Excavating history underneath Princeton Battlefield

They’re sifting and digging — determined to uncover the past at Princeton Battlefield State Park.

“Well, one of the things we’re trying to do is figure out exactly what happened on the day of the battle in 1777, which was the battle most historians agree turned the tide of the Revolutionary War,” said Rachael Delue, professor of American Art at Princeton University.

On this day, the public got a chance to experience what it’s like to be a student in Princeton University’s Battle Lab course.

“It’s pretty amazing, uncovering history, finding what’s been buried there for hundreds of years,” said Walkwick resident, James Burns.

“The material remains and the artifacts we dig up will actually tell us what really happened on that day,” said Delue. “We have a sense of it, we have historical documents, but the field has never been fully excavated, so this is the first time it’s going to be systemically excavated and surveyed.”

First, Princeton University students excavate near the historic Clarke house. So how do archaeologists determine what area to excavate? DeLue says her team studies historical documents and the history of the site. They use that information to determine what area may reveal the most results.

It’s not about digging a hole. Layers of dirt are carefully removed — think of each layer as the 18th century, the 19th century, and so on.

“What we’d like to do is get down to the level of the 18th century ground and see what artifacts might exist,” said Delue.

Participants also had a chance to shovel test — the process of digging up dirt and analyzing the material to determine if the area is worth excavating further. Ground-penetrating radar serves the same purpose without the shovel.

“Ground-penetrating radar is what archaeologists call a non-invasive technology because it doesn’t tamper with the soil, said Delue. “And so ground-penetrating radar is used for bigger acreage, and it surveys an area using a radar technology to see if there are parts of that area that are different from the norm.”

Metal detectors also help identify objects like musket balls, buried under the soil.

“By metal detecting certain areas, we can identify what areas have clusters of objects and then which areas then might be subjected to another technology and then be excavated even more extensively,” said Delue.

Every artifact is tagged and later cleaned for analysis.

“Literary sources can only tell us so much about the past, and often they’re focusing on the big figures and the big names of the past. What archaeology can do is flush out that story,” said Nathan Arrington, associate professor of Classical Archaeology at Princeton University.

The artifacts excavated at the Battlefield will be analyzed over the coming months.