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Sandwich archaeology: Family has found 10,000 artifacts in their backyard

Tom Melissa Keyes

Postcard courtesy of Sandwich Town Archives


In 2010, Tom and Melissa Keyes embarked on a new project in Sandwich, with their purchase of the “Old Lincoln House,” as some of the neighbors called it. The Keyes believed they were taking on a fairly common endeavor: a quest to restore the 1817 colonial-style home to its proper antique glory.

Instead, what the couple discovered has transformed not only their relationship with the structure, but their entire lives—for the Old Lincoln House has provided a portal to more distant pasts than they could have imagined. In fact, it has transported them back to the earliest days of Sandwich, circa 1650, and even earlier-—before the Pilgrims’ arrival. No, the home is not a magic tree house or any discovery of science fiction; rather, the Old Lincoln House has provided clues that have led to significant and ongoing archaeological excavation.

Since 2011, archaeologists have unearthed roughly 10,000 artifacts from a hill in the Keyes’ back yard, and Tom Keyes has created the North Atlantic Archaeological Collaborative Inc., a non-profit organization with a mission to promote and preserve the findings and to inspire and educate others on the science of discovery. Today, the group collaborates with organizations from Nova Scotia to Virginia, including members of the staff at Mount Vernon. “It’s an amazing find,” Keyes says of the collection of artifacts. “We have discovered a national treasure.”

To understand the Keyes’ property, perhaps it’s best to journey backwards in time, since the layers of history in the venerable wooden beams of the Old Lincoln House are, according to Tom Keyes, “telling all kinds of tales.”

Finding history near Shawme Lake, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 |

The Keyes’ home on Water Street in Sandwich. Photograph by Charles Sternaimolo

Before the couple moved in, the home had stood relatively unchanged since 1865, when then-owner James Whitley added the signature mourning drape carving over the front door (see photo above). “He did this to mourn the assassination of President Lincoln,” says Keyes, whose research reveals that Whitley was classified as a mulatto, but his mother, Leah Whitney, was a light-skinned African-American who posed as a caucasian, married a white man from England, and had lived in South Carolina, where she and her husband had owned a store. Keyes has concluded that “this added fascia to James Whitley’s home is a true reflection of the respect and love that he and other people of color had for the one president who had made their welfare a personal cause at great risk to himself, both personally and politically.”

Soon after moving into the house, the Keyes began their restoration project—and quickly uncovered the property’s second major story. As many families will do, the couple decided to expose some of the colonial’s original features, and this is when they discovered, as Tom Keyes describes, “hand-hewn beams done with an adz—almost 400 years old, and basically petrified.” Not only did the ancient wood reveal a deeper history, it also showed that the home had originally been a small cottage with an 18’ x 12-1/3’ footprint and an additional 12’ x 12’ ell, similar to homes from the original Plimoth Plantation, according to Craig S. Chartier of the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. The original home’s footprint is now the  Keyes’ office; the other rooms represent later additions. The beams also feature apotropaic, or “witch marks,” carved letters that resemble “WA”, “VV”, or “IIIII”, but in fact were symbols for the Virgin Mary, or “Virgo Virginum,” in 17th-century script. The marks were intended to ward off evil, and the practice of etching them into house beams was common back in England; Pilgrims brought the custom with them to Massachusetts.

Chartier concludes that, “Certain facts about the house did not add up, including its proximity to the street and its orientation.” Keyes adds that the location of the witch marks, which were typically placed above doors and windows, helped to reveal that the actual layout of the home had changed. “The house doesn’t belong here,” Keyes says, while standing in the living room. “They moved it closer to the road around 1800, but construction evidence and dendrochronology of a sampling of beams brings us to circa 1650 for the original house.”

Finding history near Shawme Lake, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 |

Homeowner Tom Keyes, at left, and archaeologist David Wheelock spend time in the dig site on Keyes’ property, which overlooks Sandwich’s Shawme Lake. Photograph by Charles Sternaimolo

If the home had been moved, the next mystery was to find its original location. Enter archaeologist David Wheelock, who began investigating the property in 2011. Wheelock, a Sandwich resident and a longtime archaeologist, quickly realized the magnitude of their discovery. “You know what history this house has seen?” he joked to Keyes. “All of it.”

When the Keyes purchased the Old Lincoln House, they also bought the adjoining lot to the northwest, where a grassy knoll rises above surrounding fields in close proximity to Shawme Lake (a.k.a. Shawme Pond). Wheelock saw that this hill would have been ideal for the original settlers of Sandwich to build upon. In the mid-1600s, waterways were the chief avenues for transportation, so settlers would build along navigable bodies of water such as Shawme Lake. Positioning one’s home atop a hill protected against flooding and provided the inhabitants with clear views of their surroundings. Wheelock’s team got to work in the area, beginning by digging four small pits, each measuring 50 square centimeters. They soon discovered the “estimated south wall of the house,” according to Chartier’s 2012 report, proving that the original builders had “followed typical 17th-century practices in choosing this site.” Could the knoll site be the original location of the oldest part of the Old Lincoln House? Both Chartier and the archaeology team believe so. The dating of artifacts has helped solidify this position. Keyes explains: “The fact that human activity stops at the dig site at the same time it starts here at our current location does support this.”

