MIDDLEBURY — The wooded clearing was marked out in one-meter plots, with perfectly square pits sunk at varying depths into the ground. Across the clearing, six archaeologists plied the clay with shovels, trowels and brushes, searching for evidence of a prehistoric civilization.
This was not a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. Instead, it was the real-life scene just behind the Central Vermont Public Service substation near the Pulp Mill Bridge in Middlebury where a team from the Northeast Archaeology Research Center in Farmington, Maine, last week was in the third phase of their hunt for what they were calling a Native American rock shelter.
The team arrived on the site in November 2009, after CVPS hired them to do historical screening of the land, as part of the environmental resource assessment that both state and federal law require.
“Vermont is really good, because they take their history seriously here. It’s an exciting place to work,” said field director Jacob Grindle. “There’s more known about prehistory in Vermont than in a lot of other places.”
Grindle said that when team members started their work last year, they already knew about a 19th-century mill closer to the river. But after digging test holes in a clearing next to the substation, they discovered possible evidence of prehistoric fire pits and tool-making in the woods off to the side of the substation.
All of these discoveries made sense, said Grindle. The clearing is next to the Otter Creek, just below the rapids, and a cliff at the back of the clearing provides an easy opportunity for a shelter.
“This spot has a lot of things going for it,” he said. “Basically anyone who’s using the Otter Creek as a traveling route, which would have been a lot through prehistory, you’ve got to take your stuff out of the river to get to the rapids and portage around it. If you have to take all your stuff out, why not set up camp and get stuff going for the day?”
While the team has found evidence of prehistoric settlements during their initial exploration of the site, the survey raised more questions than answers.
Grindle said the site is more characteristic of a temporary settlement than a village, but only further exploration will reveal the time period when the site was used, the purposes for which it was used, and whether it was simply an overnight camp or served as a more permanent residence.
“You start out with so many questions, and then piece by piece everything starts to get answered,” he said.
The archaeologists hope to answer these questions during the rest of their time working at the site — they will be working this week until Thursday, and return for almost a week in early September to finish up.
For now, they are working specifically on two areas: one a potential fire pit close to the cliff face, with evidence of cracked and reddened rocks, and the second a tool-making station further away, where they have already found thousands of rock fragments from chipping away at arrowheads and other tools.
The going is slow for the team, though. Their typical methods of sifting through the many feet of dirt that they dig up, which involve shaking the dirt through a screen with narrow openings to filter it and hold the solid materials, don’t work here in the Vermont clay.
“This clay is all sediment that was laid down under inland sea, way back in the glacial period,” said Grindle. “Everyone who lives here knows how hard the clay is. If you’ve ever tried to make a garden here, you know.”
Instead, the team packs the dirt into plastic buckets, marked with the exact plot and depth that it comes from, and lets the dirt sit for about a day in a solution of water and baking soda.
In one corner of the site is a table inlaid with screens, where members of the team dumped the buckets and sprayed the now soupy clay through the screen, leaving only rocks and other materials. Much of this could then be discarded, but the occasional sharp shard of quartzite glimmered in the screen, to be pulled out and analyzed. They are also looking for types of rock native to places like western New York, which could tell the archaeologists more about trade routes and travel.
Grindle said that the main hope right now is for some sort of charcoal or plant matter in an ancient fire pit, which would allow them to do carbon dating and narrow down the time frame for the use of the site.
An analysis of all the separate levels will also help the team analyze when the site was used, since depth can be an indicator of time.
Project director Gemma Hudgell, speaking from Maine, said CVPS is waiting for a full excavation of the site before the company begins any building.
“Their options would be to either totally avoid the area, or to make sure everything is out, which is what we’re doing,” said Hudgell. “They can either miss it or dig it up.”
And in the meantime, the company hopes to encourage public education as part of the project — Hudgell said those interested in learning more about archaeology in action should call her office and set up an appointment to view the site. She can be reached at the Northeast Archaeology Research Center’s main office at (207) 860-4032.
In the meantime, Grindle and his team hope to find some definitive artifacts that will help them narrow down their idea of what the site was used for.
“We’ve just got to try to find out what kinds of questions can we answer about how people lived, how they interacted with their environment, what were there strategies for getting along,” said Grindle. “I think we’ve got a shot at answering some of those at this place.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.