On a sunny Friday in mid-October, two archaeologists and two students gathered outside the Clarke House, a two-story house that is the only structure present during the Jan. 3, 1777, Battle of Princeton that still stands in the battlefield park today. As Revolutionary War-era fife and drum music played from a laptop, two of the four dug around the front of the house with shovels and trowels while the others parsed through the findings with a wooden soil sifter.
“Oh my gosh, it’s part of a teapot lid!” exclaimed archaeologist Ian Burrow, a native of England, as he held a half-dollar-sized piece of china, one of about 30 ceramic fragments dated from about 1750 to the early 1800s found around the house. “What’s great about this is that it tells us that good patriotic Americans though they were, they were still drinking tea.”
“Says the Brit,” joked Nathan Arrington ’02, an associate professor of art and archaeology.
The area near the house — which had been occupied by Thomas Clarke and his family, and became a field hospital where Gen. Hugh Mercer died several days after he was bayoneted during the conflict — was one of several locations examined as part of “Battle Lab: The Battle of Princeton,” a new course that combined analysis of art and literature with archaeological digging at Princeton Battlefield State Park, about a mile southwest of campus.
After facing British troops on the banks of Assunpink Creek in Trenton on Jan. 2, 1777, Gen. George Washington marched his army of about 5,000 men overnight toward Princeton, outflanking British Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ forces and hoping to capture the British 4th Brigade garrisoned in the town. Continental Army troops led by Mercer met up with British units heading toward Trenton and were overwhelmed. When militia sent to support Mercer’s troops also began to flee, Washington rallied his army and routed the British troops, who retreated to Princeton. Under cannon fire from the American troops, nearly 200 British soldiers who had taken refuge in Nassau Hall surrendered.
A team of 19 students, two professors, and several archaeologists, historians, and other experts collaborated to try to shed some light on some of the questions surrounding the Battle of Princeton — including who died and where their bones are buried. This was the first course offered at the University in which undergraduate students were able to perform excavation work locally, Arrington said.
Art and archaeology professor Rachael DeLue, who co-taught the course with Arrington, said that while archaeological work had been done at the battlefield before, Princeton’s course was the most comprehensive excavation at the site.
“The recovered musket balls were all impacted, meaning they had hit something. They represent both British and American weapons.”
— Archaeologist Wade Catts
The group spent six afternoons excavating and used several different archaeological field methods, including ground-penetrating radar to help determine where the soil has been disturbed.
Wade Catts, the archaeologist who oversaw the course’s field work, said metal detecting is the “best way to investigate a battlefield,” and the group recovered 549 artifacts from metal detecting alone. Ten to 12 are believed to be battle-related: four musket balls; two shot, likely fired by artillery; part of a shoe buckle; and other items that were still being identified, including what may be buttons.
“The iron-case shot found shows that [that area of the field] was coming under fire from the Royal Artillery,” Catts said. “And the recovered musket balls were all impacted, meaning they had hit something. They represent both British and American weapons.”
Two of the four sites where metal-detection techniques were used proved to be much more fruitful than the others, indicating that those areas witnessed heavy fighting.
Leina Thurn ’20, who is pursuing a certificate in art and archaeology and plans to become an archaeologist, said she learned excavation techniques during the course that will help with her career.
“Usually if people want to get engaged in this kind of field work, they have to do a summer dig or excavation somewhere around the world,” Thurn said. “Doing the digging during the school year is a very different process.”
Catts said it was unlikely that human remains would be discovered, pointing out that only about a dozen bodies have been found on Revolutionary War battlefields. Among the factors, he said, are the small number of burials that occurred on battlefields, the shallow graves that could be easily uncovered by animals, and the fact that bodies were often stripped of clothing, weapons, and other military items.
Over the course of the semester, about half of the meetings took place in the classroom, where students learned about the context of the Battle of Princeton. Students also studied the “second battle of Princeton,” a recently resolved legal dispute between the Institute for Advanced Study and the Princeton Battlefield Society over the construction of institute buildings on the battlefield site. They studied paintings at the Princeton University Art Museum that depict the battle, and visited the University Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections to learn how to put their excavated artifacts into a historical record.
“We’re hoping that these different perspectives can help us understand the battle and its larger context in a much more complete and accurate way than has been done in the past,” DeLue said.
Students also planned walking tours of the battlefield, the campus, and the town in the context of the Battle of Princeton.
Catts said he hopes the course is offered in future years and that the excavation work can continue.
“This is a nationally significant site, and I think it gets downplayed as if it’s not that important,” he said. “We tend to think of the American Revolution as a foregone conclusion, but that was certainly not the case in January 1777. This was a turning point in the war — Trenton and Princeton had a big effect on the way that [the Americans] processed the war after that. Things could have gone very differently if this battle had not turned out the way it did.”