Archaeological Field School Finds Native Fort in Deerfield
Students in the Archaeological Field School
screening for objects. For thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived in 17th-century New England, the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts was home to many Native American communities. Some traces of Native American occupation in the region, as identified by archaeologists, date back at least 12,000 years, but much of this history is poorly understood.
The UMass Archaeological Field School is actively engaged in clarifying some of that history through excavations in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the Pocumtuck homeland, and the immediate surrounding area. “Our goal,” says Elizabeth Chilton, chair of the anthropology department and director of the field school every other year (Robert Paynter leads the program in the alternate years), is to learn more about pre- and post-contact Native American lifeways and history. While the sites vary, our most recent effort this past summer involved the survey and partial excavation of a seventeenth-century Native fort.”
The Pocumtuck fort, as noted in fragmentary historical references, was attacked by a group of Mohawk sometime between January and March of 1665, just before the Euro-American settlers arrived in the Pocumtuck Valley. Since the late nineteenth century, locating the site of the fort, has been of interest to professional and amateur archaeologists and historians, members of Native and Euro-American descendant communities, local institutions and landowners. However, the actual site had never been pinpointed by professional archaeologists—until the summer of 2004.
That year field school participants had unearthed some corn kernels and some Native American pottery thought to be a thousand years old. Chilton, whose research interest has focused on the origin of maize agriculture in the region, said that the artifacts seemed very similar to earlier finds on other digs in New England. But, during the fall semester follow-up evaluation courses, students sifting through soil samples found tiny glass beads, very diagnostic of the seventeenth century. Dutch in origin, they pointed to early trade among the Natives and the Euro-Americans.
“I’d been looking for the fort site, off and on, since 1995 when I was a teaching assistant at the field school,” recalls Chilton. “But the question of whether it was a myth or real was never sufficiently answered to make it a top priority.” The discovery of those beads told her they were on to something—and all clues from subsequent background research began to point to the hill as the fort’s likely location. The expertise of anthropology alumnus Dr. Peter Thomas, PhD ’79, MA '73, and Ph.D. candidate Marge Bruchac, who is also an Abenaki historian, scholar, and performer, brought the historical evidence to bear on the project, providing critical historical background for this project. Consequently, excavating the area became the 2006 field school mission.
“From the very first day,” Chilton says, “we began to find more of these tiny embroidery-type beads. And when we began finding artifacts and features, like a fire hearth, I actually got goosebumps. There was a clay pipe, some Native pottery, and fragments of copper kettles, which were traded and cut up to make arrows, knives and decorative items—transformed from their original use since Native peoples had their own cooking pots. We also found fish scales, charred seeds, fish bones, deer bones and fresh water clams plus wood charcoal. Analysis this fall will answer questions about changes and continuities in the environment and in Native societies.”
Cataloging and analysis of materials is ongoing. Both undergraduate and graduate students at UMass Amherst are pursuing independent projects on the material culture recovered from the site. Doctoral student Siobhan Hart, who was one of the graduate assistants on the site, in addition to focusing on standard archaeological questions in her dissertation—such as “was there a fortification wall of some kind, were house structures inside, was the site burned”—is also focusing on building a stakeholder group among Native American representatives, land owners, the town, residents, and so on.
“It is vital to develop a long-term preservation plan to protect the site from development, looters, and curiosity seekers,” Chilton explains, noting that too many historical erasures have taken place in New England. In fact, the major thrust of Marge Bruchac’s dissertation research is these very historical erasures in the Connecticut River Valley. “The fort is from such a pivotal point in history, and in New England we’ve been slow to begin these kinds of collaborations," says Chilton.
The five-week Archaeological Field School includes intensive training in New England Native history, archaeological survey techniques, excavation, laboratory methods, artifact analysis, and archaeological interpretation. Students, who work closely with the director and three graduate assistants, also learn about the geology of the region, which plays an integral part in archaeological interpretations of the past. The opportunity to participate in a public education program is a critical component of the field school. A field lab in the Moors House on the Street in Historic Deerfield, Inc. was open to the public during the course of the program that allowed students and visitors to share their experiences and understandings of regional Native history with one another. Historic Deerfield, Inc., has been a co-sponsor of the field school for many years, and archaeologists at UMass Amherst have shared many long time collaborations with historians as curators at Historic Deerfield.
“It is a wonderful training opportunity,” says Chilton, noting that this type of field experience is required for anyone who wants to be a professional archaeologist. "It’s also a great way for undergraduates to explore archaeology (and they don’t have to be UMass students, though many of them are), and we’ve had a lot of K-12 teachers participate as well, since it is a terrific opportunity for them to enhance their own educational programs. The field school is a ‘marriage’ among our department’s teaching, research and service goals.” Admission is based on the field school application, a current transcript, and a statement of interest.
October 25, 2006