Article
Illustration by Mark Fredrickson

A Pilgrim Puzzle

Nearly 400 years after the first Thanksgiving, researchers locate the original Pilgrim village.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

You’ve probably heard the story of the Pilgrims. In 1620, a group of English settlers set sail for America on the Mayflower and landed in what is now Massachusetts. More than half of them died in the first few months. But those who survived founded the village of Plymouth, one of the first European settlements in North America. The following year, the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag (wahm-pah-nawg) tribe celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast.

Over hundreds of years, the Pilgrim settlement was replaced by a busy modern-day town (also called Plymouth). Since 2013, a team of archaeologists has spent each summer digging there to find the remains of the original Pilgrim village.

“We’re doing detective work,” says David Landon. He’s an archaeologist from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who leads the team. “We’re trying to find parts of the old settlement preserved beneath the modern town.”

In 2016, the team discovered artifacts at the edge of a cemetery called Burial Hill. Many Pilgrims are buried there. Landon believes these objects prove that the area is the site of the first Pilgrim village.

You’ve probably heard the story of the Pilgrims. In 1620, a group of English settlers set sail for America on the Mayflower. They landed in what is now Massachusetts. More than half of them died in the first few months. But those who survived founded the village of Plymouth. It was one of the first European settlements in North America. The following year, the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag (wahm-pah-nawg) tribe celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast.

Over hundreds of years, the Pilgrim settlement was replaced by a busy modern-day town (also called Plymouth). Since 2013, a team of archaeologists has spent each summer digging there. They’re looking for the remains of the original Pilgrim village.

“We’re doing detective work,” says David Landon. He’s an archaeologist from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who leads the team. “We’re trying to find parts of the old settlement preserved beneath the modern town.”

In 2016, the team discovered artifacts. They found them at the edge of a cemetery called Burial Hill. Many Pilgrims are buried there. Landon believes these objects prove that the area is the site of the first Pilgrim village.

Lost Over Time

Most of what people know about the Pilgrims has come from historical documents. Researchers have dug in Plymouth before. But they’ve never found any actual artifacts.  

Landon says, “For a long time, archaeologists just assumed that since a town is on top of it, there can’t be very much left.”

But Landon was determined to find remains that would prove this was where the Pilgrims lived. Last year, the team uncovered their most important clue yet. Believe it or not, it was a trash pit! By testing the soil, Landon’s team was able to determine that the pit dated back to the Pilgrim era. 

One of the most important finds in the pit was cow bones. Landon says the bones are proof that the Pilgrims lived in the area. There were no cows in this part of the country until the Pilgrims brought them over from Europe. 

Most of what people know about the Pilgrims has come from historical documents. Researchers have dug in Plymouth before. But they’ve never found any actual artifacts. 

Landon says, “For a long time, archaeologists just assumed that since a town is on top of it, there can’t be very much left.”

But Landon was determined to find remains that would prove this was where the Pilgrims lived. Last year, the team found their most important clue yet. Believe it or not, it was a trash pit! Landon’s team tested the soil. They discovered that the pit dated back to the Pilgrim era.

One of the most important finds in the pit was cow bones. Landon says the bones are proof that the Pilgrims lived in the area. There were no cows in this part of the country until the Pilgrims brought them from Europe. 

Courtesy of Dr. David Landon/UMass Boston

Researchers study the remains of a cow in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

Side by Side

Other items in the pit proved some things we believed about Pilgrim life are actually true. Pieces of Wampanoag and English pottery were found mixed together. Historians knew that the Wampanoag traded with the Pilgrims. But the pottery is the first real proof.

“This is the first time we’ve seen direct evidence of the two cultures interacting in Plymouth,” says Vicki Oman. She works for the Plimoth Plantation museum. (“Plimoth” is the old-fashioned spelling of the town’s name. This spelling was sometimes used by the Pilgrims.)

The team also unearthed a patch of soil filled with fish bones. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to grow crops. One of the Wampanoag tricks was to bury fish bones in the soil to help corn grow.

“Now we have evidence that shows that,” says Landon. 

There were other items in the pit too. These artifacts proved that some things we believed about Pilgrim life are actually true. Pieces of Wampanoag and English pottery were found mixed together. Historians knew that the Wampanoag traded with the Pilgrims. But the pottery is the first real proof.

“This is the first time we’ve seen direct evidence of the two cultures interacting in Plymouth,” says Vicki Oman. She works for the Plimoth Plantation museum. (“Plimoth” is the old-fashioned spelling of the town’s name. This spelling was sometimes used by the Pilgrims.)

The team also dug up a patch of soil filled with fish bones. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to grow crops. One of the Wampanoag tricks was to bury fish bones in the soil to help corn grow.

“Now we have evidence that shows that,” says Landon.

More to Come

This past summer, Landon and his team dug up more artifacts. For now, the team will study those finds. And next summer, they’ll dig for more pieces of the Pilgrims’ past.

“There’s still a lot to find,” says Landon. “We hope to find a few more pieces of the puzzle.”

This past summer, Landon and his team dug up more artifacts. For now, the team will study those finds. And next summer, they’ll dig for more pieces of the Pilgrims’ past.

“There’s still a lot to find,” says Landon. “We hope to find a few more pieces of the puzzle.”

1. What is the goal of the archaeological dig at Burial Hill?

2. What challenges have archaeologists faced in finding the original Pilgrim settlement?

3. Which details support the idea that the discovery of the trash pit is the most important clue yet?

4. What does David Landon mean when he says “We’re doing detective work”?

1. What is the goal of the archaeological dig at Burial Hill?

2. What challenges have archaeologists faced in finding the original Pilgrim settlement?

3. Which details support the idea that the discovery of the trash pit is the most important clue yet?

4. What does David Landon mean when he says “We’re doing detective work”?

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