If you happen to drive down Barretts Mill Road in Concord on a Friday afternoon you’re likely to see Brandeis students hovering over holes in the ground or shaking dirt through a sieve. These students are part of two classes at Brandeis that are working together this fall to dig up the untold story of a historic site known as McGrath farm. 

The courses, Archaeological Methods with Prof. Travis Parno (ANTH) and Materials and Methods in Archaeological Chemistry with Prof. Andrew Koh (CLAS) work in conjunction to both excavate and scientifically analyze artifacts from the site. Prof. Parno and Prof. Koh co-direct the dig with fifteen undergraduate students, two graduate students and one teaching assistant. 

Parno has been a professor in the anthropology department since 2013 and has done archaeological work in Virginia, Bermuda and Massachusetts. He also has experience excavating a farm site in Dedham, Mass.

To prepare his class for their first excavation work, he discussed with them what they should be looking for and what they should expect to find.  

“A lot of people don’t realize that once you start digging below the grass, it’s not simply brown dirt all the way down. Soil forms in layers…and we have to be observant … to learn about historical time periods,” Parno explained in an interview with the Justice. “The thing about archaeological work is that you can’t teach it from a book, you really have to get out and experience it — once you’ve done that, it becomes a lot easier to comprehend; it all comes alive.”

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By Mihir Khanna/the Justice

GUIDING AND DIGGING: Prof. Parno, a co-director of the dig, talks to students about finding ash in the soil at operation 1 and how it could indicate that a building was there or that something burned there.

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By Mihir Khanna/the Justice

SOIL SEARCHING: Students from the two courses work together to shake the soil through a sieve and search for pieces of artifacts or fragments.

McGrath farm was previously owned by the Barrett family for nearly two hundred years. Colonel James Barrett was a primary figure in sparking the conflict in the battle of Lexington and Concord. “There’s thought that Colonel James had hid weapons and ammunition on his property, which is actually just across the street from our site,” Parno said. 

The Barrett family sold the farm in 1905 to first-generation Irish immigrants — the McGrath family. According to Parno, in addition to learning about immigration in this period, they hope to find artifacts from several different time periods, ranging from Native American activity to German prisoners-of-war.

“There are people in town who remember seeing German prisoners-of-war, probably from nearby Fort Devens — [a] prisoner of war camp during World War II— actually being out at the McGrath farm working the fields, apparently harvesting potatoes, under the watchful eye of military guards. We’re hoping we might possibly find evidence of their presence on the site,” Parno said. 

One excavation site in particular on the property is in search of evidence of a building rumored to be the bunker for the prisoners of war.   “We’re hoping to find evidence of this building that’s no longer there and at least determine more about what it was, look at any artifacts that we find in it’s vicinity and see what it can tell us about 18th, 19th or 20th century life on the site,” Parno said.  

In the four weeks that they have dug at the site, Prof. Koh’s and Prof. Parno’s classes have found railroad spikes, charcoal and a milk-bottle fragment “that could date from around 1910 to 1947,” placing it during the McGrath era. The milk-bottle fragment, in particular, has the potential to link to either the freed slaves or the German prisoners of war. “We have yet to find any high-density concentrations of artifacts [or] architecture — [but] I think that those sorts of things are definitely in our future,” Parno said. 

Artifacts that are found at the site are the property of Concord and are part of a unique formal agreement between the town of Concord and Brandeis University. Prof. Koh, an assistant professor of Classical Studies with a background of archaeological research in the Mediterranean, is co-director of the dig and a Concord resident. He serves as the chair of the Archaeology Advisory for Concord.  

Concord originally asked Koh to produce an archaeology sensitivity map of the town. At the time, students could only map the findings of other archaeologists, but when Concord purchased McGrath Farm, Prof. Koh proposed a dig to the Historical Committee, the Board of Selectmen and the Town Manager. “They loved the idea,” Koh told the Justice. With the town’s support, Prof. Koh, Prof. Parno and their team applied to Community Preservation Act Funds and received a generous grant to finance their research.

 “Archaeology is wonderful because it gives us the chance to study … this unreported history of the everyday person … as humans ourselves, we are interested in how our ancestors or forbearers lived in the past.” Koh prefers to work in areas where he can make the biggest contribution, and he has found that calling in this historic, previously unstudied plot of farmland.

Professor Koh, Prof. Parno and their students have turned to archaeology and chemistry to find proof to corroborate oral histories and photographs. Referring to the freed slaves, Koh points out, “They’re not in the deeds … so they’re somewhat invisible unless you can get some kind of death certificate or something like that. So we’re hoping through archaeology we can find concrete proof.” 

For concrete proof, Koh told the Justice, “The key is what we call diagnostic artifacts.” The hope for Prof. Koh, Prof. Parno and their students is that “between what we dig up and then everything else, [they] can reconstruct what happened.”

For generations, standard archaeology has traditionally involved observation-based description, but Prof.  Koh’s specialty “is to take that a step further to reveal more about an artifact,” said Koh. 

Through analytical techniques like organic residue analysis or material analysis, archaeologists and chemists can now acquire as much data as possible from a given artifact. “This is absolutely critical … because in this day and age, with time constraints, financial constraints, we’re viewing archaeology as this nonrenewable resource, because … archaeology is destruction … The problem with archaeology is that your data is a one-shot deal. Once you dig it, it’s done. You can’t go back and dig up the same thing again,” Koh said. 

Acknowledging that students’ goals vary and that not all students will necessarily become archaeologists, Prof. Koh hopes they will bring this dig’s lessons to whatever career they choose. 

“At the minimum, we hope that they gain appreciation of the past, because, in this day and age, I think that’s kind of being lost. I think everything’s about technology and the future, but I think it’s very important for us to always look at the past, to see where we’ve come from — we can always learn something from the past,” Koh said. 

A student with a strong appreciation for the past, Erik Howden ’16 is enrolled in both courses and gets to see the excavation process in addition to the scientific analysis process. “I really like the idea of taking both so that I can get a more well rounded sense of the dig … getting to take it out of the ground and then bring it to the tester … and see where it’s coming from. I think it kind of gives you that dream — the full experience of what it’s like being an archaeologist,” Howden said. 

Students are currently in an initial field session creating an archaeology survey. An archaeological survey tries to cover a significant amount of area by digging small amounts in a large area in order to gain an understanding of the archaeological features. Parno hopes that after locating important features they can come back in future seasons to expand the excavation of McGrath farm.

With so much to learn and so much to find, Prof. Koh says that they could dig at McGrath Farm “foreseeably for generations.” “As long as there are research questions and a willingness on the part of Brandeis and Concord for work to be done there, we’ll work there,” Koh said.