In 2011, Wheelock’s excavation expanded, and the team recovered a wide range of artifacts including architectural items such as brick, nails, and hinges; a variety of ceramics including redware, slipware, and tobacco pipe bowls; wine bottle fragments, glass slag, and other vessel glass; faunal remains—bones and hair of swine, and shells of quahogs and oysters; and prehistoric rhyolite flake (carved rock). Chartier’s report concludes that these finds are more than just interesting pieces from the past; the discoveries have illuminated such historical detail as “what settlers ate, what sorts of material furnishings they surrounded themselves with, and even how they dressed.”

Finding history near Shawme Lake, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 |

This arrowhead is one of the many artifacts found on Tom and Melissa Keyes’ property in Sandwich. Photograph by Charles Sternaimolo

As the importance and extent of the findings grew, Keyes began to see the potential of the site as a center for exploration and education; after all, he says, “this is the only intact second-quarter 17th-century homesite that we know of in New England.” In 2013, Keyes officially formed the North Atlantic Archaeological Collaborative as a nonprofit, and the dig site became known as the Tobey Site, named after the family that had owned the knoll. “I’m not an archaeologist myself, but a business coach,” Keyes says. “My job is to promote and create an entity that can get the archaeologists what they need so they can do their work.” While Wheelock continues to serve as the site’s lead field archaeologist, the team also includes J. Eric Deetz, principal; Dr. Luke Pecoraro, assistant investigator; Katie Wiggins, staff archaeologist; and Dr. Fred Dunford, who specializes in the analysis of “prehistoric” (before English settlement) or “Native” discoveries.

“There are a million reasons why the Tobey Site shouldn’t have ever been discovered,” says Keyes. “It wanted to be discovered, and now we are saving it in perpetuity for education.” According to Deetz, who specializes in English colonial archaeology, it is incredibly rare to find archeological sites so undisturbed in such heavily settled areas as New England. “How fortunate it is,” Keyes adds, “that the field was never plowed.” As the team began unearthing more and more Native artifacts, Dunford’s expertise became all the more critical. Keyes says that Dunford, who co-authored the 1997 book Secrets in the Sand: The Archaeology of Cape Cod, has helped to identify items on the site including a sharpening stone of coarse glacial cobble, a “plummet-like” stone that may have been used for fishing or for weaving, signatures in rock, amethyst which was likely used for healing or spiritual practices, and three atlatl counterweights from some 6,000 years ago, probably used for mammoth hunting.

Though professionals have completed the bulk of the excavation, Keyes says school groups have also contributed. For example, Keyes’ niece, Olivia Horman, was in 7th grade when she asked if her class could visit the Tobey Site for field research. Keyes consented, and put the students to work when they arrived. Soon the youngsters’ shovels hit what would prove integral to mapping out the original floor plan. “They came right down on the fireplace,” says Keyes. Then, in 2014, students on a field trip from The Winsor School in Boston dug into a rock pile, which led to the discovery of a root cellar—the site’s lower story.

Finding history near Shawme Lake, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 |

Tom Keyes shows off a brief digging session’s worth of discoveries including a nail and pottery pieces. Other artifacts found in Keyes’ backyard include pipe stems, spoons, horseshoes, a plummet, and an arrowhead that could be 3,500 years old. Photograph by Charles Sternaimolo

“We’ve only scratched the surface,” says Keyes, who adds that he and his team believe they will also discover outbuildings and barns. “This is the quintessential 17th-century home site,” he says, but he adds a disclaimer. “In archeology, the site has to tell the story; if you guess, you will be wrong.”

The busiest months for school visits have been May and June, when the soil is dry enough for digging and when teachers are most anxious to find venues for learning outside of their classrooms. Most groups come from elementary schools, but older students have also participated, and the collaborative also offers programming for adults. Recently, Keyes entered into an agreement with the Sandwich board of selectmen to lease the historic Deacon Eldred House, a stone’s throw from his own residence, which will allow the collaborative to showcase its artifacts. Since the knoll site is essentially in his backyard, Keyes has been looking for a more public space to host talks and visiting displays.

Keyes says the Deacon Eldred House will also facilitate the expansion of the “virtual field trip” program that he and Wheelock piloted in November of 2016, when they used Google Hangouts to live-stream an interactive presentation with nearly 100 fifth graders at a middle school in Longview, Texas.

Keyes anticipates that 2017 will prove to be an auspicious year for the collaborative, and he has already begun the process of taking the virtual field trip to more schools across the country. However, as with the Deacon Eldred House display, a number of details remain to be sorted out. “We have a lot of work to complete before we open to the public,” says Keyes. He is optimistic that the various pieces will fall into place over the coming months, though, and he looks forward to making this archaeological project a four-season offering. “That’s our charge,” he adds, “to educate the public, young and old.”

More information about the North Atlantic Archaeological Collaborative can be found at

Chris White is freelance writer who teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.

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