Excavation of First Baptist Church draws to a close

By
Friday, October 27, 2006

On Oct. 30, students taking AN 160: “Archaeological Field Work” will complete the excavation of the First Baptist Church at 75 North Main St., a project Professor of Classics Susan Alcock and Zachary Nelson, a postdoctoral research associate in anthropology, initiated with the goal of arranging an archaeological dig on local soil.

The project is funded by the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, which is co-sponsoring the excavation along with the Department of Anthropology, according to Alcock, who is director of the Joukowsky Institute.

After a year of preparation and discussion with church officials, students began their dig in September.

In the coming weeks, students in the class will refill the seven holes they have spent the past weeks digging and move indoors to clean and prepare the unearthed artifacts for displaying. In December, the class will return the artifacts to the church along with a full report on its findings.

AN 160, which Nelson teaches, had not been offered in recent years and was reinstated this year in order to give undergraduates hands-on experience in an archaeological dig – a rare opportunity in the Northeast.

“It’s great to have this opportunity right here because most digs take place abroad,” said Carissa Racca ’08, an archaeology concentrator and student in AN 160. “Before the dig I had only seen things like pottery shards in catalogues and books,” Racca said.

The First Baptist Church was selected as the site for the excavation because of its potential to provide students with a “deeper look into Providence’s past,” Nelson said.

The site is of special interest to Racca, who grew up in the Providence area.

“Not only was I learning about something I love – archaeology – but about my own history as well,” Racca said.

“We have enthusiastic students, and they are enjoying discovering things,” Nelson said. The students dug seven holes, each about 3 feet deep, at various locations on the church’s property. They have unearthed fragments of plates and cups, nails, coins, a hair comb and “remnants from church picnics over the years,” Nelson said.

“It wasn’t (as significant as) King Tut’s tomb, but it was important in its own right,” Racca said.

Nelson guessed that the oldest artifacts date back to the early 1800s, not long after the church’s current frame was built in 1775.

“This is one of the few sites in the area of Providence that has remained undisturbed by modern structures,” Nelson said, explaining the importance of excavating the church lawn.

Throughout the digging process, Nelson and Alcock have made an effort to involve the church’s congregation and the Providence community.

“This church has a lot of history within the community,” Nelson said. He has worked with Rev. Michael Burch, the minister of religious education at the church. Burch also serves as an assistant coach for the Brown wrestling team.

“I show up pretty much every Monday watching and observing,” Burch said. “I’ve been watching as they uncover small items.”

In addition to observing the progress of the dig, Burch has acted as a de facto liaison between the Brown excavators and the congregants, who are very interested in the project, according to Burch.

“Every Sunday people are asking what’s going on. I usually make announcements. People are very inquisitive, very excited,” he said. This Saturday, congregants will be invited to the church to aid students in the last stages of the excavation.

Burch added that he hopes the project will help strengthen the relationship between Brown and the church and enrich the undergraduate experience.

“It’s important from the church’s perspective because we want to have a relationship with Brown that promotes the undergraduate experience. We have a great deal of respect for what Brown does and want to contribute in any way we can,” Burch said.

Burch said the church has not yet decided what it will do with the unearthed artifacts once the students finish analyzing them.

“We’ll work closely with Zach Nelson about what to do with the artifacts,” he said. “There’s a pretty good chance that some of the artifacts will be held at Brown where they might be more properly stored. … We want the artifacts to be accessible to anyone who wants to view them.”