A revealing unearthing of bits of history at Sagamore Hill

Radar, metal detectors help with excavation


Last month, archaeologists made some significant discoveries at Sagamore Hill. A group from the National Park Service spent two weeks conducting an excavation at the stable and lodge site and surveying the rifle pit and firing range in the woods at Theodore Roosevelt’s beloved summer White House.

There is much known about the interior of Roosevelt’s home, but not about its surroundings, where a stable and lodge once stood. Roughly 300 yards from the house, it was destroyed, historians believe, by a fire in 1944, when a kerosene container on the porch of the stable exploded.

Roosevelt died in 1919, but his wife, Edith, lived at Sagamore Hill until her death in 1948.

There were no casualties in the fire, which is surprising, because many single men, including the Roosevelts’ staff, farmhands and day laborers lived at the lodge. Although Sagamore Hill was a summer vacation home for Roosevelt, year-round residents tended to the garden and the livestock.

In 2010, Joel Dukes, the senior archaeologist for the Park Service’s Northeastern Region, used radar to determine what remained underground at the former site of the stable and lodge. He found a wall and a basement, convenient guides for excavators.

Dukes, who is also an archaeological adviser at Peacefield, President John Adams’s home in Massachusetts, and the Statue of Liberty, reviews all projects at Sagamore Hill. Planning for the current excavation began four years ago, he said, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the project.

Excavators from the National Park Service’s Northeast Archaeological Resources program arrived on Aug. 2, amid blistering heat. And there were other challenges beside the weather. They had to dig in different locations to find the lodge walls. Although they unearthed artifacts, their focus was on finding its foundation.

“What is fascinating is that the house is beautiful, intact and there are so many artifacts there and it is so close to here, but we know nothing about this site where the servants lived,” Christine Nestleroth, an archaeological technician, said. “Archaeology is finally starting to look at the working class through artifacts to see how they lived. This can tell a little bit more about their story, which wasn’t told before.”

Roosevelt lived in the lodge for a year before the main house was finished in 1884. Nestleroth has surmised that T.R. had a good relationship with his servants, based on how close the lodge was to the house.

“I thought the building would be more intact, that we would have a clear outline of the building, she said. “The disorganization we’re finding tells us that there was a lot of fire.”

Using a trowel, Nestleroth worked methodically, crouching inside a three-foot in diameter hole, gently scraping the lodge’s foundation. Pausing to wipe away sweat, she said she was surprised by what she was seeing. “I’ve found a lot of glass melted into shapes I’ve never seen before,” she said. “It’s colorless, amber and aqua. I can tell they might have been beer bottles or medicine bottles, but some look like rocks.”

Rusty nails and shreds of ceramic material, some bearing fingerprints, were also found, Nestleroth said. “This gives us an idea of what ceramics were used then, what people were using who lived here,” she said,  “or [the ceramics] might be something that was passed down.”

The soil Nestleroth excavated was put into buckets and taken to another member of the team, Jared Muehlbauer, who strained it through a large screen. “This allows for a more streamlined process of collecting the artifacts and placing them in the correct artifact bags,” explained Victoria Cacchione, Sagamore Hill’s interim curator.

Muehlbauer bagged the soil, marking where it was found, as well as any artifacts. “If I find a lot of ceramic, for example,” he said, “that could indicate where the kitchen was.”

What he found wasn’t surprising, he said. It was what he wasn’t finding that was a surprise. Ceramic materials are common in sites like the lodge, but they weren’t finding much. “That’s why we’re excavating in the cellar more,” Muehlbauer said. “Maybe when demolishing the building after the fire, everything was pushed into the cellar to fill a hole. In finding structural materials, like nails, brick and motor, we can’t answer some questions but will answer others.”

Metal detectors were used in the firing range, which was in the woods near the lodge. Personal objects like small toys, shell casings, an arm of a compass, a small medallion and many bullets were found there. “There were so many, we could have been picking up bullets for the next four weeks,” Dukes said.

Roosevelt used the range often, taking friends there because he believed that shooting was a valuable skill. He also brought a son of one of his staff members to the range. “He was weak from asthma when he was a child,” Dukes said, “and attributed his recovery as an adult to being in the woods.”

Roosevelt’s children were known for playing tricks. Once, Dukes said, they hid behind the targets at the range and then surprised their father, who enjoyed the joke.

Jennifer McCann, an archaeological curator, was tasked with cleaning the artifacts, and analyzing and cataloging them before driving back to Massachusetts with the “precious cargo.” Eventually they will be part of the Theodore Roosevelt Museum at the Old Orchard House.

“We found three pieces of a doorknob,” she said. “The fire will make it complicated to date, because they’re altered, but we’ll take it to the lab in Boston. We’ll put it under a microscope and use different light sources.”

McCann added that she was confident that all of the artifacts would be dated — even the doorknob pieces. “We have a team of catalogers that have seen so much,” she said. “It probably matches some of the doorknobs in the house. It’s a neat thing, holding something that someone used every day so long ago.”