While we worked on a number of smaller projects last summer, our big one was an excavation at Orwell Corner Historic Village that spanned nearly two months, beginning in July and wrapping up at the end of August. If you’ve never been, Orwell Corner (part of the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation’s museum system) is a fantastic site that provides a glimpse into life in a late 19th c. agricultural community on PEI, complete with general store/Victorian-era home, blacksmith’s shop, and working barns, and an awesome interpretive center that focuses on the history of agriculture in the area. It’s a very popular site, and a must-visit if you get the chance.
The site we worked on was located behind the interpretive center, and just outside the village. It was brought to our attention by the site director, who had been keeping his eye on it for some time. Consisting of a large depression obscured by vegetation, it certainly looked like a promising site, and although we had only planned to spend 1-2 weeks excavating, we quickly changed our minds when we began to dig in and realized that it was chock full of artefacts. We don’t have an exact number yet, but it’s definitely in the thousands.
At the outset, we weren’t exactly sure what we were excavating; however, subsequent archival research helped to determine that the depression was associated with a house dating back to the 1870s. I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of the research, and say that the house was occupied by numerous families between its construction and the late 1920s, when it looks to have been abandoned. Here is how the property appeared in Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island (1880):
Aside from the wealth of artefacts uncovered, this site proved unique in two other respects. The first is that, for the first time, we’ve actually been able to conduct archival investigation into a site and its occupants, attaching names (no faces…yet) to it. It might seem a strange thing to say; however, the other sites we’ve worked on (Acadian and aboriginal) simply do not present this opportunity. We might know who the people were in a general sense, but with the site in Orwell, we were able to take things to a whole new level. Knowing the names of past inhabitants really helped to enhance the experience, and although we didn’t find any artefacts we can attribute with confidence to particular individuals, the artefacts we’ve found have taken on added significance because of it.
The second thing that makes this site unique is its location. Not only is it situated in a historic village, but it is also extremely accessible to the public, being just off the road on the way into the village. As a rule, the sites we’ve worked on have tended to be in the middle of nowhere (yes, even PEI has those places), and as a result, the public has been largely cut off from archaeology. But at Orwell, this barrier has been smashed to pieces. In the time that we were there, there was almost always a constant stream of visitors stopping by to see what we were up to. Many were content to watch us work and ask questions, but for those who wanted more, we managed to get a bit of a public archaeology program set up, albeit an ad hoc one. Still, it was a great opportunity for us to present our craft to the public, which ranged in age from young children to seniors, our oldest visitor being my then 95-year-old great-grandmother.
This week, we resumed excavations at Orwell for 2013, and have opened it up to the public again. We’ve already had people stop by to visit and try their hand at archaeology, so if you’re interested, be sure to check us out! Here are a number of pictures (field season 2012) to give you a sense of the site and the artefacts uncovered.