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Right Now

In this issue's Right Now section:
Fire & Ice on Snowball Earth - The Prophet and the Profit - Minority Wannabes - The Thousand-year Clambake - E-mail and Web Information


The Thousand-year Clambake

Two women strolling along lucy Vincent Beach on Martha's Vineyard in 1995 came upon a human skull. They took it home. Then they felt guilty for doing that, took the skull back to the beach, and threw it in the water. Then they felt guilty about that and called the state archaeologist, who rushed to the site and discovered the rest of a human skeleton about to tumble onto the beach from its resting place in a shallow grave atop an eroding 40-foot-high cliff. The ancient remains were those of a Native American. The skull was never recovered. The other bones were taken by Vineyard members of the Wampanoag tribe and reinterred elsewhere.

Archaeologist Elizabeth Chilton, assistant professor of anthropology, spent five weeks digging on that cliff last summer, leading a team of four instructors and 14 students. One student, Randy Jardin, was a Wampanoag tribe member. Chilton had determined the summer before that an area of about 30 by 50 meters on the cliff top had been a Native American seasonal campsite. She was eager to excavate--and speedily, because of erosion. Last winter, weather and waves on this south side of the island, exposed to the open ocean, ate 12 feet into the cliff. "Two-thirds or perhaps three-quarters of the hill has washed away," Chilton estimates. "In the 1700s, the site was not even on the ocean, but maybe as much as a half-mile inland." Chilton wants to continue her race against the hungry sea next summer because she and her crew didn't find a single square foot of the campsite without Native American artifacts.

What usually comes out of the ground at a New England archaeological site, says Chilton, "is not considered very sexy by the public. We found many shells. People have been having clambakes on that site for at least a thousand years." In addition to a lot of food trash--oyster, clam, and scallop shells, fish bones and scales, leftovers from deer and turtle dinners--and the partially burnt wood of cooking fires, Chilton and her Vineyard diggers found broken pots, stone tools, pipes, spear points, and wigwam posts. The iron-rich soil preserves some material curiously well. "Five-hundred-year-old fish scales look as though they had been scraped from the fish just a few years ago," Chilton says. So careful is the screening of soil that workers collected objects as unassertive as chard seeds (which had to have been charred to have survived). What took five weeks to dig will take a year to analyze. Chilton will offer a course in archaeological laboratory techniques next spring with the raw material dug up last summer.

Unsexy such discoveries may be, but they teach lessons--for instance, about the diet of these Native Americans and the species of fish and other creatures, as well as trees, present at different periods. Most of the material Chilton excavated came from the top 18 inches of soil, although some of the trash pits are deeper. Most of what came up is either 500 to 1,000 years old or 3,000 to 5,000 years old.

On the final day of the dig, Chilton unearthed fragments of another human skull. The remains of a second person had been discovered on the site in 1996; this made three. Chilton had hoped to avoid finding more human remains. Doing so raises procedural issues, and emotions. Although Harvard had the permission of the Wampanoags to dig on the site, the archaeologists did not have a permit to excavate human remains. Chilton notified the right people.

A Wampanoag medicine woman, acting in part for the benefit of Chilton and the other archaeologists, came to the site and explained to the spirit of the remains that they would have to be moved, for good reasons, and that the archaeologists had come in peace. If the spirit had not been mollified, it could have caused harm to the people who interfered with its remains.

Chilton covered up the skull fragments, adjourned class, and kept quiet. The site is off-limits to the public, but news of the discovery of human remains at any dig is apt to lure treasure-seekers or the ghoulish, who come in the nighttime with metal detectors and shovels. (In fact, the first two bodies had been buried with no accompanying artifacts.)

Just after Labor Day, suitably credentialed and empowered, Chilton returned to the site to excavate the remains. She found only skull fragments. Native Americans are known to have carried with them in their travels bones of their ancestors (perhaps just a skull)--or even of their enemies--which they might later bury. Because of the unusual ceremony she thinks attended this burial, she believes the remains are those of an important person: immediately on top of the skull fragments, she found a ring of hearth stones upon which a bonfire five feet in diameter had burned. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal she found will date the fire to within 150 years; she thinks it blazed 500 to 1,000 years ago. The skull is that of an adult, probably a male, whose worn teeth are those of one who ate the gritty diet of a hunter-gatherer living by the sea.

Chilton made another startling find last summer, but a welcome one--a 10,000-year-old spear point. That's old: the oldest archaeological site in this hemisphere, in South America, is 12,500 years old. The oldest sites in New England are 11,000 years old. Native Americans are thought to have settled the continent by moving west to east. "They didn't cross the Mississippi until 11,000 years ago," says Chilton, "because for a long time before that it had icebergs in it."

Martha's Vineyard now lies six miles off the coast of Cape Cod, nicely removed from the rest of the world. It became an island 5,000 years ago as glaciers melted and the sea level rose 200 to 300 feet. Yet Chilton discovered a 3,000-year-old stone bowl on her dig that could have come only from Rhode Island or central Massachusetts or even farther away, evidence of boat traffic back and forth across Vineyard Sound well before the present craze for such diversion. As for the seasonal visitor of 10,000 years ago, he didn't come over on the ferry--he walked, carrying his spear.

~Christopher Reed

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