Digging up news from 3000 BC

Long before Abraham left Babylonia for the Promised Land, American Indians were using solar power to blunt the brutal edge of Massachusetts's prehistoric winters.

Knowledge of how they did it is coming to light following a major archaeological find in Marlboro, Mass.

At least as far back as 3000 BC a small south-facing rock shelter here served as a sun trap and wind break for what scientists believe were the indigenous people of Central Uplands Massachusetts.

Archaeologists who made this rare find in 1978 and have just completed excavating it are with the Institute for Conservation Archaeolgoy of the Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

They turned it up while making a routine archaeological survey of the site for a new road (connecting a state highway with two interstates). These searches are mandatory under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 whenever a construction project involves federal funds or federally owned land in order to preserve just such invaluable antiquities.

In a few weeks, this ancient habitation of early man unfortunately will be blasted into oblivion because it is located smack in the middle of what will be the eastbound lane of the new highway connector. But thanks to this federal law , a large part of the artifacts at Flagg Swamp Rock Shelter have now been saved for posterity.

It will take at least a year to write a report on the voluminous material from this site, and much longer to analyze its meaning and significance. But archaeologists who carried out the dig believe that in its earliest period of occupation -- what they call the Late Archaic period, extending from 3000 BC to 1000 BC -- the sun-warmed rock shelter, about 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep, just big enough for a family of about 10 people, was a winter campsite.

In New England, that in itself sets Flagg Swamp Rock Shelter apart. It is not so unusual to find summer camps here of 60 or more Indians, mainly on the coast. But in late fall and winter it is believed the Indians dispersed into small groups, even into "nucelar families," each responsible for its own survival. But this is believed to be the first inland winter residence ever found in Massachusetts.

Project archaeologist Frederick W. Huntington says he believes Marlboro's rock shelter "is going to prove to be very important in New England prehistory, primarily because of its extraordinary preservation of fauna and flora. Just out of one cubic yard of soil on the occupation terrace under the rock overhang, we came up the occupation terrace under the rock overhang, we came up with 1,700 pieces of bones -- food refuse found in fire pits and trash pits."

Such teltale relics of the ancient past as bone fragments, nuts, and seeds, which shed light on primitive man's diet and life style, are normally dissolved by New England's extremely acidic soil. At Flagg Swamp, the rock has sheltered the discarded refuse from the elements. More important, slow erosion of veins of calcium carbonate running through the rock face has so sweetened the soil immediately below it as to make it almost perfectly neutral, which nearly completely retarded disintegration.

"We have found freshwater clamshells, snails, seeds -- just an amazing degree of preservation!" Mr. Huntington exclaims. "We have discovered over 26 different animal species including bear, deer, moose, elk, racoon, and several kinds of fish. The bear skull we unearthed looks as if it had been shot the day before."

"The bear is very special," Scott J. Andrus, laboratory supervisor for the project, says. "The afternoon we found the skull was one of the few times I was out there at the site. Fred had taken the sledgehammer to break apart a flat boulder about half the size of a desk top. We had no idea the bear was underneath. Fortunately, he broke the stone in such a way that it didn't do any harm to the skull.

"When he unearthed it, he found it like this, with the two lower jaws removed and fitted neatly together on top of the skull. They were put there by human hands with great care."

That was a particularly exciting find. Normally, archaeologists approach their quarry with incredible gentleness, sometimes using shovels and trowels, but often employing such delicate tools as dental picks and paintbrushes.

But during the endless eons of its occupation, there were so many rock falls from the top edge of this shelter that Mr. Huntington and his crew of about eight graduate students from the United States and abroad frequently found themselves wielding sledgehammers to clear away the debris and get down to the buried "treasure."

Later, in the Peabody Museum's laboratory in Cambridge, I held the narrow, 10 -inch-long skull in my hands. Though an estimated 3,000 years old, it was perfectly preserved. Not a tooth was missing.

"it was as if the skull had been buried under the stone slab on purpose in what Fred believes is a form of ceremonialism, some sort of religious rite going on at the site."

Mr. Huntington points out that "bear ceremonialism was common in this area during early times. The bear was a symbol of the keeper of the game. If he has killed in a ritualistic manner, sacrificed, and treated properly, Indians believed he would allow the game to come back the next year to provide them food.

"There has been some archaeological evidence for that in New York. But to my knowledge, none until now in southern Massachusetts. We also found the bear's left wrist bone. As part of the ceremony, the shaman, or priest, would put the bearskin around himself, with the skull and paws still on the hide. Once the ritual was completed, the bear was disposed of in such a manner that he would not be desecrated by dogs or wolves. Hence the large stone slab placed over the skull. We don't think the bear was just consumed as food and thrown out."

Another exciting find is the remains of a rattlesnake.

"Judging from the size of the vertebrae," Mr. Andrus says, "it was between 10 and 12 feet long. And the vertebrae are burnt. So obviously they killed and ate it. I would like to have met the man or woman who killed it, because that must have been a terrifying thing! Timber rattlers are still in the area, but they're not anywhere near that big nowadays."

One of the beauties of the Marlboro rock shelter is that it is a pristine site -- undamaged by looters who often spoil digs before archaeologists, schooled in how to unscrew the inscrutable, can puzzle out the meaning of the finds.

All told, Mr. Huntington and his crew had about 50 days in which to extract a representative sample of relics from the site before it would be lost forever to archaeology. That they were working on deadline was made abundantly evident: The top of the steep slope where the rock shelter was found had already been leveled this summer. By July, bulldozers were roaring past the site over a raw bed of dirt they had carved out of the forest, the road stretching out due east and west as far as the eye could see.

