Montclair State University Students Bring the Past to Life

Students Dig for Artifacts at Montclair's Historic Clark House

Release Date: April 12, 2013

In late March 2013, eleven Montclair State students sifted through the sands of time during a weekend-long archaeological dig behind Clark House, the headquarters of the Montclair Historical Society in Montclair, New Jersey.

Working under the direction of Anthropology professor Christopher Matthews, students from the University’s Center for Heritage and Archaeological Studies Program are researching the historical archaeology of the town of Montclair.

“The students are enrolled in a Special Topics in Archaeology class called Archaeology in Montclair,” said Matthews. “They’ve been trained in archaeological fieldwork and artifact analysis, as well as archival research and interviewing.”

The class was invited by the Montclair Historical Society to spend the weekend of March 22-24 excavating in the backyard of the historic Clark House on Orange Road. The Queen Anne style dwelling was built in 1894 on the site of an 1818 farmhouse built by Nathaniel Crane. “We had several visitors who stopped by during the weekend and who were as involved in the dig as we were,” said anthropology major Maria Santos.

The students conducted a shovel test survey, digging into the earth and sifting it through mesh screening in the hopes of recovering artifacts. “The best thing was getting in the dirt and being able to experience what professionals do in the field. It’s not as easy as it seems and it takes a lot of hard work,” said senior Anthropology major Olivia Mercado.

“I was happy to see that we collected some artifacts that look to be from the early 19th century,” Matthews reported. The students are in the process of analyzing these glass and ceramic shards in order to accurately date them and identify the materials they are made of. Their research should provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Crane and Clark families who lived on the property in past centuries.

The group even made some unexpected finds. “We discovered a large mechanical gear. It’s made of iron and is about two feet across. We don’t yet know what it is, or how it ended up at the site, though one of the students has taken this project on,” remarked Matthews.

Senior Ben Hornstra uncovered a small metal container with the image of a scorpion on its lid. “Learning about the famous archaeological findings of the past doesn’t compare to actually holding a real artifact in your hands and knowing you’re the first person to see it in over a century,” he said.

The Archaeology in Montclair class combines hands-on training in historical archaeology with an opportunity for service learning with community partners such as the Montclair Historical Society that are dedicated to preserving local history. “The best part for me was the service-learning part of the course. Not only did we learn archaeological methods and techniques, but we also served the Montclair community in a way that connected past and present – and created a greater sense of community,” said Santos.

The students will compete a formal report of their findings that will be produced by the Center for Heritage and Archaeological Studies and submitted to the Montclair Historical Society this spring.  “Discovering the items was an adventure,” said Mercado. “It makes the past more real.”

This dig has just begun to scratch the surface. “I hope to return next spring to test another section of the site and begin to develop a display that can teach visitors to the Historical Society about the archaeology we’re doing,” said Matthews. 

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