DOVER — Where an untrained eye sees different soil colors and doesn't think anything of it, a trained archaeologist sees history.
This past week, a team of archaeologists working under the direction of University of New Hampshire professor Meghan Howey, found those soil differences as they work on unpacking the history of the Second Meetinghouse built in Dover Point in 1654.
One exciting find of the week was the uncovering of the meetinghouse’s clay floor, where European settlers once stood in the then frontier settlement. The clay was likely brought up the hill from the soils of the nearby rivers. Another find was two post holes nearby each other that appeared to be foundation posts of the building. There were also rocks Howey believes were brought to the site to stabilize the foundation posts.
But she acknowledged some of the finer details found in the soil could easily be missed. “This site is very subtle,” said Howey, who chairs UNH’s Anthropology Department. Howey’s hunch, though she can’t prove it yet, is one of the posts was installed as a repair to the first one, both of which were located together.
Howey’s right-hand researcher, Diane Fiske, who also serves as the First Parish Church’s historian, found in published accounts that the meetinghouse was “fit up” in 1658, which Howey said means they made repairs to the structure. “The timing lines up well with the historical record,” Howey said.
The meetinghouse served as the meeting spot for religious services and town meetings into the early 1700s. In 1713, the Third Meeting House was built on a site closer to the center of Dover, where the population was growing. The church’s present-day location on Central Avenue in Dover is its fifth meetinghouse. The first meetinghouse appears to be lost to history. Fiske believes it was located right around the location of the Spaulding Turnpike tollbooths, which were built in the mid-1950s.
In 1720, all services ceased at the Second Meeting House in Dover Point, and the building deteriorated and was removed sometime before the start of the Revolutionary War, according to the National Register application. In 1889, the property was deeded back to the First Parish Church.
During a week-long investigation last year at the 1654 site, the team uncovered a row of bricks buried under the soil towards the road side of the property. Howey didn’t believe they were from the 1600s but rather the 1800s, and she speculated the bricks could have been added on top of the 1654 meeting house foundation. There was some published history suggesting that a schoolhouse had existed on the property, though other accounts disputed that notion.
After researching historical accounts over the past year, Fiske developed a new theory she plans to investigate further: The bricks could be remains of what may have been a replica of the meetinghouse built in the late 1800s. While perusing old newspaper archives at the Dover Public Library, Fiske came across an article that suggested the replica meetinghouse could have been built for a Dover Old Home Day festival to showcase early Dover history. Fiske also found evidence that the church had brought out Sunday school classes to show them what it was like. She speculates the children may have been given slate pencils, which the team uncovered last year.
Howey likes the theory. The bricks uncovered last year “didn’t seem like they could have supported a whole structure. This would make a lot of sense,” she said. “It’s like an archaeological site within an archaeological site.” Fiske is now confident that a schoolhouse did not operate there. There was one not too far down the road from the location.
But while the team uncovered the foundation of the original structure, another week at the meetinghouse site wasn’t enough to answer all their questions. Another community archaeology dig is planned for this fall, and it is probable a team will come back next summer as well for a week.