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Courtesy photo by David McKean
The archaeological dig in the yard of St. Patrick Church in Lowell, Mass., shown Wednesday, July 18.
Monday, July 23, 2012

Digging very, very slowly in a Lowell churchyard tells something about Ireland

David Brooks

Archaeology, as we all know, is exotic work done by exotic people in exotic locations finding exotic stuff – like, say, a Pelham High graduate scraping dirt in downtown Lowell to find really old bricks.

Not exactly Indiana Jones, you say? Shows what you know.

“No one gets excited about a piece of brick or coal, or a thimble, but to me it is cool, because it’s been there for 150 years,” said Ami Krawczyk. “I love being the one that’s there when they rediscover something that’s been buried that long – being able to touch it and hold it, actually feel what it’s like, try to decipher what’s written on it before it’s shipped off to a museum or storage.”

All this is also cool to the international project, which for three summers has been carefully excavating trenches in the lawn of St. Patrick Catholic Church on Suffolk Street in Lowell, Mass., seeking details about the lives of Irish immigrants who came up from Boston to dig that city’s now-famous canals.

“The lawn is good, because there’s been no settlement here since 1870 or thereabouts,” said Prof. Colm Donnelly, director of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, who is overseeing the project, now in its third summer. Four Irish archaeologists and three American students, plus other helpers including Dave McKean of Nashua, who teaches at Birch Hill Elementary School in Nashua and is the parish historian at St. Patrick Church, are involved.

The idea of the project is to cast more light on the lives of Irish community in Lowell and their connections to their home country. The church is fertile ground for a dig because it’s relatively undisturbed.

When the first 30 Irish laborers came to Lowell in 1831, they settled on a field where the church is now. Eventually, a few hundred arrived, and the bishop allowed a wooden church to be built.

By mid-century, several thousand Irish were living there, so the parish bought the property and built the current handsome stone St. Patrick Church. It served as a center of the region’s Irish population until, in an only-in-America twist, it become center of one of the county’s biggest Cambodian populations.

Archaeologists are interested in the site because when the area was prepared for the new church, remnants of old settlements were covered by soil. They have been buried – i.e., preserved – ever since.

Krawczyk, a 2008 Pelham High graduate who will be a senior at UMass-Lowell this year, decided to help dig them up because she’s a history major who wants to work in museums, and figured she should get a look at where museum artifacts come from.

She spent last week sweating in the heat while helping excavate meter-deep trenches slowly – very, very slowly.

“It would be so much easier if we took a backhoe to it. We could be done in one scoop,” Krawczyk joked during a telephone interview last Thursday.

In the anal-retentive methodology that marks all field archaeology, the process has involved scraping up soil, a few centimeters at a time, recording everything in staggering detail, then sifting the dirt through a special grate to separate out the interesting bits.

“We go carefully with a trowel, through each layer of soil, doing trench drawings as you go. You can see the color changes in the soil as you go down,” she said.

The items they’ve found so far wouldn’t excite passers-by, who tend to ask, half-jokingly, about buried treasured. They have been the minutia of existence: thimbles, buttons, clay pipes, “a couple of doll’s arms - very small, porcelain, probably about an inch long.”

This is exciting to modern archaeologists they help reconstruct daily life, something that history isn’t always good at recording. Finding gold in Tutankhamun’s tomb is all very well, but it doesn’t tell anything about the other 99.999 percent of the world at the time; for that you need to dig up old rubbish dumps and long-forgotten homesteads.

Another trench, dug because ground-penetrating radar spotted something interesting, found a big stone cover to what turns out to be a well used by the community.

“We thought it might be a cistern, but it’s a well that still has water in it,” said Donnelly.

In August, Krawczyk will go to Northern Ireland to participate in a similar project involving the home village of Hugh Cummiskey, leader of the original group of 30 Irish laborers brought to Lowell by British industrialist Kirk Boott.

Boott’s name lives on in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum that is part of the Lowell National Historical Park. Since Krawczyk hopes to work in that museum, the connection is a happy one.

It also demonstrates the range that archaeology can produce, stretching across the ocean even as it peers closely into small, careful holes.

The dig has been chronicled in a blog by Dave McKean. The blog, called LowellIrish, can be seen at http://irishlowell.blogspot.com/

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).