By Jeff Slovin, Contributing Writer
Northborough – On Monday, November 17, 1884, workmen digging a trench on the farm that belong to Northborough resident, William Maynard, near the Shrewsbury town line, discovered several teeth, bone fragments and portions of tusks. According to an account of the discovery published the following year by Franklin P. Rice of the Worcester Natural History Society (NHS), Maynard brought the specimens to his house, washed the teeth, and tested their hardness with a hammer, before handing them off for a more thorough examination.
Maynard gave the specimens to Dr. F. W. Brigham, who showed them to naturalist Thomas A. Dickenson and other members of the Worcester Society of Antiquity and the NHS, who made a preliminary determination that the teeth belonged to a mastodon. Later that same week, Dickenson brought the teeth to Professor Joel A. Allen, a noted zoologist and ornithologist at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Allen confirmed the teeth belonged to a mastodon, the first such discovered in Massachusetts. Word of the discovery spread quickly, and was reported in newspapers throughout the country.
The NHS immediately began negotiations with Maynard for the right to perform a more thorough excavation of his field to search for additional remains. Before the negotiations could be concluded, matters were taken out of their hands. On Sunday, Nov. 23, while the Maynard family was at church, a “horde of invaders” from surrounding towns descended on the farm and began digging for remains. Folklore says a number of additional teeth were found and taken away by some members of the mob, but they were eventually tracked down and returned.
A more thorough excavation kicked off in October 1885 with the hopes of finding the rest of the
mastodon skeleton. Searchers never found the rest of the mastodon, but they did find something even more intriguing. Approximately 18 feet from where the mastodon teeth were originally recovered, they found a human skull. The origins of the skull were hotly debated. Was it associated with the mastodon? Was it the skull of a traveler who was rumored to have disappeared from a nearby tavern under questionable circumstances years before?
Professor F.W. Putnam, of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, and his staff spent months studying the skull and came to the conclusion that it belonged to a female Native American, had been in the ground a much shorter time than the mastodon, and was unrelated to it. He also believed that both the mastodon and the skull had drifted to their current location from elsewhere.
The Worcester Natural History Society, more commonly known today as the EcoTarium, has five teeth and three pieces of ivory tusk from the mastodon currently on display in a small case by the door on the top level of the museum. The Northborough Historical Society also has several bone fragments and photos on display as well.
Mark and Amy Johnson are the current owners of the land where the mastodon was discovered. They did not know of the connection to the mastodon when they bought the property; neighbors told them about it later. They enjoy their small connection to this bit of Northborough history and have since put together their own collection of articles and photographs about the discovery. There is a small pond on their property now where the original excavations occurred.