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Port in Progress

April 20, 2007

Centuries later, Watt's Cellar keeps its secrets hidden

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NEWBURYPORT -- It was 1977, and on the bulldozed and scattered remains of the city's historic waterfront, archaeologists were just a lucky turn of the spade away from the Holy Grail of Newburyport archaeological sites.

In a city filled with spectacular architecture, the long-buried and elusive ruin the diggers sought to uncover would probably be unimpressive to the casual observer. Only sorry remnants like rusty bits of metal, broken bottles and pottery and a pile of stones were likely to have survived the centuries.

But for archaeologists like Alaric Faulkner, the site was a potential goldmine.

For years archaeologists and amateur historians have been piecing together clues to the location of "Watt's Cellar," owned by an English trader the Indians dubbed "Great Walt" or "Great Watt."

No one knows exactly where the cellar was, what it looked like, or even what it was used for. There has been plenty of speculation on all of those questions.

The only thing that anyone can say for sure about it is this: It is the very first documentable structure built by a European colonist in what is now Newburyport. In fact, it's believed to be the first colonist-built structure in the entire Merrimack River valley.

And its importance is still felt today. If it weren't for Watt's Cellar, downtown Newburyport might not be located where it is.

The hunt for Great Watt's Cellar lasted several weeks during the summer of 1977, extending around the Firehouse Center for the Arts and selected spots closer to the riverbank.

It didn't yield the city's Holy Grail, but it did reveal some unexpected glimpses into Newburyport's past, Faulkner said.



The hunt

The dig was one of the fruits of a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Newburyport Waterfront. That lengthy legal battle over the waterfront's development will be explored more fully in future installments of the Port in Progress series.

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