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Pieces of the Past: Students Dig Up History in Lowell

Uncover Clues About the Lives of the Irish from the 1800s

Chris Carlsmith and Deirdre Hutchison
History Department Chair Chris Carlsmith discusses the archaeological dig with history major Deirdre Hutchison.

09/15/2022
By Karen Angelo

Scrape, shovel and sift. Repeat. 

From a distance, an archaeological dig appears repetitive. Zoom in a little closer, though, and a buzz of activity emerges. 

Recently, at a dig site at 509 Market St. in downtown Lowell, students from UMass Lowell, UMass Boston and Queen’s University Belfast swung trowels, buckets and brushes. They were part of a team searching for artifacts from a grocery store and dwelling that was operated by Irish immigrant Patrick Keyes in the mid-1800s. 

“It’s exciting to hunt for a glimmer or twinkle that could be a piece of glass or pottery, giving us a peek into the past, and to learn what people’s lives were like in the mid-19th century,” says UML history major Deirdre Hutchison, who grew up in Ireland. “I am fascinated by history and find it poetic that Irish immigrants helped build the canals in Lowell, and now I’m using a pickaxe to uncover their way of life all these years later.” 

Led by archaeologists from UMass Boston and Queen’s University Belfast, the project provided opportunities for nine students from both of those universities and UMass Lowell history majors to find clues about what life was like more than 150 years ago, before a planned new development covers over the past. 

Quintin Blake sifts through dirt and material at the archeological dig at 509 Market Street in Lowell, Mass. Photo by Lowell Irish facebook page
History major Quintin Blake recently dug for artifacts at an archaeological dig site in Lowell, a project collaboration with UMass Boston and Queen's University Belfast.
“We hope to answer many questions, such as how did they keep food cool and operate the store, and what did they use for eating or playing,” says Steve Mrozowski, a distinguished university professor of anthropology and leader of the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at UMass Boston. “This insight connects us to the past, helping us understand how human behavior changed over time.” 

Prof. Chris Carlsmith, who is chair of UML’s History Department, appreciated the collaboration with the two universities, which led to opportunities for UML students to gain field experience. 

“We don’t always think of archaeology being performed in an urban setting like downtown Lowell,” says Carlsmith. “Yet the human record is a rich one, because of the different layers of settlement spanning back through the centuries.” 

Keyes established himself as an entrepreneur and leading member of the Irish community in Lowell. In the 1870s, he served as a representative in the Massachusetts Legislature. His family owned the Market Street property until 1906. In the mid-1950s, the building became home to a nightclub called the Cosmopolitan Lounge. 

Carlsmith, Mrozowski, Horning and O'Baoill
Chair of the UML History Department Chris Carlsmith, University Prof. of Anthropology at UMass Boston Steve Mrozowski, Prof. Audrey Horning of Queen’s University and Excavation Director Ruairi O'Baoill at Queen’s University Belfast.
Senior history major Quintin Blake, who had completed a five-week archaeological dig of a World War II crash site in Germany this summer, also worked on the Lowell dig. 

“The experience in Germany was great, and then to get hands-on experience with an archeological dig right here in Lowell was amazing,” says Blake. “History and archaeology are fascinating to me, because they are our connection to the past and we have evidence of how people lived so many years ago.” 

The project continues archaeological work, conducted by UMass Lowell and Queens University, that started in 2010. Researchers hunted for clues of Lowell’s early Irish settlers at an excavation on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Church, also in the Acre neighborhood. 

Prof. Audrey Horning of Queen’s University, who led the dig with Mrozowski, said the team uncovered a variety of artifacts, including buttons, pipe stems, shoe heels, nails, clay pieces and marbles. “To dig up these pieces of the past is incredibly exciting,” says Horning. “These will be researched and documented to preserve an urban history of a prominent Irish immigrant and the people who lived in the Acre area of Lowell.”