EAST PROVIDENCE — An empty lot on Newport Avenue, used mostly as overflow parking for Uncle Tony's Pizza and Pasta restaurant, is serving up some fascinating pieces of history as part of an archaeological dig.
It seems that the front portion of the lot, situated between New Road and Moore Street, was once the East Providence Cemetery. While the burial ground has long been closed and the coffins removed and interred elsewhere, the current owners of the commercially zoned property want to make sure that no remains were left behind.
Attorney Robert Wieck, of Wieck, DeLuca and Gemma, said the property owner, Newport/New Road LLC, is fully aware of the land's past use as a private cemetery. He said it was formally plotted as a cemetery in the 1880s. Grave lots were marketed and sold throughout the 1920s and early 1930s on the section of land that runs along the busy commercial strip that is now Newport Avenue. At some point back then, however, the cemetery ran into financial trouble and the rear section, which remains wooded, was never developed.
Wieck said the only exception to this is a small parcel of land at the rear of the property which served as a burial ground for the former St. Mary's Orphanage. The remains of several babies and children who had been interred there have also reportedly been moved to other locations, he said.
Wieck said that in the 1960s, the cemetery was formally closed and the remains of those buried there were dug up and re-interred at other local cemeteries in the area. He said the majority of the bodies were re-buried in the Spring Vale Cemetery, which is located adjacent to the Rumford Cemetery on Pawtucket Avenue, while a few were interred at other places He said there is a map at East Providence City Hall showing the cemetery and marked burial plots, as well as documents from the closure process, which was done under court supervision.
However, Wieck said the property owners want to “do their archaeological due diligence” to make sure the land is free and clear of any old graves or other legal encumbrances that could impede its future sale or commercial development. He said he is not aware of any deals that are currently under agreement, but the owners want to be able to show potential buyers a detailed report of the site.
To accomplish this task, Wieck said the property owner has engaged the services of the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project (PARP). For the past few weeks, workers from the New Bedford, Mass.-based firm have been doing excavation work on a front portion of the property that served as a graveyard. The first part of the process involved using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to confirm there were no remaining graves on the site. “There was no GPR back then. Now we're able to use this modern technology to more thoroughly check the site,” noted Wieck.
After a bulldozer and steam shovel dug up the first three or so feet all the way across the site, Craig Chartier, the principal archaeologist with PARP, and Alan Smith, a field archeologist, went to work with picks and shovels to examine each individual burial plot that was recorded on the cemetery map.
Chartier said that so far, no unmarked remains or unreported graves had been found on the property. However, he and Smith have found numerous remnants of old coffins, including pieces of wood, metal handles, pieces of glass and other hardware left behind in the individual grave sites.
Chartier explained that when the uppermost layers of brown topsoil are removed, the dirt gives way to older, yellow-colored soil. In this soil, they can see a rectangular darkened “stain” which shows where the coffins were located. From there, he and Smith are digging down two feet more to reach the spot where the coffins rested.
Chartier also noted that in some of the graves, he had found a large bottom section of the wooden coffin left behind in the dirt from when the remains had been removed. These pieces of wood, metal hardware, cloth and other items are being collected and will be further analyzed to categorize their age or other identifying characteristics, he said.
Smith, an archaeologist for over 30 years who is also a geologist and environmentalist, explained that back in the 1920s and 1930s, carpenters were very competitive about their coffin-making and eager to show off their skills. He said it wasn't uncommon back then for a poor person to have a coffin that was ornamental. He also said that many coffins of that time period were built with glass “viewing panels” to show the face of the deceased, and said he had found broken glass of that type and size in several of the graves he was working in.
Chartier said that one unexpected discovery had turned up during the excavation: a foundation of a farmhouse on the land that pre-dated the old cemetery. Digging around near the foundation had unearthed some plates, glassware, pots and tobacco pipes that dated back to about the 1770s. “That was something we had no idea about,” he said.