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A War Site Offers Historical Insight

Students and amateur archaeologists unearth artifacts at forgotten Mt. Independence. REVOLUTIONARY RESEARCH

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MT. INDEPENDENCE juts into the narrow southern end of Lake Champlain like a great tree-covered knuckle of stone. Two hundred thirteen years ago American revolutionaries, fearing a British invasion from Canada, fortified this outcropping. They cleared the mount's 400 acres and built batteries, a star-shaped fort, field hospitals, and a sprawl of barracks and officers' quarters. Paired with Fort Ticonderoga on the opposite bank of Champlain, Mt. Independence - so named after the newly drafted Declaration of Independence was read to the garrison - helped repel a royal fleet sailing south in the fall of 1776.

That was the extent of the fortress's glory. Weakened by disease and a winter of suffering that rivaled that at Valley Forge, the American defenders fled when Gen. John Burgoyne's redcoats did the supposedly impossible and placed cannons on the heights overlooking Fort Ticonderoga in July 1777.

Historians may debate the importance of Mt. Independence in blocking an early British invasion and thus buying time for later victories. But few would dispute its archaeological value.

Though little was done over the years to protect the site from casual collectors in search of artifacts, its isolation in a corner of the tiny Vermont town of Orwell shielded the mount from the greater ravages of commercial or residential development.

This summer the first scientific examination of Mt. Independence began under the guidance of University of Vermont (UVM) archaeologist David Starbuck. The meticulous, often tedious work of digging and sifting is being done by a team of 42 students and ``avocationals'' - part-time devotees of archaeology who've regularly spent their summers probing historical sites and acquiring field know-how.

Mt. Independence is ``not untouched,'' says Dr. Starbuck, ``but compared to other Revolutionary War sites, it's very undisturbed.'' He says Vermont's bicentennial, coming in 1991, has provided the occasion to launch the dig. As now planned, the project will proceed in three stages.

This summer, the field work zeroed in on clusters of living quarters and the small out-buildings that surrounded the fort. Next summer, the team will move on to what remains of a 20-by-200-foot field hospital. In 1991, Starbuck's crew will explore the fort itself and outlying gun emplacements.

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