On August 2, 2017

West Haven yields clues to Vermont’s ancient past

By Julia Purdy

WEST HAVEN— Matt Moriarty banged on the weatherbeaten door of the sagging shed to give the snakes fair warning. The snakes could be timber rattlers or black rat snakes, which share the old Galick farmstead with caretakers Dave and Elaine, who have dubbed the place Broken Shovel Farm and have a collection of same to prove it. The land, which now belongs to The Nature Conservancy, is full of rock-hard clay, a gift of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.

After opening the shed, Moriarty and several volunteers armed themselves with stacks of buckets, plastic baggies, trowels and other tools for an archaeological dig and headed out to continue work on the South Champlain Historical Ecology Project (SCHEP) dig, which Moriarty directs.

The discipline has been around for a long time, he told the Mountain Times. In tandem with biologists, geomorphologists and other researchers, it studies the interactions of human beings with the environment over a long period of time — as in millennia. The purpose here at the Galick site is to take “a longer look at what has been going on on this piece of land,” Moriarty explained.

The Galick farm is part of the Helen W. Buckner Preserve at Bald Mountain, a 4,000-acre swath of old farmland and the cliffs of the Champlain Fault in the part of Vermont that reaches down like a hook into Whitehall, N.Y. Spacious hayfields look west across the narrows of Lake Champlain; framing the farmstead to the east, rocky cliffs loom above the confluence with the Poultney River. The dry oak-hickory-hophornbeam forest, the cliffs and talus slopes provide habitat for rattlesnakes, bear, bald eagle, peregrine falcons, and bobcat.

In addition to the natural communities, the area is steeped in human history. A major portage route linking the Hudson River and Wood Creek, which enters the lake just to the south, has existed from earliest times. This strategic area became caught up in military actions in the French and Indian War and later during the Revolution.

These days, most ancient sites are discovered during environmental assessments that accompany infrastructure projects such as roads, pipelines and solar arrays. That requirement restricts where archaeological investigation occurs, Moriarty said. This one, he said, is unusual in that it’s not driven by a legal requirement but by a hunch. For years, as farmer Bill Galick plowed his fields, he turned up arrowheads and other artifacts, including a Spanish real coin. Plowing disrupts the layers in which artifacts are found, which are key to developing a timeline for the early uses of a site.

Moriarty made an educated guess that a formal dig in an undisturbed spot could help piece together the sequence of early human occupation, and he chose a spot beyond the hayfield perimeter.

Moriarty’s project began last year as a “minimally invasive investigation,” he said, to locate and document undisturbed spots, “so we know where the most sensitive spots are.”

The project includes an education component, which Moriarty’s wife Elly, also an archaeologist, offered the next evening at the Proctor library. She began by explaining basic archaeological terms such as site and feature, then described how digs are organized and sites are analyzed. Context is critical, she explained, and is often lost due to looting and incomplete records kept by collectors. The site grid is necessary for keeping data organized and guiding later work.

Moriarty held up a stone tool fragment and added it to a small, carefully labeled plastic bag. He was sifting nuggets of clay through a quarter-inch mesh to isolate small objects of interest. Objects are bagged by type and go back to Castleton University, where Matt Moriarty teaches, for study over the winter. Final storage is climate-controlled, meticulously recorded, and kept forever where future researchers will be able to access it and know its provenance.

Volunteer Brett Ostrum carefully troweled clay from the square sample pit, one of several excavated at 10-meter intervals. Other volunteers stood at a screen, sifting clay clods.

“Yesterday we had a feature, an area that it was pretty clear someone had a hearth there maybe 1,000 years ago,” Moriarty explained. Hearths are identified by charcoal or fire-cracked rocks. Pointing to another volunteer, he said: “She’s collecting soil from that feature, to go down into the soil further to find an earlier feature. We try to go into the sterile subsoil, 10-12 centimeters below the surface … We’re on a clay terrace deposited during the Champlain glacial lake time – this spot was beneath hundreds of meters of water. A lot of what’s out here is just dense clay,” he added.

Layers of soil and organic matter have covered the site. “Lots of things have happened. Most of the finds here are mid-to-late Woodland. Hopefully we can get something we can date. We do have some pottery,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty has worked with Bill Galick’s nephew, who has an extensive collection from the farm, which he has loaned to the project. Moriarty commented that he has had “some really great interactions with people who have collections.” He wants to make sure people aren’t just looking for “stuff” and that they understand something about archaeology, “what you need to tell a story. … You have to protect the future wellbeing of the findings.”

Historical ecology blends science, history, anthropology and material culture into a narrative. The Moriartys would like to publish something about the project when they’re done, but they don’t want to be the only ones to tell this chapter in the story of Vermont. They have consulted with Roger Longtoe of the Elnu Abnaki of southern Vermont, and they presented their prospectus to the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

By Julia Purdy

A girl digs in an excavating test pit at Galick Farm in West Haven.

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