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History Teaches the Teachers

Archaeological Dig Offers Window Into Lowell’s Past

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Teachers from across the country got to learn about Lowell history during a visit to an archaeological excavation at St. Patrick's Church.

By Jill Gambon

A group of teachers from across the country recently witnessed Lowell’s history unfolding through the unearthing of buried artifacts at St. Patrick’s Church in the city’s Acre neighborhood.

The educators were taking part in the Tsongas Industrial History Center’s weeklong workshop “Inventing America: Lowell and the Industrial Revolution,” a program that provides hands-on training in interpreting historical and cultural sites and materials to enrich classroom instruction. On the final day of the workshop, the group stopped by St. Patrick’s Church on Suffolk Street as part of a walking tour that focused on immigration and industrialization in Lowell’s 18th-century Irish and French-Canadian communities.

In a fortunate bit of timing, the churchyard was the site of a five-day archaeological dig conducted by researchers from UMass Lowell and Queens University Belfast. Since 2010, the universities have been engaged in a transatlantic research project that is shedding light on the role of Irish immigrants in Lowell’s Industrial Revolution. By piecing together information gathered from digs in Lowell and in Northern Ireland, as well as details found in census, property, marriage and other historical records, project leaders are trying to advance the study of ethnicity and enrich the understanding of cultural assimilation and the history of the Irish in America.

Standing by the churchyard dig site, the 40 teachers jotted down notes and shot photos and video as the archaeologists and student assistants sifted through soil and took measurements in an open trench. The project team includes four archaeologists from Queens University and three UMass Lowell undergraduates: Ami Krawczyk, a senior history major; Katherine Henckler, a junior majoring in criminal justice; and Marcelle Durrenberger, a junior mechanical engineering major.

Hundreds of Items Recovered

Prof. Colm Donnelly, director of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queens University, told the group that between 200 and 300 artifacts including pottery fragments, marbles, coins, a thimble, animal bones and other 19th-century relics were recovered during the week, bringing the total number of articles found at the site over the past two years to about 1,800. Donnelly also described how the researchers uncovered a 14-foot well at what they believe was the home site of one-time parish priest the Rev. James McDermott.
“The timing was really wonderful. Our teachers saw history being uncovered,” said Sheila Kirschbaum director of the Tsongas Industrial History Center, a partnership between UMass Lowell and the Lowell National Historical Park. “Unearthing a piece of the past provides a window into another world.”

“Seeing all of this will help me re-create history lessons for my students,” said Hillary Smith, an eighth-grade history teacher who traveled from Beaumont, Texas to participate in the workshop.

In addition to the visit to St. Patrick’s and the walking tour of the surrounding neighborhood, the teachers also spent time during the week at the historic Boott Mills, visited Walden Pond and Minuteman National Park in Concord and traveled to Old Sturbridge Village to study the contrast between farm and factory life. The program, launched in 2006 and funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, drew a record 343 applicants for 80 spots in two separate one-week sessions.

Archaeological Project Returns to Ireland

After the teachers continued on their neighborhood tour, the archaeologists wrapped up the week’s dig at St. Patrick’s. Next month the project returns to Crossan in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, where the researchers will again excavate at the site of Hugh Cummiskey’s 19th-century homestead. Cummiskey was one of Lowell’s first Irish immigrants, leading a group of laborers to the city in 1822 to help dig the canals that would power the booming textile mills. He went on to become a successful business owner and a leader of the city’s rapidly growing Irish community, which exploded to 13,000 strong by 1850.

The artifacts recovered in Lowell and in Northern Ireland combined with details retrieved from historical records help tell the story of Cummiskey and those who followed him.  And those stories shed light on Lowell’s transformation from an agrarian society into an industrial powerhouse, says Prof. Frank Talty, co-director of the Center for Irish Partnerships at UMass Lowell. Once the recovered artifacts are analyzed and the research is completed, the goal is to display the materials for public viewing.
“The end result is there will be an exhibit of artifacts and a narrative history of Hugh Cummiskey,” Talty says.

Digging for History