Archaeologist John Mosher says the current Province Fort project is the largest ever be undertaken on the Windham site. Jane Vaughan / Lakes Region Weekly

WINDHAM — An archaeological dig to recover River Road’s Province Fort is the largest project ever undertaken on the fort — and also the last in this location.

After archaeologists have finished their work on the site, that portion of River Road will be dug out to reduce the grade of the road, improving safety and visibility.

Province Fort archaeologists are unsure about the nature of the rocks in the foreground, thinking they may be a wall, rubble or dumping area. Jane Vaughan / Lakes Region Weekly

That portion of the fort “will be gone,” said project archaeologist John Mosher with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

The fort dates to the mid-18th century and served as protection from attacks by Native Americans. While some survey work and test pits have previously been dug in the area, this is the first attempt to unearth the entire fort itself.

When the River Road reconstruction project went out to bid, Mosher said, “we then had the opportunity to see if there was more of the fort underneath the road.”

Mosher said that although the fort’s exact location has been suspected for 200 years, “We really did not know until we dug here whether or not there was going to be anything preserved under here. We were hoping beyond hope that it didn’t get blown out” when River Road was put in in the 1920s. 

Mosher and his team will finish their work on the south side of River Road, opposite the Parson Smith House, this week. That portion will then be filled in and paved over so that the team can work on a segment of land directly under the road, where they hope to find the interior of the fort. After they are done, the River Road project will begin.

The group of archaeologists and volunteers has been working on the site since the end of July, and so far have found a variety of artifacts, including English ceramics and gun flints.

Much of archaeology is interpretive, Mosher said: “The science of archaeology is being able to look at soil, recognize disturbances and how things have changed over time and then interpreting ‘what is this cluster of rocks?'”

One long, linear feature of stone was initially suspected to be the south wall of the fort. Now, they believe it to be a deck that soldiers used to patrol the fort’s perimeter.

Archaeologists have also uncovered a chimney base that they believe was the center chimney for the fort, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But another pile of rocks is a mystery: “What is that?” Mosher asked. “It could be some rubble. It could be a chimney or something else, another wall, for instance. Every day we come up with ideas of what things are only to change them.” 

Volunteer Joyce Mendoza of South Portland said that when working on archaeological sites, “99% of what we do is hard work. One percent is that excitement and the connection with the past, which is what drives everybody here.” 

The work requires a great deal of patience and persistence, she said: “You piece it together. It is a puzzle.” 

The team will get as much work done this week as it can before the fort is dug up as part of the River Road reconstruction.

Mosher said that further excavation work could be done on the fort the future, either on the lawn of the Parson Smith House or in the woods across the street.

“If somebody wanted to come back and do more significant work, they could,” he said. If time and money were no object, “we’d be looking back in the woods more for privies or dumping areas. There should be a well, but we haven’t found that yet either.”

Approximately one-third to one-half of the fort will be preserved after the reconstruction is done, Mosher said.

After the work is completed, the artifacts will be processed, cleaned and cataloged, and Mosher will work on precisely mapping the site. The artifacts will likely go to the Maine State Museum in Augusta, he said. A technical report of the project will be sent to the Windham Historical Society, Maine DOT, the Federal Highway Administration and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.

A sense of urgency stems from a desire to not go over budget for the project, and Mosher said, “In 30 years of doing this, this was my first time it was this busy.”

Honestly, you’d want to spend two or three months just cleaning this all down. We can’t do that,” he continued. “So we’ll do the best job that we can in recovering what there is.” 

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