Litchfield County Excavations Reveal Native American Treasures

DANBURY — Spending weeks on your hands and knees sifting through dirt can be a dream job for a select few.

For four Western Connecticut State University students, an archaeological dig in a sunny field in Warren provided a fascinating look into the lives of New England’s earliest inhabitants thousands of years ago.

The students were enrolled in WestConn’s Field School of Archaeology, which visits the Deer Run site at Lake Waramaug and other locations each summer to recover and analyze Native American artifacts. This site is a treasure trove for archaeologists, and the WestConn class is partnered with the Institute for American Indian Studies in nearby Washington.

“Native Americans were all over the Northeast before Europeans arrived,” said Faline Schneiderman, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Western Connecticut State University and vice president of Historical Perspectives, Inc., a company Cultural Resource Management in Westport.

“This is a six-credit class, and it’s hard work,” Schneiderman added. “You have to crouch for hours and you’ll be dealing with poison ivy, snakes and spiders, to name a few. Luckily, for this year’s class, we had a dedicated group of people who love learning about archaeology. »

Schneiderman supervised the classroom and lab portions of the course, while assistant professor Craig Nelson led them in the field. Paul Wegner, deputy executive director of the Institute for American Indian Studies, offered his help. They continue the work of WestConn Professor Cosimo Sgarlata, who died in May.

To protect themselves, students wore long sleeves and long pants when in the field. They brought kits consisting of insect repellent, rulers, pencils, pens, trowels, plastic zipper bags and permanent markers to mark the contents of the bags.

For students, learning about ancient history is well worth some muscle cramps and sunburn.

“In a dig, you don’t just uncover artefacts,” said Madeline Russa, a WestConn senior from Danbury who majors in anthropology and sociology. “You find out why people were there and what they were doing at the time.

“For me, it was slow at first and very laborious,” added Russa, who eventually wants to do some museum work. “I wanted to do things right. You find out the story…so for that reason alone you have to be very careful when working. Spending days hunched over carefully scouring the floor means your back is always tired and sore, but I found the class fun.

Discoveries

The students found many treasures at the site. These included a mortar and pestle, knives, scrapers, cooking stones, fire-cracked rocks, and charred bones, which are leftover bones that have been burned. They unearthed and recorded eight different classes of projectile points, more commonly known as arrowheads.

Although these archaeological treasures are mostly found a foot underground, excavations must be done carefully, using trowels, and the soil and its contents carefully sifted for anything of significance.

“Early Native Americans made tools from large boulders and left behind a lot of rocky debris,” said Wegner of the Institute of American Indian Studies. “There is also ample evidence of fire, which they used for cooking and for light.”

Once found, artifacts are placed in a float or bath in which all lighter materials will float on the surface of the water. This yielded charcoal, fish scales, and seeds, to name a few.

“All materials are carbon dated and most will remain in our lab for further study,” Wegner said.

Some materials undergo a process called lipid absorption analysis. As anyone who has taken a cholesterol test knows, lipids are fats, and the pottery and utensils used by Native Americans attest to this.

“Through lipid analysis, we can discover thousands of years later that their diet consisted largely of fish, which makes sense given the site’s location on Lake Waramaug,” Wegner said.

An archaeological dig begins with a template grid for digging, said Nelson, who guided the students in creating such a grid.

“Each week of classes consisted of two days in class and two or three days in the field,” he said. “Deer Run occupies a small plateau above Lake Waramaug, has no trees and has never been plowed – making it a great site for us.”

“We found things that date back to 4000 BC,” he added.

In previous years, students have discovered both clay and soapstone, some bearing the marks of early artists. They used sticks wrapped in rope to engrave designs on their wares. Projectile points were plentiful and their classification or type provides archaeologists with evidence of their antiquity.

“Based on the types of projectile points that were found at Deer Run, we know they are between 2,000 and 4,000 years old,” Nelson said.

Projectile points were mounted on thin poles and used to spear fish or hunt deer and elk. The latter were widespread in Connecticut before disappearing in the eastern United States.

Importance of the work

This work has a personal connection to Nelson, who works with several schools and associations on excavations at sites across New England.

“My 14th great-grandmother was a Shawnee,” said Nelson, who served as Warren’s first coach. “His father was a neighborhood chief named Cornstalk.”

Schneiderman said too often that today’s students have been told by their parents and others to avoid studying subjects such as archeology and instead focus on career-oriented courses. Yet archeology and other social sciences have deep relevance beyond academia or research.

Schneiderman’s work for Historical Perspectives, Inc. often examines the effect of new government construction—including roads, office buildings, and schools—on sites of historical or cultural significance.

“As part of the review process for a new project, we have to consider the impact it would have on our cultural heritage,” Schneiderman said.

The annual course has significance for students of any major, Nelson said.

“At the end, all of our students receive a certificate of completion,” he said. “If they stay in this area, it’s because they’ve learned a lot. But it’s always worth putting a resume on, no matter what they might do later.

Nohemi M. Moore