The dead had a story to tell. That much was certain as Dr. Nicholas F. Bellantoni, Connecticut’s emeritus state archaeologist, drove toward Ridgefield in December 2019.
Days before, human skeletal remains were discovered under the foundation of an early-18th-century home that was being renovated. The police had been called but had quickly concluded the remains were a historic, not criminal, matter.
The state archaeology office was notified and Bellantoni was on his way to Ridgefield to lead an excavation of the site with help from Friends of the Office of State Archaeology and University of Connecticut graduate students.
Nearly a decade earlier, in 2010, Bellantoni traveled to this western Connecticut town on the border of New York following a ghost trail of local tradition. Town lore had long held there was a graveyard near Route 35 where eight patriots and 16 British soldiers who died in the Battle of Ridgefield were buried.
Despite the existence of other better-documented Revolutionary War graveyards, the bodies of soldiers who died in the conflict from either side have never been studied by archaeologists. “We don’t go digging burials up; basically burials like this are uncovered haphazardly during construction or other kinds of activities,” Bellantoni says.
Excavating a battlefield gravesite would provide an unparalleled look into the past, enriching our understanding of the era, Bellantoni says. On the 2010 trip, he and his team used ground-penetrating radar to search for burial sites but could not find anything. Now en route to Ridgefield again, Bellantoni wondered if someone had stumbled on the battlefield burial site he had been searching for all those years ago.
The Battle of Ridgefield took place on April 27, 1777 — 244 years ago this month. Two days before the battle, more than 1,500 British troops landed at Compo Beach in what is today Westport and marched to Danbury where they destroyed a Continental Army supply depot. As the British made their way back to Long Island Sound, they were hounded by about 700 hastily assembled Continental Army regulars and militia members under the command of Benedict Arnold and other generals.
Arnold led a contingent of troops that fought the British in downtown Ridgefield and nearly died when the horse he rode was shot and killed. He’d be hailed as the hero of the Battle of Ridgefield, before ultimately betraying the patriot cause.
As Bellantoni’s team began the excavation in late 2019, they had the battle in mind, but also knew it might prove to just be a farming family’s gravesite. As they excavated the site they discovered the remains of four people in total. “We have one in what appears to be a separate grave, and then three that were put into a mass grave,” Bellantoni says.
All four were young adult men who were muscular and in good shape. The site did not look like an average family graveyard. “Even though it’s a small sample of four individuals, we would have expected some demographic variability,” Bellantoni says. He adds that cemeteries from this era generally have women and children and men of different ages within them.
The way three of the bodies were buried together, “overlapping and commingled,” suggests a hasty burial to Bellantoni, which is consistent with a battlefield interment. They also found buttons on two of the four men that date to the late 18th century. Most people were not buried in clothing in the 1700s, so being buried with clothing also suggested possible post-battle haste to Bellantoni.
But not all the evidence pointed to them being fallen soldiers. Analysis of all 38 buttons found revealed they were plain and not associated with a regiment. Soldiers would be expected to have buttons that could be identified as part of a uniform. However, many who fought in the battle were called in from the fields to respond to the surprise raid, and it was early enough in the war that uniforms may not have been widespread, Bellantoni says.
The team also didn’t see any signs of the trauma of war in the men’s remains. “We assume these men died violently if they were victims of the battle, but we could find no evidence of that,” Bellantoni says. “We found no broken limbs. We know there was a bayonet charge. We found no evidence yet of bones being cut.” Bellantoni puts extra emphasis on the word “yet,” as laboratory analysis of the bones in the coming year could unearth evidence of wounds and other trauma that were not spotted during the excavation.
The excavation concluded in January 2020 shortly before the pandemic began, and laboratory analysis of the findings has been delayed by the coronavirus as many labs were closed.
Bellantoni is hoping to make progress in the coming year, with researchers at UConn and Yale and Quinnipiac universities contributing to the project. He is also collaborating with researchers in New York who in 2019 also found what seem to be the remains of Revolutionary War soldiers near Fort William Henry in Lake George. “We are the only researchers that have Revolutionary War remains,” Bellantoni says.
The Ridgefield Historical Society has also received a federal battlefield grant to better document ballistic evidence of the battle. “In the past, people have found cannonballs and musket balls and different evidence of the battle through the village,” Bellantoni says. “However, nobody has ever systematically put that together in a way to learn more about what actually happened during that battle. You can follow ballistics and you can see the movement of troops archaeologically.”
As for the bodies found in that foundation in late 2019, Bellantoni says, “When you look at the position, when you look at the mass grave, when you look at the demographics, it all suggests military,” he says. “Right now, we keep an open mind and just let the physical remains speak for themselves.”