Secret Portwalk Dig Yields Buried Treasure
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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SPECIAL HISTORY REPORT:
Portsmouth’s North End is best remembered as the city’s “Little Italy” neighborhood razed by renewal in the 1970s. But 200 years earlier it was a vital colonial neighborhood. Portsmouth welcomed the modern Portwalk development there (hotel, shops, residences) but historians balked when developers told the EPA the land had no historic significance. Turns out it did – big time. Read our special investigative coverage. (Continued below)
WHAT LIES BELOW
A richly detailed study of the city’s historic North End sits on a shelf in a government office in Concord — hidden in plain view.
Filed quietly over a year ago on July 9, 2010, the report of more than 150 pages was commissioned by Cathartes Private Investments of Boston, developer of the new Portwalk project on Hanover Street. The report filed by Independent Archaeological Consulting LLC of Portsmouth has not been publicized. It proves conclusively that the mixed-use development is being constructed in a historically sensitive area that is potentially filled with irreplaceable artifacts from the city’s past. Two phases of the three-phase project — a combination of hotel, shops and residential units — are largely completed. It remains to be seen whether Portwalk’s developers will apply the lessons learned from their own report to preserve whatever lies beneath the final phase, now being planned.
Whatever was buried under Phase I of the Portwalk project is lost; no recovery field work was allowed. But in a highly compressed timetable of only six days in April 2010, archaeologists were given permission to recover artifacts from Phase II, under what is now the Residences at Portwalk, roughly the site of the former Parade Mall. With the clock ticking, trained researchers narrowed their focus from 20 features of historic interest to six, then down to two intact wood-lined privies dating to the mid-1700s. Working quickly amid construction, the team extracted 3,500 artifacts, including one prehistoric American Indian projectile point.
The colonial privies yielded an extraordinary cache of Portsmouth artifacts, according to Ellen Marlatt and Kathleen Wheeler, owners of Independent Archaeological Consulting. There was a wealth of high-end ceramics, according to their report, including Delft, Nottingham and English pottery, salt-glazed stoneware, Westerwald and Chinese porcelain, plus bottle and window glass, nails, pipe stems, shellfish and an array of animal, bird and fish bones. There were 16 leather shoes, boots and parts of shoes in one privy.
This material, when studied by historians, may be extremely valuable to understanding the daily lives of our predecessors around the time of the American Revolution, according to the archaeologists. Most importantly, we know to whom these privies belonged. Marlatt and Wheeler were able to indisputably identify one privy as linked to the home of Col. Joshua Wentworth (1742-1809), a renowned New Hampshire patriot and one of the city’s richest men. Wentworth was, in turn, the grandson, nephew and cousin of the state’s last three Colonial governors, yet he chose to fight against the British in the Revolution.
On the verge of the War of Independence in 1774, the Wentworth family was being torn apart by divided loyalties. That same year, Wentworth married Sarah Pierce, who belonged to another of the city’s most prominent families. He was 32, she was 17. The couple had 14 children, but only four survived into adulthood. Their circa-1770 house was saved from destruction during urban renewal by businessman Harry Winebaum and moved intact in 1973 via the Piscataqua River on a barge to Strawbery Banke Museum. The Joshua Wentworth House on Hancock Street in the South End is now privately owned.
CONTINUE PORTWALK HISTORY DIG
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