New Hampshire

Excavating an Early 20th Century Mikveh at Strawbery Banke Museum

Strawbery Banke is a living museum consisting of restored houses, exhibits, and historic landscapes and gardens of the many generations who settled in Portsmouth, NH from the late 17th to the mid-20th century.  Strawbery Banke’s archaeologist Alix Martin held the 27th field school this summer at the museum, which consisted of myself and one other student along with an intern and a lot of quite  interesting and funny volunteers.  We were looking for an early 20th century Jewish ritual bath, otherwise known as a mikveh, in the buried foundation of a house built between 1898 and 1904.  The house was torn down in the sixties, so all that was left was a few bricks outlining where the old foundation would have been and a strawberry patch that sat right on top of where the house would have been.

We were fairly certain that the mikveh was indeed in the foundation of the house, as we had oral histories describing the use of the mikveh by Temple Israel and the Hebrew Ladies Society in Portsmouth (both organizations owned the house at one time).  We also had verbal confirmation of the bath’s location by the man who used to live in the house as a boy who still lives in Portsmouth.  He remembered the mikveh being in one corner of the foundation, yet when a geophysical survey was done on the foundation, an anomaly was found in the opposite corner.  It looked like it would be a close battle between science and memory.

We began by opening up two units, a 1 x 1 meter unit in the area which yielded the anomaly on the geophysical survey and a 2 x 3 meter unit in the opposite side of the foundation.  We then had to transplant all the strawberries from the units we opened up into new locations.  Our first layer was then, of course, strawberry compost which was wonderfully light and fluffy and easy to screen.  After we got through that relatively shallow layer, we got into the heavier, rocky fill that had been used to fill the house in when it had been demolished.  The fill had quite a few interesting artifacts, including mostly glass, ceramic, and a whole lot of brick.  We did uncover a few intact artifacts, like a 2 oz Foss Liquid Fruit Flavor bottle from Portland, Maine, and a Fire King ovenware saucer dating to the fifties.

Christina Errico, a field school student, displays an intact Foss Liquid Fruit Flavor bottle she recovered from the fill above the mikveh.

Christina Errico, a field school student, displays an intact Foss Liquid Fruit Flavor bottle she recovered from the fill above the mikveh.

By the third day, one of the volunteers came down on what looked like the very edge of what could have been the mikveh, revealing a row of glistening white glazed bricks. Surprisingly, it wasn’t where the former house occupant had said he thought it was.  We quickly expanded the 1 x 1 meter unit an additional 1 meter to the east and by Friday, we had uncovered another portion of the bath that included the drain.  Now we had confirmation that this was indeed the bottom of the bath and not simply a step (traditional mikvehs have seven steps leading into them).  We then opened up two more units, one to the north and south of the unit with the drain, and when we reached the mikveh  in those units we were able to measure the bottom to be about 5.5 x 4 feet.

Instead of closing out the second excavation block (the 2 x 3 meter block that didn’t yield the mikveh), we decided to continue digging down in a 1 x 1 meter unit in the northeast corner to see what else we could discover.  We knew there was a barn on the property before the house was built, and when we dug down past the house foundation we discovered an ashy layer, leading us to believe the barn burned down or was collapsed and was burned in place.  We continued past the barn to reveal an eighteenth century midden chock full of animal bone and ceramics, including a lot of pipe stems.

Finds from the 18th century midden, including ceramics and two pieces of pipe stem.

Finds from the 18th century midden, including hand painted & shell edged pearlware and two pieces of pipe stem.

The unique aspect of museum archaeology is the opportunity for interaction with the public.  Our site was in the middle of a strawberry patch smack dab in the middle of the museum grounds.  The garden tour, which runs every day, passed right in front of our site, so naturally we had a lot of foot traffic and interested museum goers.  As an undergraduate student majoring in archaeology and considering museum education as a master’s degree, interacting with the public was an extremely gratifying and valuable experience.  In general, everyone was very interested in what we were doing, although a few people thought we had planted the mikveh there as some sort of museum exhibit.  We also had a Jewish family stop by the site who were very interested in the mikveh and who were a great source of information for us as well.

As for the future of the mikveh, there are no set plans right now.  The field school is now over and we have begun cleaning all the artifacts.  There is a possibility of creating a temporary exhibit so the public can see the dig, but eventually the bath will most likely be filled back in for its own protection and a more permanent exhibit may be installed with the mikveh tiles and bricks we were able to remove from the site, and other related artifacts.  You can find out more information on the Strawbery Banke Archaeology webpage, where you can also find the archaeology blog:  https://www.strawberybanke.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=24&Itemid=80

-Christina Errico, undergraduate field school student