Below this, the charming prehistoric site was enclosed by a chain-link fence. The area was as full of human activity as it must have been when it was occupied by Indians fighting for survival. Archaeologists with their buckets and digging tools clambered over the hillside that slopes down from the shelter to what is now a bog, but in earlier days was probably a lake or pond.

Wooden tripods supporting the screens scientists use to sift soil from their diggings enhanced the site's primitive appearance.

Day by day, the rock shelter yielded is secrets from pits dug through about three feet of well-stratified soil and artifacts, an unusual depth of accumulation for a New England dig.

Fire pits and trash pits unearthed on what Mr. Huntington calls the "occupational terrace" under the rock ledge tell a story of people who did their cooking and eating on the west side where there was the greatest protection from northwest winds. The diggers made a totally unexpected discovery -- a stone wall about two feet high running sraight out from the rock face on its western edge, turning and paralleling the overhanging edge of the rock for about five yards to the center of the shelter.

"I was pretty excited about that," Mr. Huntington says. "I think this is the foundation for some kind of structure that was leaned up against the wall -- made perhaps of brush or hides, a mat of some kind. It is obvious these people were putting a lot of energy into buildings this wall. I suspect it was a component of a structure that they would come back to and repair year after year. All the fire and trash pits are inside that wall."

Stone walls are fairly common in rock shelters in Africa and Europe, he says. "But I have never read of a stone wall on any aboriginal site in New England."

While the occupational terrace has revealed how an Indian family must have shielded itself from cold, and has disclosed the enormous variety of game and other food they caught, killed, and ate, it is the slope down to the bog that has yielded their stone and bone tools.

Among the several different styles of arrow and spear points uncovered, there are some that are, amazingly enough, made from Eastern Onandaga chert, a type of stone imported all the way from Upstate New York.

"Originally we thought they were trading completed tools," Mr. Huntington remembers. "But we have found evidence that instead they were actually trading raw materials and that the manufacture of the tools was going on right here on the site. That is something we didn't expect.

"We have found large pieces of raw materials called 'cores.' They would take a large flake off a core and fashion the tool from that flake, getting several tools from one core. We have a range of flakes of different sizes, indicating that they were doing everything from the initial manufacture right down to recycling -- resharpening the tools from the New York stone right on the site."

One of the greatest values of the rock shelter is that it apparently housed Indians all through the Late Archaic period and at least periodically into that stretch of years known as the Woodland period (which began around 1000 BC and continued up through contact with Europeans in the 1500s).

From the array of arrow styles on Mr. Andrus's desk at the lab, one can trace the transition of Indian culture from the Late Archaic to Early woodland period, one of the chief characteristics of which is the introduction of pottery.

During the transitional period (about 1500 BC to 1000 BC), the large points used to hunt animals became smaller, more streamlined and efficient, more refined in their workman ship. It was at this juncture that raw materials began to be imported from New York, Pennsylvania, even Ohio, indicating developing trade routes among Indian peoples.

"The mental templates, the ideas, for these new forms are coming from greater distances," Mr. Andrus points out. "Along with the importation of raw materials is also coming the concepts for these new shapes. They would probably be used until a new thought pattern came in, and then you notice they fade out. These Atlantic points, for instance, you don't find them after a certain period."

Mr. Andrus theorizes that the aboriginal people in the country were experimenting with the shapes of points, trying to find ones which were aerodynamically sound, more durable, and more versatile. He likens this to automobile manufacturers refining their models each year.

That is one way of interpreting the evidence at the rock shelter. An entirely different approach, as Mr. Huntington points out, is that there may have been two different cultural groups at the site.

"We start out with the indigenous population, and then we come in toward the end of that Late Archaic sequence with an intrusive populaion, a different cultural group called the Susquehanna tradition, who have totally different point styles.

"One of the problems we are trying to get at in this site is, if in fact these two supposedly distinct cultural groups are using the same site in the same time period, how are they interacting? Do they use it at different seasons? Or is one totally displaced by the other? This is one of the problems in Northeastern rchaeology now: If there were two separate groups, how do they interact?"

Another puzzle posed by the site is that during the Woodland period, the menu of the Flagg Swampites shifts to include a lot of turtles and fish. Turtles appear to have been thrown into the fire and roasted whole in the shell -- "like a meal in a can," Mr. Andrus calls it.

"It is possible Indians were coming here just for short periods, using the shelter as a hunting blind or to exploit certain resources of the bog, and then moving on to other areas rather than staying for an extended period of time," Mr. Huntington hypothesizes. Through the thousands of bits of faunal and floral material now in hand, he hopes to document changes in the seasonal use of the site, the Indians' food preferences or the availability of foods, and if possible, to correlate such information with the demise of the open waterway into the swampy bog it is today.

"When the archaeological record for the entire Northeast has been worked out to every archaeologist's satisfaction," Mr. Andrus says, "we may find that in the early periods there was more reliance on hunting. Whereas in later periods, when the inhospitable post-glacial climate ameliorates and we have more nuts and berries and vegetables appearing, gathering may occupy a greater percentage of the peoples' time than hunting."

There is no evidence of human remains at the rock shelter in Marlboro, reinforcing the theory that the site was only one of the stops in the group's seasonal round in search of food.

And there is no evidence of warfare. The evidence simply may not have been found, or groups may have lived far apart from one another, or the contest for territories may not have developed until the advent of agriculture. To those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the westward movement of civilization began with Abraham's exit from Babylonia. When that movement reached American shores, the New England Indians who shared their corn with the Pilgrims, had only been growing it a few hundred years themselves.

Archaeologists have developed a time frame for New England's cultural development. But because of the acid soils here, and because construction may have wiped out many sites, there are wide gaps in their knowledge. They hope that the important findings at Marlboro will fill in many missing pieces in the prehistoric puzzle.

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