On the western boundary of Vermont sits a peninsula of land in West Haven that lives between the Poultney River and the State of New York. A place for great hiking, kayaking, and fishing, it is also known among scientists as one of the most biologically diverse places in the state.
“It’s the only place in Vermont you can see or find certain endangered or rare species. You could see for example a rattlesnake. We’ve gotten some pretty good photos of rattlesnakes over the last couple of years” said archeology professor Matthew Moriarty.
While you can also spot a couple of bald eagles this time of year and the ever-elusive little lizard known as the Five-lined Skink, it’s the area’s rich archeological and ecological history that keeps Moriarty and teams of volunteers from the Vermont Archaeological Society digging for samples.
“In the summer we’re in the field Monday through Friday, then in the lab season these guys come in and we do lab work on Fridays,” Moriarty said of The South Champlain Historical Ecology Project.
In Leavenworth Hall classroom 66, Moriarty and volunteers from all over the state of Vermont can be found scouring through piles of what to the naked eye might just seem like rocks.
“This is stuff from the summer. You have to wash it, sort it, and analyze it. It can take a long time cause you always want to save everything you find but then you get back in the lab and go, why did we save this? But if you didn’t, you’d regret it later,” Moriarty said.
“We all volunteer essentially for Matt. But it’s the cupcakes that keep us coming back,” said Vermont Archaeological Society member and volunteer David Lacy, from Pittsford, as he used a toothbrush to scrub a sample over a basin of water. “SCHEP’s educational outreach activities help convey the excitement and possibilities of archaeological inquiry to the next generation, and reminds us that our current way of life is just one of many possible models –
some of which we reveal by looking into the past.”
The tiny classroom has transformed into an archeological paradise. Maps on the walls show the 4,000 acres of land owned by the Nature Conservancy of Vermont where the group’s digs occur throughout the summer. Baskets of organized samples fill tables and volunteers huddle around the center to converse over their work.
“Not only is it a real treat to be out on the dig in such a beautiful location, but Professor Moriarty’s stories are fascinating. Whether it’s in the lab or in the field, we are always learning,” said Director of the Cavendish Historical Society and fellow SCHEP volunteer Margaret Caulfield,
“It’s fascinating to hold tools made thousands of years ago and recognize the origins of similar implements being used today. However, there are many unanswered questions about their life, their interactions with the environment as well as societal structures and the ways they changed over time. All of it gives us a better understanding of who we are.”
The group’s primary objective is to look at long-term patterns in human interaction.
“It’s not just that we want to study the archeology, the idea is to try and reconstruct how this landscape looked and changed over time both in relation to human activity and the impact it had on humans,” Moriarty said.
They find bits of spears and arrowheads, square-cut nails, and yes, a lot of rocks.
“This site has been very important for a long time. It was used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Most people in Vermont don’t realize how long Native Americans have been here. Almost 13,000 years. This is one of those spots that they used quite a bit,” Moriarty said.
Knowing what to look for makes the practiced eye spot an artifact and get a closer look at the sample.
“The shape makes you stop. This stone is not from around here. It’s really obvious after you’ve seen enough of these. See the flake removal scars? Where they’re carefully removing flakes off of here? Nature doesn’t do that,” said Moriarty while holding a 3,500-year-old broken piece of spearhead.
He’ll be taking an archeology class out to do some field work at the site closer to the end of the semester before teams of volunteers and local students take to the area over the summer to learn about the project and get their hands dirty in a place that’s never been particularly tested archeologically over the years.
“We love to have volunteers and school kids. They get to learn about nature and local history but it also demystifies what we do as archeologists. Like, oh, you guys dig little holes and you’re really careful and take incredible amounts of records about what your doing,” he said.
“It’s a little bit of everything. I mean we do a lot of archeology but also where we are is so biologically rich that you get to learn a lot of other stuff along the way.”