Digging Up Evidence of New Hampshire's Earliest Inhabitants

Jun 12, 2017

It’s not something you normally associate with New Hampshire. But for decades, archaeology has been quietly thriving here.

This summer, the State Conservation and Rescue Archaeology Program—or SCRAP—will host a field school, in which volunteers can take up shovels and brushes to help uncover artifacts at two different dig sites. New Hampshire State Archaeologist Richard Boisvert will be directing field work this summer, and he spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about SCRAP.

Describe for us these two archaeological sites that you’ll be digging into.

They’re quite different. The one in Jefferson, in the North Country, is a 12,000-year-old campsite that was used by people hunting caribou. What they left behind was small bits of stone, some arrangements of rocks for a fireplace or something like that, and it’s a rather subtle presence. It’s in the backyard of a bed and breakfast, and if you didn’t know the site was there, you wouldn’t have a clue.

The other project is in Livermore Falls, a state-owned forest. It’s located in the towns of Plymouth, Holderness, and Campton. This was an active place for industrial purposes for almost two hundred years. Because of the waterfalls there, it was used as a source of energy. One after another, mills would come in, they would thrive, they would go out of business in one way or another—some of them burned, some of the mills failed because of the economy and so forth—and eventually it went back to a near-natural state.

You can still see foundations of the mills and houses out there. It’s a history that we know in part, but there’s a lot that we don’t know.

In that first site, what kinds of things might you expect to find there?

We always hope to find the tools, particularly the spear points and the scrapers and so forth. We do routinely find them, but not in huge numbers.

This would be 12,000 years ago. They were ancestral to the Native Americans of the Northeast, including the Abenaki and all the other tribes. Because of the passage of time and groups moving in and out, they weren’t the sole ancestors of the Abenaki, but they were the first people to live on the landscape after the glacier left.

Who will be participating in the SCRAP program?

We have high school students, college students, graduate students—people who are taking their summer vacation to come out in the field school. Retirees. A little bit of everybody.

Many people have an interest in archaeology, and our program is designed to take people who are interested and show them how it’s done properly—scientifically, ethically—and give them firsthand experience.

Is there a concern that people who are inexperienced might accidentally damage something they find?

That’s why we call it field school. It’s my job to take people who are interested and show them how to do it properly. While they may not achieve perfection, we do our best to make sure they’re doing it as best as they can. If there is a mistake, we tell them not to worry about it and tell us. It’s amazing what we can do to compensate for an error.

What’s it like to find something that people might not have seen or handled in 12,000 years?

It’s a real experience. It’s difficult to describe. You do pull it out of the ground, whatever it might be, and you look at it, and you admire the workmanship. You realize this was very important to someone a long time ago, and you are the first person in thousands of years to touch it.

That can have a real interesting effect on you. You literally get in touch with the past. That motivates you through the times when you don’t find anything, which is a very common pattern in archaeology. You might do a tremendous amount of work, digging, sifting , whatever, and not find anything. But you still have to be just as careful and methodical, because you never know when your next shovelful will be productive.

Do you have people who come back year after year?

Absolutey, I’ve had them come back for tens of years. It’s the kind of thing, once you do it and you like it, you can’t shake it. Those who have been in the program for a long time can hardly walk across a gravel parking lot, because you’re looking at the ground…

What do you do with the things you find?

We do our best to categorize it, wash it, catalogue it, try to get some understanding of it. Most of what we find is not exhibit quality. Typically what we find are little chips of stone left over from making the tools. And they’re very useful to us because they mark where somebody make a tool, so we keep track of that and analyze it, but it doesn’t all go on display.

New Hampshire does not have a museum dedicated to archaeology, so we’re at a loss there, but we do try to get the information back out to the public. We publish our findings in various journals, we make it available in public presentations, and try to get the occasional exhibit up.

There are some good exhibits at the Manchester historic association. Their artifacts tend to be from the Manchester area, but they’re a pretty good representation of what’s in New Hampshire. The Mt. Kearsarge Indian museum has artifacts on display. Then after that, it would be a collection of local historical societies and things of that sort. I think Hopkinton has a rather nice collection. They’re scattered about the state and they can be quite interesting.