Archaeologist Excavates 250-Year-Old House

For three years, Sheila Charles slowly chipped away at the Chase House Site, a historical structure built in 1762 in Portsmouth, N.H., to see what the former kitchen, barn and privy could tell her about life in the community 250 years ago.

Charles, an archaeologist at the Strawbery Banke Museum, also located in Portsmouth, explored the social and economic characteristics of the Chase House community in her presentation on October 16 at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology.

According to Charles, the house, named after former occupant Stephen Chase, one of the wealthiest merchants in Portsmouth, remained in his family until 1881, after which it was converted into an orphanage.

Charles drew her conclusions about living conditions at the Chase House from the artifacts she discovered during her excavation of the site, which lasted from 2008 to 2011.

She said that her most important discovery was a privy pit near the building, in which she found artifacts that provided key information on what life was like at the house, including clues to the diet, health and waste management habits of the house’s inhabitants.

Charles also found a trash deposit adjacent to the pit filled with kegs and goods the Chases collected as merchants.

“[The site did] not surprise me but interested me, in the element that even the privy itself reflects their economic status,” said Charles. “It’s not just the ceramics… the trade network [is] reflected there.”

Before beginning the excavation, Charles conducted research by browsing journals and historical accounts of the town in order to find genealogical records that she could later match to the physical evidence she found at the site.

“My main mission in excavating the Chase House Site was to ensure that we identified any archaeological features and artifact deposits, which might be disturbed by any landscaping, construction or relocation of an outbuilding to this location,” Charles wrote in an e-mail to The Phillipian.

Charles said that she enjoys the distinct challenges presented by different archaeological sites.

“Each site is so different… you really just try and draw the stories out: who were the people, what were they doing, how did the structure reflect… their status [or] their ethnicity and what does that tell us? So each one’s a challenge. They often call [archaeologists] ‘detectives of the past.’” said Charles.

“I thought Sheila Charles gave an outstanding lecture. She has a really engaging, conversational style–she drew us into the story of the Chase House at Strawbery Banke, and, of all things, the history and archaeology of the privy,” wrote Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody, in an e-mail to The Phillipian.

Charles’ presentation was sponsored by the Northeast Chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society (MAS), which meets monthly at the Peabody.