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Secret Portwalk Dig Yields Buried Treasure


Where to from here?

Will the public get to see the Portwalk artifacts? At this writing, even determining their ownership is controversial. It is not precisely clear, according to IAC, who owns items unearthed from a private site during a project using HUD funds.

As to their current location, Marlatt said, “We are not at liberty to say.”

In response to a series of questions about the artifacts, the two archeology reports, and Portwalk’s treatment of historical resources on the site, the company issued the following statement:

“It is our understanding that Portwalk owns the artifacts. Our intent is to make these available to the public. We are in discussions with a local museum to display them. The Portwalk development has invested a large amount of time and resources into studying the site, including the hiring of locally-based, recognized experts Independent Archaeological Consultants. The site was previously developed and disturbed, most recently during the urban renewal of 40 years ago, which produced the Parade Mall. Portwalk has complied with all applicable federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations including those related to archaeology. It is our intent to continue to do so,” said Scott Tranchemontagne, Portwalk spokesman.

Portwalk did not grant a request to use color photographs of the artifacts with this article, but Feighner said she is quite certain the images are now in the public domain.

Despite Portwalk’s contention that the property was “previously developed and disturbed,” the many experts consulted for this article unanimously agreed with the Bunker report, which states explicitly that bulldozing and other “massive changes” do not necessarily mean that historic artifacts have been destroyed. In fact, the many important artifacts located by IAC were found in a heavily compromised part of the site.

“We’ve got some fascinating information out of just the two privies that they (archeologists) were able to salvage,” Feighner said this week. “But there could have been a lot there if Portwalk had done their due diligence.

“If anyone had supported me when I walked over there and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing,’” she said, then paused and started over. “My support needed to come from the city and the federal agencies, and it didn’t come from either.”

What is clear from the Bunker and IAC reports is that the North End is a historically sensitive area. Originally owned by the Cutt family in the 1600s, the Portwalk parcels are located on high ground midway between the active waterfront and the formerly active North Mill Pond. The area, according to the Bunker report is “crossed and bracketed by streets that have been prominent during all periods of Portsmouth history.”

One only has to stroll among the historic houses on “The Hill” that were saved from destruction under urban renewal (when 400 other surface structures were demolished) to get a rough idea what buildings existed there previously. Or walk into the Portsmouth Sheraton Harborside and examine the numerous artifacts in a series of display cases there. These items were recovered from 1981 to 1986 in a cooperative effort among the hotel developers, the state, Strawbery Banke Museum, archeologists and volunteers. Published reports drawn from thousands of artifacts recovered from the old Deer Street area there have had a powerful impact on historians far and wide. As recently as 2004, according to Bunker’s report, archeological areas of “high sensitivity” for archeological resources were identified right near Portwalk at the intersections of Hanover, Maplewood and Deer streets.

Feighner contends that Portsmouth, due to its age and importance as a key New England seaport, is special when it comes to underground history. Like Boston and Portland, she said, this city needs special regulations or special oversight if it wants to protect its underground resources that are spread throughout the city. No such local regulations exist. Feighner said she has been talking about this with Portsmouth officials for 10 years, but they only “hemmed and hawed,” and no action has been taken. Portwalk is proof, she warned, that the system is broken at all levels.

“I had to kind of give it up,” she said of earlier attempts to intercede with the Portwalk construction, “because it’s so frustrating sometimes trying to work on what you think is the regulatory end of it, and then you get an agency like EPA that refuses to take responsibility for their undertaking.”

Feigner said she is curious to see how Portwalk’s developers will respond to archeology in Phase III of the project. Then, echoing the Bunker report, she added: “I’m curious about what’s happening across the street with the new parking lot area on Deer Street. That little parcel of land, that’s the next thing to keep your eye out for … that also has very significant historical value.”

© 2011 J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

J. Dennis Robinson writes the “History Matters” column that appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald. He is the editor of, a Web site of local history and culture. His next hardcover book, America’s Privateer, will focus on the War of 1812 and is scheduled for release this fall.

READ earlier Portwalk blog


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Wednesday, February 21, 2018 
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