GROTON, Conn. — Six years ago, someone digging at the archaeological site of the burned down Avery house built in 1656 – at what’s now the corner of Poquonnock Road and Long Hill Road – found a small, U-shaped piece of iron with tiny points on either side.
Few might have known what it was. But Theodore Davi, chairman of the archaeological committee for the Avery Memorial Association, recognized it as a child’s spur. The 4-inch piece would have slid over the heel of a boot.
“You can almost imagine a shoe going on that,” Liz Williams, curator of the Ebenezer Avery House, said Tuesday as she prepared to move eight boxes of artifacts to be cleaned.
Between 500 and 1,000 artifacts – some shards of glass or stone, others more readily recognizable – have been unearthed at the site of the house, also called the “Avery hive,” during digs over the last eight years. The house belonged to one of the founding families of Groton and was passed down through generations. It burned down in 1894.
“We found a glass candlestick partially melted in the fire of 1894,” Davi said. “These people, who were truly pioneer people, who founded this area, who made it what it is and was, to hold some of these things puts you in a bridge with these people. It’s just marvelous.”
Digs unearthed artifacts including a copper penny dated 1829, a metal toy pistol, a pocket knife, part of a porcelain doll, a pitchfork, pieces of clay pipe and clay marbles.
“The Averys were advanced in their hygiene because we found a toothbrush without the bristles,” Davi said. “One year, we found a key. We didn’t know what it was for. Several years later, we found the lock.”
The Avery Memorial Association recently hosted an event to clean and restore some of the artifacts so they may be put on display someday at the Ebenezer Avery House on Fort Street. On Saturday, about 60 association members from eight states are expected to gather for the group’s annual meeting and reunion.
The reunion marks the 120th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the house. James Denison Avery, a Groton town clerk for 20 years in the 1800s, lived there with his wife and two children at the time.
FIRE CAUSED BY A STRAY EMBER
At about 10 p.m. on Friday, July 20, 1894, an ember from a passing train ignited the roof of the house. The family had just time to escape in their nightclothes, according to an 1894 news article. Neighbors gathered to help but could do little without water, and the house burned down to ashes in 30 to 40 minutes.
James Avery kept some road charts for the town of Groton, which the fire destroyed. Other documents were saved in fireproof safes, the article said. The only item from the house that remained intact was a mantle clock, Williams said.
It’s now on display at the Ebenezer Avery House, which was built around 1750 and also has a history. It was used as a makeshift hospital for soldiers wounded during the Battle of Groton Heights on Sept. 6, 1781.
Restoration work was recently done on the house, which is open to the public from noon until 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays.
The archaeological work has focused on the original Avery hive at annual digs on the Thursday and Friday before the annual meetings, said Stephanie Lantiere, association president.
But this year, the association decided instead to clean, restore and study the pieces that had been found.
Williams, who was handling artifacts with gloved hands earlier this week, had dozens of containers filled with chunks and shards of matching pottery, stoneware and slightly melted glass. She said Davi would try to fit them together like pieces of a broken Humpty Dumpty to see what they might make.
“It’s a historical puzzle,” Davi said. “You have to have good vision, a little imagination and a lot of sweat to put it together.”
But Lantiere is looking forward to the work.
“We have only excavated about half of what’s there,” he said. “There is still probably another thousand items still in the ground.”