Mead’s Leads: Digging Up History

Last week my piece on an archeological dig that is occurring on the island was featured on the front page of the Block Island times. Like the proud parent I am, this is me posting it to the refrigerator for all to see. So far the post has over 500 online views! Enjoy the read, and hey learn something!

Putting in a new driveway can reap more than just aesthetic rewards if you live in the Great Salt Pond archaelogical district.

In that area, before a new driveway can be put in, the landowner of the property is required to conduct an archeaological dig. The dig is meant to preserve the property’s history and artifacts. The driveway may only be a few hundred feet long, but the amount of history found beneath it can be staggering.

On Corn Neck Road, across from the Mitchell Farm, just such a dig is now underway.

IMG_3842Led by University of Connecticut professor Kevin McBride, the dig began last summer and will wrap up in the next week or so. Equipment stripped away the topsoil, which was about three feet deep. Dark spots, called features, mark the areas where there have been discoveries. Every flag in the dig marks a feature, and the number of features at this dig now totals more than 200.

McBride believes that most of what he and his team have found dates to a village that existed in the area between 1000-1500 AD. Many of the flags mark what McBride calls refuse pits. The pits likely functioned as a dump, essentially, where left over food scraps were tossed. Different shellfish, fish bones and mammal bones have been found in the pits. With this access to the unknown settlers’ waste, much can be inferred about the society and lives of the people who lived there.

Along with refuse pits, the dig has also uncovered storage pits. McBride said the pits would house grains, corn and other foods, but would then become refuse pits after their use expired. Additionally, the dig has found post molds, known as “Ghosts of posts.” These likely marked parts of the early lodgings of those island inhabitants.

Over at the Block Island Historical Society, there are cross-sectioned models of both refuse pits and post molds made from previous digs. This exhibit helps to understand what is happening on the dig site. Allison Malloy, who has been assisting McBride with the dig, works at the Historical Society.

Once the dig is complete, when all the features are recorded, the artifacts will be removed and the findings will be transported to The Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Connecticut, to be researched and recorded. Then, at some point, the driveway will be covered with gravel.

McBride said he was pleased with the results. The purpose of the dig has been fulfilled; artifacts from the precious past have been preserved. “A cross section of an entire village has been unearthed here, the sheer magnitude of the collective space has exposed so much,” he said. “The dig has been a great opportunity.” Much of the time on the project has been funded by the site’s landowner, and students from the University of Connecticut have assisted in the dig.

McBride encourages anyone to stop by and check out the site. He is eager to teach about what he is doing, what he is finding and most importantly why people should care about Block Island’s distant past.

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