Portland African Meeting House Project

Archaeological dig unearths artifacts at African meeting house

By David Carkhuff, Portland Daily Sun, Portland, ME
Aug 30, 2011

Excavations now under way around the Abyssinian Meeting House are part plumbing project, part historical rescue mission, part archaeological study.

The archaeological dig, launched last Wednesday, comes as a volunteer committee is seeking to redirect water that's entering the historic building from an underground spring.

Abyssinian House
Martha E. Pinello, principal investigator with Monadnock Archaeological Consulting, LLC of Stoddard, N.H., (right), and Sue Clukey monitor an archaeological excavation at
the Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street Friday. (DAVID CARKHUFF PHOTO)

"We're putting in a drainage system" to prevent the spring from degrading the building's interior, explained Leonard Cummings, chair of the executive committee of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House.

The word "Abyssinia" refers to a region of Africa in ancient times. Constructed between 1828 and 1831 to serve Portland’s African American community, the Abyssinian Meeting House is one of only three of its kind still standing in the United States.

In trying to control the flow of water, volunteers restoring the landmark found a chance to recover historic artifacts.

Martha E. Pinello, principal investigator with Monadnock Archaeological Consulting, LLC of Stoddard, N.H., said the dig is turning up relics dating from 1828 to 1870.

"This site is a very significant site to Portland and to Maine and to the nation," Pinello said Friday. "This is the third oldest African meeting house. When we're excavating here, we've been able to find strata that directly relates to the period of the meeting house. We have found toys, slate pencils and marbles and an inkwell that relate directly to when it was a school. We have also found very small artifacts that are very significant."

The dig uncovered pieces of chipped glass, stemming from a tradition in parts of Africa where people chip glass into disks "and then it has spiritual value in the same way that Catholics might think of prayer beads," Pinello explained.

Also recovered were dishes and glass from the pertinent time period.

The dig also will lay out a timeline of changes to the historic building, which over time was converted into apartments before being saved from demolition by volunteers.

"The puzzle that we're working with now, many organizations are familiar with this, when a new generation takes over, what are the changes that they made to the meeting house," Pinello said. "After the Civil War, after the fire (of 1866) and after the building of Federal Street, there are some pretty dramatic changes that occurred here."

As the drainage system is being installed, the team will research how the natural spring played into the history of the site.

Records show the natural spring was leased to the city and later the Grand Trunk Railroad, the committee reported.

"A reservoir was four houses down, and we have found records and a map from Maine Historical Society that indicate that they were leasing their water to that reservoir. It may be as much as 5,000 gallons a day, so that's another part that we're exploring and researching," Pinello said.

This month, Cummings notified volunteers that the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House had received a matching grant of $25,000 from the 1772 Foundation to help with the water seepage in the basement and to help pay for the archaeological investigation. The committee is now raising its matching amount of $25,000.

"Because the streams flow year-round without freezing, the moisture in the basement eventually rotted out the floors and framing of the meeting house," Cummings wrote. "Local engineers at Casco Bay Engineering and the City of Portland have devised a plan to capture and divert the water around the outside of the Abyssinian Meeting House. The excavation required for drainage improvements is also an opportunity to conduct additional archaeological exploration at the site. With the diversion of the basement stream, the Abyssinian Meeting House will have a finished basement space for year-round educational programs and events."

Anyone interested in helping with the restoration and the $25,000 fund drive can write to the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House, P.O. Box 11064, Portland, ME 04104, or visit www.abyme.org.

Copyright 2011, The Portland Daily Sun - Portland's Daily Newspaper - One Longfellow Square, Suite 202, Portland, ME 04102 - (207) 699-5801



Monadnock Archaeological Consulting, LLC
Robert Goodby Ph.D., Sole Member
144 Greenwood Road
Duboin, NH 03444
Phone (603) 563-8123