Mansion House Excavations

Contributed by Ryan Collins

My name is Ryan Collins, and I am an Archaeological Anthropologist specializing in Ancient Maya Culture. I recently earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Brandeis University where I also instruct courses (as well as at Northeastern University and Lesley Art + Design) in Archaeology, Anthropology, Latin America, and Material Culture Studies.

I am also fortunate enough to have two roles with the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology. First, I am the Transcription Project Associate, working through the museum’s original bound ledgers to create a digital inventory. While there are several subjects of interest that I want to explore from the Ledger Transcription Project (including the stories of somewhat mysterious artifacts), the subject of this post will focus on my role as the Lead Archaeologist with Mansion House Excavations happening on Phillips Academy’s Campus during the Summer Session with the Lower School Institute. The Mansion House excavations happen in collaboration with the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology which houses recovered artifacts as well as materials that once belonged in the late 18th-century building.

The Mansion House at Phillips Academy Andover is a site of significant historical importance in the local community. Built during the Revolutionary War in 1782 (though fully completed in 1785) it was home to Phillips Academy Andover’s founder, Judge Samuel “Esquire” Phillips Jr., and his family until 1812. During this time Judge Phillips, his wife Phoebe Phillips, and their family were known to cultivate a warm and inviting atmosphere to the students of the academy while also hosting notable political figures of the day like President George Washington.

Image 1 MansionHouse_1880s
Mansion House in the 1880s

With the decline of Phoebe Phillips’ health in 1812, the Trustees of Phillips Academy purchased Mansion House converting it into an Inn and Tavern. As an Inn and Tavern, Mansion House became a central meeting place for students and faculty of the academy as well as for residents in Andover. Over the years Mansion House hosted notable guests including Emerson, Webster, President Andrew Jackson, and Mark Twain among many others. Although, when looking through the guest ledger on the date of his stay, Mark Twain’s signature is absent having mysteriously been cut out.

Image 2
Signed guest ledger from the Mansion House

The history of Mansion House and its guests is enough to capture the attention of archaeologists. However, beneath Mansion House’s rich past is an enduring mystery – who burned it down? On the very early morning of November 29th, 1887, around 2:00 am the tenants were awoken by thick smoke coming from a fire in the rear base of the house near a pile of woodchips. A second fire was discovered shortly after in a third-floor room at the front of the house. Despite the best efforts of the local fire brigade and a galvanized town, Mansion House could not be saved. As chronicled by the Andover Townsman on December 2nd, 1887, Mansion House did not collapse, but it “slowly melted” into its foundations.

Image 3 1887 Mansion House Ruins Post Fire
Mansion House ruins after the fire

Most sites and buildings that archaeologists explore are little more than skeletons of their former selves. This reality puts limits on the archaeological record (often refuse in this context) and on the questions that archaeologists can ask about a site to broad notions of process or change over time. With Mansion House, a question of this variety would be: How did Mansion House change over time? What traditions are evident in the material remains of the site? However, because Mansion House burned into its foundations, we have access to an event, a specific moment in time. In this way, the materials students recover from Mansion House will help then share different informed stories about the site, its residents, and life in the 18th and 19th centuries. (IMAGE 4)

Image 4
Summer Session excavation unit

In 2018, our excavations confirmed the location of Mansion House by finding one of its (at least) 6 chimneys and the remains of an iron furnace. This finding not only establishes a more precise understanding of where Mansion House’s foundations are currently situated but it allows us to explore the material remains that have sat untouched for 132 years. With luck, this year’s investigations will allow us to understand even more about life in Mansion House during its final days. While the mysteries around the long-ago fire are unlikely to be solved, more insight will undoubtedly be learned about Phillips Academy and the local Andover community. Excavations at Mansion House will reopen in July of 2019.

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