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.
As he moves through the area laid out in a grid for digging, brushing away the perspiration and buzzing insects of a particularly muggy, midsummer day, the UVM professor jokes that sometimes ``archaeologists spend all their time finding the next shady spot.''
In the mottled shade of a scraggly pine, Wendy Politis is painstakingly troweling out a meter-square block. This is a first taste of archaeology for Ms. Politis, a student at nearby Castleton State College in Castleton, Vt. But she has already unearthed a small historical treasure - a pair of decorative, red and white porcelain cuff links. Such items of personal adornment offer the kind of insight into everyday life that Starbuck expects Mt. Independence to yield in abundance.
Diaries kept by officers who served at the fortress indicate social friction between rough-hewn militiamen and their gentlemen officers. One disgusted officer noted that the men under him kept pilfering items of clothing. The cuff links were just the sort of possessions that marked the class divisions on Mt. Independence.
Other finds from this summer's search of the mount's rocky topsoil include British regimental buttons - one of which, paradoxically, is from a regiment that never left New York City - and a perfectly preserved 1749 British coin. Shards of high-quality china are another hint of the relatively upscale life of the officers. Dozens of musket balls and gun flints have surfaced, as well hundreds of fragments of old wine bottles.
The big pieces of war materiel left behind by the fleeing American army disappeared long ago.
The government of Vermont invited salvagers to help themselves to cannons, mortars, and other iron ``scrap'' way back in 1785. Collectors have picked away since. But the slim chance of finding anything ``big'' hasn't tempered the enthusiasm of Starbuck's team.
Some, like Bill Murphy, have waited decades for a bona fide dig to get under way here. In 1970, Mr. Murphy, then a schoolteacher in Middlebury, Vt., started a grass-roots campaign to save a section of Mt. Independence from developers. He rallied his students to write letters and persuade the state to step in and buy the land. The site is now owned entirely by the state and the Fort Ticonderoga Association, a preservationist organization.
Above all, says the white-bearded, tanned Murphy, this place ought to receive the public and scientific attention it deserves. ``To let it sit without letting people know its history, I've always thought foolish.'' This is a spot where you ``feel history,'' he says. ``All you have to do is walk through it. The heroes of the Revolution started here, men like Benedict Arnold and Seth Warner.'' Arnold, later reviled as a traitor, commanded the forces that originally captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British and later led an unsuccessful attack on Quebec. Warner also had a key role in the capture of Ticonderoga and in the American victory at Bennington, Vt.
The encounter with history keeps Murphy and the others at it, no matter how unproductive their square meter seems at the moment or how oppressive the humidity. Toni Howe of Concord, N.H., is an experienced avocational who has worked with Starbuck at other sites, including his excavation of the battlefield at Saratoga, N.Y., where the Americans beat General Burgoyne. Along with four or five others, she has been laboring near what promised to be the hearth of a cabin. It's ``essentially sterile,'' she sighs. ``But find anything, and we'll get excited,'' Ms. Howe quickly adds.
The end result of the digging here will never rival the elaborate reconstruction at Fort Ticonderoga as a tourist draw. Vermont plans to keep the site pretty much in its pristine state, with few structural additions other than a visitors' center, where the artifacts now being uncovered will be on display. There are plans to improve the miles of trails on Mt. Independence, however.
And as the history of this place becomes better known, more people will want to walk the area, gaze down its 200-foot cliffs and across the lake at Ticonderoga, and imagine what it must have been like those two centuries ago as a few thousand poorly drilled militiamen gathered to defend a new nation.