DURYEA — Mark Dziak knelt down in the woods to retrieve a shard of blue-flecked pottery from between the roots of an old tree, sending a long-legged spider scurrying for cover as he lifted the nickel-sized ceramic chunk out of the dirt.
“I love finding things that have been lost,” said Dziak, as he rotated the glazed fragment between his fingers. “There’s something fascinating about scooping up some dirt and finding something.”
There was no immediate clue to the provenance of this particular scrap of earthenware. But recent analysis of artifacts much like it has led volunteer archaeologists and local history enthusiasts such as Dziak to believe that stone foundations first discovered in a wooded area of Coxton Yards near the Susquehanna River several years ago most likely mark the site of a frontier cabin built in the mid-1700s by the pioneering Phillips family from New England.
“We’re feeling more and more strongly about it,” said Al Pesotine, president of Pittston-based Pan Cultural Associates, an archaeological consulting firm, who is working with the volunteers.
Members of the Frances Dorrance Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology have been excavating a prehistoric American Indian site nearby since 1993. In 2009, Dziak said, some chapter members began searching for more evidence of ancient life in the woods near the main dig site. That diversion led them to an altogether different find: a stone wall 3 feet below the soil.
“We did find one interesting artifact in that wall, a small teapot,” Pesotine said. “It appeared to be very early 1800s.”
Volunteers mostly returned their attention to the main site, but one man in particular showed special interest in that buried wall. Society member Ted Baird spent hundreds of hours digging out the subterranean foundation. What ultimately emerged was the square base of a structure, with evidence of use into the early 1900s. But off to one side a smaller, more irregular foundation emerged, together with what appeared to be even older items: iron nails, bones, coins, buttons, beads of the type often traded with native tribes, and, of course, pottery.
“The artifacts we were coming up with were pretty interesting,” Baird said. But whose were they?
Around the 1760s, the Phillips family from Rhode Island was granted title to land in the Wyoming Valley by a Connecticut charter, he said. At that time, ownership of what is now Northeastern Pennsylvania was still contested by the colonies of Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
While Francis “Frank” Phillips appears to have been the original title holder, research suggests that his son John was the site’s likely first occupant, Baird said.
Drawing the connection between scattered relics and the Phillips clan took time. It was only within the past year that research done by Martin Reinbold, one of Pesotine’s associates, honed in on the origins of those bits of plates and pitchers based on comparison with databases of preserved crockery from that era. Among the oldest items identified is a piece of stoneware believed to have been imported from England about 1740, Pesotine said.
“They were not poor people, based on the ceramics,” he added.
They were, however, tenacious, Baird explained. There almost certainly was friction between settlers and natives, at least until the Revolutionary War. John Phillips fought in that war alongside the famed Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, Baird said. At one point, Phillips was displaced from the Coxton Yards site when Pennsylvania settlers drove out Connecticut settlers while the two colonies sparred over rival claims to the region. That fight wasn’t settled until 1799, but Phillips eventually returned to the homestead along the Susquehanna.
Researchers still have much work to do in piecing together the story of a property, which might have remained in use as a home until the early 1900s, Baird said. Accumulated layers in the foundation wall, together with later artifacts suggest the site might have gone through three or four distinct phases, finally ending its days as a railroad yard outbuilding in the early- to mid-1900s.
Pesotine said volunteers also are exploring avenues for grant funding to help with the work of researching and conserving the site and the artifacts, which he expects will ultimately find a home with an area museum or preservation group.
The society meets regularly at the Duryea Municipal Building and holds free open digs each Sunday at Coxton Yards. No prior experience with archaeology is needed. Anyone interested in participating in the Phillips or native digs may email Baird at email@example.com.
“That whole area is loaded with history,” he said.