (it’s too corroded to tell for sure), but she didn’t know at the time.

“It was sticking out and I could see it was bone,” she said. “You start to get so excited, but you still have to go slow,” so as not to risk damaging the artifact.

Carter and company can tell a lot about the family who lived there based on what kind of ceramic pieces they find. Every family had red, unfinished earthenware for cooking. Some families also had nicer, white, decorative ceramic, which came from England.

The fancier stuff was used for serving food by those who could afford it. The more nice ceramic sherds found at a site, the higher the assumed socioeconomic status of the family who lived there. The Floods have an amount commensurate with a well-off, though not wealthy, family.

Regional importance

The dig is taking place as Ellsworth prepares to celebrate its sestercentennial, the 250th anniversary of its founding. Benjamin Joy and Benjamin Milliken founded the city when they established the first sawmills and settlements in 1763.

Aside from that basic fact — who built the sawmills in Ellsworth and when — not a lot is known about the first Europeans who settled this area, Carter said. There is even some evidence to suggest that Joy built his homestead in Surry, near the dig site, and not in Ellsworth.

Still, Carter said the site is of immense importance to the entire area. These are, after all, the “original” European Down Easters.

“This is just as exciting to the founding of Ellsworth” as it would be if it were discovered within the modern city limits, he said. “If we found Benjamin Joy’s house, it would look exactly like this.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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