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Digging into history

Septic project at Jamaica State Park uncovers ancient artifacts

JAMAICA—Last Thursday, a stunning artifact turned up on one of the shaker screens filtering soil from the main excavation area of the archaeological dig site in Jamaica State Park.

Two research supervisors of the project, Jess Robinson and Geoff Mandel, said workers had found a stone object — just over an inch in length and an inch wide, in a vague projectile-point shape and clearly marked by shallow fluting — that may be 9,500 years old, or from the Early Archaic Period.

The team of about 10 people from the University of Vermont Consulting Archaeology Program uses several methods to date the nearly 3,000 artifacts and fragments and flakes they  have uncovered; the final verifications may take two years of laboratory testing.

But preliminary dating can be done, says Mandel, by comparing the objects to others that already have been, for example, carbon-dated, and also by knowing a lot about how and when tools were shaped, by the size of the flutes and how flakes were removed, among other variables.

Some artifacts may have absorbed blood that can be traced to specific animals, another sign of life and death in these ancient campgrounds.

The projectile-point shapes may tell the story of what animals these early people were hunting and, when the shapes change, it can mean an adaptation from one source of food to another, big animals to small game.

But it can also indicate trading among tribes, as well as separate times of occupation, such as the Bronze Age, from 3,500 BCE (Before Common Era) to 1,200 BCE, or the Late Archaic Period, from 5,000 to 3,000 years ago, depending on location. Both of these periods are well represented by the artifacts found at the park.

In any case, these artifacts have significant diagnostic value, as well as the sheer aesthetic value they present. The precisely hammered-out flutes of the many projectiles are good examples of sophisticated design, as is the treatment of tool edges.

Some are distinguished by their heft, such as one stone piece, a four-inch-long, axe-like triangle, with grinding marks on the surface, and nearly two inches thick, was, according to Randy Crones, a PhD student at the University of Florida and working this summer for the UVM archaeologists, probably meant to be used as a kind of chisel, perhaps to dig out and shape canoes.  He said the piece was unfinished and was meant to be half as thick.

Robinson dated the piece by linking it to similar artifacts from the Adena culture, a conglomerate of many early communities that inhabited the central and southern regions of Ohio in the first millennium BCE.

The possibilities of gaining new knowledge of the distant past on such familiar and close-by land seem endless, given the success of this venture.

And all this came from the need for new septic tanks in the parking lot of the 41-year-old state park on the West River.

The site is just above a stretch of the river known as Salmon Hole, a favorite swimming destination for park visitors, but a rich source of food for people seasonally camping here or passing through thousands of years ago.

Because the site was marked for historical significance in the early 1960s after some ancient fragments were unearthed, the park had to meet state and federal historical environmental review procedures before proceeding with any infrastructure improvements.

Which is why the UVM outfit was hired to dig some test pits near where new septic equipment would be buried. The pits yielded significant fragments just beneath the first layer of soil, about a foot deep, which had been dumped there when the parking lot was built.

“That construction fill actually preserved the site,” Mandel said, pointing out the rather thin layer of dark, nearly black dirt, four to six inches deep, greatly compressed, he said, which he described as the living surface and where all the artifacts have been found.

Below the dark layer is essentially bedrock — boulders, large and small, also called cobbles, and soil material that was deposited by glaciers.

The excavations are precisely measured so that the team can keep horizontal and vertical control of the source. The sharply measured quadrants of the dig are marked by red flags that dot the overall digging space, about a 12-foot by 15-foot plot.

The West River is part of a travel corridor, the team points out, linking several rivers and lakes, and suggesting the site was also used for trading. The river, near the shore opposite from the dig, is about 18 feet deep, Mandel said, but no salmon have been seen in the area for years.  The rest of the nearby river is fairly shallow and draws hundreds of swimmers in the hot weather.

Supervisor Jess Robinson calls the site “artifact intense,” but also says it’s not by any means the biggest collection he’s seen.

“We haven’t been keeping an exact count since that will be done back at the lab.  But every object is bagged and labeled so we have a complete record,” he said.

The vast majority of the objects date from the late Woodland Period, or the first millennium CE (Common Era).

But many are earlier and some later, such as the tiny pottery shard, between 700 and 800 years old. It’s less than an inch square, beautifully decorated in a chevron design with fingernail marks around the edge.  The decorations reminded Mandel of pottery decorations used by the Iroquois tribes in upstate New York.

The crew has found evidence of fire-cracked rocks and post molds, suggesting a cooking area. They’ve found several net sinkers, or plummets, oval stones given an hourglass shape, that were tied into fishing nets.

“Our main mission is preservation and education,” Mandel said, “to add to our knowledge of the past, to determine the social organization of these people. Were these small family groups or during certain times did the congregate in large numbers?  Technology changes so quickly, it’s inevitable that new techniques, such as ground-penetrating radar, will advance our work.”

The dig will end this week and the site, according to Mandel, will be backfilled by the park.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #64 (Wednesday, August 25, 2010).

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