What’s buried in your backyard?

What’s buried in your backyard?

In 1973, a group of archaeology students from local universities dug up the rear garden of an interesting property on Essex Street.

Known today as the “Narbonne House,” this home was originally built for a butcher and his family back in 1675. Over the next 288 years, prior to its purchase by the National Park Service, it would be owned by a clothier, a sea captain, a wealthy widow, and a centenarian named Sarah Narbonne.

Each successive generation buried their trash in the backyard (no municipal garbage collection back then), and this has created layers upon layers of discarded pottery that reads like a timeline of middle class household goods. If you take a tour of the Narbonne House (just five bucks, and they throw in a complementary tour of the replica 1797 tall ship, the Friendship), you can see the items that were recovered in the dig.


We found ourselves wondering if the Narbonne House was unique, or if every plot of land in Salem’s historic district contains a similar stash of goods in the soil. It would not be surprising if, in a town with as rich a history as ours, each time we cross a tiny patch of grass we traverse several centuries worth of artifacts and treasures.

For an excellent piece on the artifacts found at the Narbonne House, check this out from the NMSC Archaeology Blog.

To plan a visit, see the National Park Service website.

To read about why Marta probably won’t be digging up her backyard any time soon, read this.

Marta and Madelene

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8 responses to “What’s buried in your backyard?

  1. Thank you for highlighting the Narbonne House! It is truly an amazing survivor of Salem’s past that can teach us a great deal. Just wanted to point out that the students weren’t from Salem State (though as an SSU alumna, I wish they had been), they were from Bradford College in Haverhill, which closed in 2000. I would also like to commend Marta’s article for pointing out that though there may be archaeological artifacts under our feet, digging can not only be illegal but is also incredibly destructive. Archaeologists are trained to conduct excavations grid by grid and layer by layer to understand as much as possible about the site they’re digging since excavations are a one-time only opportunity. To learn more about how archaeologists excavate, and some of the ethics and laws (specifically at our National Parks – like Salem Maritime NHS) check out this website (http://www.nps.gov/archeology/).

      • Technically, the group was from “Bradford College and other area colleges [Brown University is the only other school named]” (Archeological Investigations at the Narbonne House, 1982, p. 6). But it does not directly say whether Salem State was one of these local schools. That’s most likely where the confusion came from.

        Regardless, it’s a great post. I couldn’t agree more with your recommendation to go and visit the house!

  2. At last, a little archeology in Salem! I also enjoyed Marta’s previous article which I had somehow missed

  3. Just to the left of the house on Orange Street a home owner was digging up his yard and found one of the many tunnels in the city. Most likely the tunnel came from the Hodges House. To find out more about the tunnels in Salem I would suggest reading Salem Secret Underground:The History of the Tunnels in the City. Then take the interesting Salem walking tour about them. Also I own a marble that is of the same make as the one from the Narborne House I dug up in my backyard garden on a plot that was owned by the Parker Brother’s grandfather on Beacon Street which was named back then East Watson. Watson was their mother’s maiden name. In fact there house on Pleasant Street also had a tunnel attached to it. Which explains where the family fortune came from to start the toy company.

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