Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Uncovering an ancient world archaeology digs

Deep in Jamaica State Park the heavy morning sun beats down as a crew of eight, armed with hand-trowels, dustpans, one-gallon buckets, two-legged silt screeners and their imagination, work tirelessly to remove the material encased around 7,000-year-old artifacts.

The compact, mineral-rich soil fills the still air with an Earthy aroma as a member of the crew slides another pan full of the soil into her bucket.

Geoff Mandel harnesses his inner Indiana Jones and pours his bucket gently onto the wire mesh of one of the silt screeners. He shakes the 20-year-old wooden contraption in short, quick movements as his eyes scan rapidly back and forth over the debris left on top of the screen.

Will he find an ancient tool? A human or animal bone? Maybe a weapon?

The excitement and wonder are realized. He pulls out a 5-inch broken projectile, something he calls a Celt fragment, a piece of quartzite.

"This is by far the biggest one we've found," Mandel, Field Supervisor for the University of Vermont Consulting Archeology Program, said.

Holding it up to the light of the afternoon sun between his finger and thumb, the rock glows. Someone must have spent 100 hours attempting to flake pieces off the rock into a tool, he said.

Somewhere between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago this rock, to the trained eye, would have been ideal for the head of a small knife or spear because of its glass-like quality and its ability to shape.

In April, UVM's Consulting Archeology Program was hired by the State of Vermont to survey a possible location for a new septic system for the park in Jamaica. Parks Project Coordinator for Vermont State Parks, Frank Spaulding, said with the septic system so close to the river officials wanted to ensure it was up to standards.

"We have a mission to keep these parks up and running and we need to protect it from failure," Spaulding said.

With no other place to put in the new
Lo Wolf screens for artifacts during an archaeological dig at the Jamaica State Park. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
septic tanks to ensure the park is around and serviceable, the decision was made to go forward with the archaeology digs, he said.

"This isn't a hurdle for us," Spaulding said. "It's part of our process and to bump into something that has amazing potential is really cool."

Two test pits were dug by hand to get a sense of what was beneath the surface.

Although the crew knew the site had been documented as a location of historical significance they had no idea the amount of artifacts they would find.

Hidden right below the path thousands of people walk over each week lay the remnants of those who used the same location for fishing and possibly recreation 7,000 years ago.

Dr. Charles Knight, the assistant director of the Consulting Archeology Program at the University of Vermont, said what is being found tells the story of what the park looked like and what it was used for thousands of years ago.

"The archaeology dig is quite special," Knight said. "We knew it had the potential for a lot of features but we never expected this many."

At the site, a mere 30 yards from the portion of the West River known as the Salmon Hole, Mandel and the UVM archeology crew work tirelessly along a gridded system of flags impaled into the dirt.

Although salmon haven't been spotted near the site in many years, the deep water pool was once home to hundreds of spawning fish, Knight said.

Among the pieces found were fire-cracked rocks and post molds, which suggest some
Geoff Mandel, research supervisor, screens for artifacts during an archaeological dig at the Jamaica State Park. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
sort of cooking area. Mandel said finding those on the first day gave them the biggest clue that the area was used for fishing.

To weigh down nets, the inhabitants of the area were known to attach plummets, oval rocks grounded down into an hourglass figure, to ensnare the maximum amount of fish, Knight said.

"A single pole for fishing is fun when you have a cooler of beer," he said. "But it won't supply a group of people needs for food during the harsh New England winters."

Mandel said each area within the 4-by-4 grid is divided into 50-by-50-by-10 centimeter sections.

Each section of soi l that is removed is carefully coded and documented with the contents slipped into individual plastic bags.

"With this
Keith Williams screens for artifacts during an archaeological dig at the Jamaica State Park. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
information we can reconstruct not only the environment of what was once there, but the day-to-day lives of those who occupied this area," Mandel said.

As the crew digs and sifts through the earth, the site will be destroyed so the bags need to be recorded correctly and clearly labeled, he said.

"There's no do over, you can't put it back," Mandel said.

Once a feature or artifact is discovered and after it's documented and bagged, certain items are brought into a make-shift tent where volunteers have the opportunity to get a hands on experience with the materials, he said.

Large plastic basins filled with water, old toothbrushes and lunchroom trays with paper towels and small geologic fragments lay spread across a folding table.

Lydia Brown, 11, and Jenn Putnam, 16, both of New York on vacation with their families, spent several hours scrubbing fragments.

Touching something someone used so many years ago made it feel as if she was uncovering ancient mysteries in an adventure novel, Brown said.

After the samples are cleaned and returned to the lab the pieces will go through carbon dating to get a rough estimate of time, Knight said.

Blood residue analysis could also be used to detect what type or types of blood from a bear, deer or fish the items were exposed to give some sense of the diet of the inhabitants, he said.

"Cultural resources are everywhere in Vermont," Knight said. "We have a great idea of historic buildings but we don't have any real conception of the 10,000 years of occupation before Europeans."

The amount of findings suggests people in small groups may have returned to this exact spot for millennium, Knight said.

"What we're finding is essentially their garbage, remains of small camps," he said. "It indicates people were staying at the salmon hole for extended periods of time, possibly as long as entire summers for the fishing season."

Historically the West River served as a natural path, possibly for trade among different groups, Knight said.

"The area served as a prehistoric highway connecting the Connecticut River and the Green Mountains," he said. "Think of it as Highway 7."

Anyone is welcome to watch and be part of the dig, Knight said. The crew will be on site digging and sifting through Friday Aug., 20.

September is Vermont Archeology Month and events are being planned across the state.

Source From Website:http://www.reformer.com/localnews/ci_15775098

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