Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Buried Past

Because there’s so little left of Native American culture -- place names, archaeological sites -- we’re freshly surprised when something new turns up, like this archaeological site on Block Island, which I learned about via Matt (@Soundbounder) on Twitter this morning. It’s intriguing to learn that a site we pass every day still has relics of quotidian life, in place, just below the surface of the ground.

Native Americans, of course, thrived along the coast of southern New England and on Long Island, at least until the Dutch and English arrived in the early 1600s, and there are literally dozens of archaeological sites, some quite famous and well-researched, in the area. I’m no expert but I did a fair amount of secondary research on Native Americans for my book, and my recollection is that Rhode Island and eastern Long Island were the centers of wampum-making, and trade was common, among Native Americans and European colonists, on the mainland, on Long Island, and on the offshore islands as well.

One of the things that fascinates me about about contemporary archaeology is the practice of leaving things alone. As soon as archaeologists excavate a site, the site is gone, destroyed. So unless they have to, they don’t. If an archaeological site is undisturbed, whatever is there and whatever it has to teach us, remains there and available. If it finally gets excavated, the archaeologists doing the job will know more than we know now, and what the site reveals will be all the richer.

The folks on Block Island know that the site, on Ocean Avenue, that they excavated recently is on the edge of a larger site. Here’s what the Block Island Times reported:

Jacob Freedman, an archeologist working on the project, said the site was only the edge of a more significant area to the northwest. What was discovered along the road was mostly waste left from activities like cooking and producing arrowheads. …

The area was only a small section and will be marked should a larger excavation ever be done. The full expanse of the settlement would have stretched to the northwest into an area that remains undeveloped. Freedman said the town should make sure the area is preserved.



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