Monday, July 16, 2012

USM Student Uncovers Centuries-Old Spanish Coin

Whitney Parrish, a University of Southern Maine student from Portland, discovered a Spanish coin dating to the 1600s or 1700s at the Old Berwick Historical Society’s archaeology dig in South Berwick. 

SOUTH BERWICK, Maine – It was small and thin.  Caked with dirt and found a few feet down, it looked like a stone and could easily have been discarded.
But, out on her first day digging at the possible site of a 17th century tavern, Whitney Parrish wiped off the dirt and saw a silver gleam and intricate markings.  She had found a Spanish coin, known as a real, or “piece of eight.”
“A piece of eight basically means the silver was worth a lot so they would divide it into eight pieces,” Parrish said. “We found a pretty good section where the Spanish cross is still visible and a few numbers of the date. It’s not definitive at this point. It’s pretty worn.” The coin has indistinct markings but reveals the digits 6 and 8 and a cross characteristic of Spanish coins of the 1600s and early 1700s.
Parrish, who is working on a degree in the classics and anthropology (with a minor in archaeology) at the University of Southern Maine, commutes from Portland to take part in the Old Berwick Historical Society’s archaeology project directed by Dr. Neill De Paoli.
Parrish said the group was looking for the tavern and what they think was a garrison used to shelter civilians during attacks.
“Where I was digging when I found it seemed to be a walking area, so someone could have dropped it while walking,” she said. “We also found pieces of pots, pipe stems, pipe bowls, drinking vessels, shoe buckles. Essentially we’re looking for walls, some kind of structure. We haven’t found anything definitive at this point, but we are finding some interesting things.”
De Paoli explained that in the 1600s and early 1700s, a shortage of currency led to Spanish coins making their way into the English colonies after being minted in South America and traded in the Caribbean. He has seen only a few in his thirty-five years of experience as a historical archaeologist in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
“This find is an example of how an artifact helps tell the story of a region’s economy and people’s livelihood hundreds of years ago,” said De Paoli, adding that historic information, not monetary value, is the goal of the archaeology project.
“On the nearby Salmon Falls River, at a place called Pipe Stave Landing, local materials for making barrels shipped through Portsmouth to the Caribbean, and products like rum came back.  Someone involved with that trade, directly or indirectly, must have come here to Old Fields, the oldest part of what is now South Berwick.”
De Paoli is adding the coin to other evidence that the site was the dwelling and tavern of Humphrey and Mary Spencer from about 1696 until 1727.  A later house, home today to South Berwick residents Paula and Harvey Bennett, stands a few feet from where archaeologists are digging on their property.
“Perhaps,” De Paoli speculated, “the coin was lost by someone enjoying a tankard of ale at the Spencer tavern.”
In addition to the coin, the dig so far has turned up foundation stones as well as fragments of clay pipes and stoneware dishes and flasks, and other artifacts supporting the theory that the site was a tavern three centuries ago.  At that time, South Berwick was not yet a separate town. Today’s Berwick, South Berwick and North Berwick were collectively called Berwick, and are now nearing the tricentennial of their separation from Kittery in 1713.
Parrish is one of sixteen enrollees and four field assistants working in a three-week field school De Paoli organized to explore Old Fields, an area that at that time was a small hamlet of several homes, a tavern, meetinghouse, burial ground, wharves, and expansive hay fields.
Historical documents suggest this locale contained a fortified garrison during the conflict-ridden 1690s and early 1700s. In 1690 and 1691, Wabanaki war parties in separate incidents attacked the Spencer garrison and two men working in a nearby field.
DePaoli is an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College and has devoted most of his career to the study of English settlement and Anglo-Indian and English-French relations in early northern New England.
The current field school ends on July 13, but volunteers are needed to process artifacts at the Counting House Museum during the coming months. No experience is necessary, and information is available by contacting the historical society at or 207-384-0000.
The Old Berwick Historical Society owns the Counting House Museum, which exhibits artifacts from another 17th century homestead, that of Humphrey and Lucy Chadbourne.  The museum is open on weekend afternoons from 1:00-4:00 pm through the end of October, and year round by appointment.
Though she was the one to find the coin, Parrish seemed shy about the media spotlight, and was quick to credit her classmates and Dr. DePaoli for their work. “It’s really exciting to have found this coin, but we’re all finding a lot of good stuff here.”