The Block Island Times

Pequot Research Center surveys Sandy damage

By Lily O'Gara | Jun 27, 2014
Courtesy of: The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center

The land at the end of West Beach Road looked like a scene from the Discovery Channel.

A group of people was carefully digging up a badly eroded shelf of earth and combing through the contents using giant sieves. Bags labeled “Sample” were scattered about the site, and a young woman was perched on a nearby rock, recording the team’s findings on a purple clipboard.

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center recently won a contract to survey the Rhode Island mainland shoreline, as well as the shoreline of Block Island, to determine if there is any archaeological damage to coastal resources due to Hurricane Sandy.

The project is funded by the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program, a federal grant through the U.S. Department of the Interior that has awarded more than $100 million in grants to the states most affected by the 2012 storm. These states include those that were “officially declared a natural disaster as a result of the storm event,” according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which administers the grants. Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia received grants ranging from $100,000 to $5 million.

The team of archaeologists is led by Kevin McBride, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and Director of Research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. McBride has conducted extensive research on Block Island in the past. He’s been traveling periodically to the island since the ‘80s, mainly to excavate native villages.

McBride’s team of about a dozen archaeologists consists of researchers from the museum and also graduate students from the university.

All through June, McBride and his team surveyed 30 miles of coastline, including land around the Great Salt Pond and the Mohegan Bluffs. This first stage, or “walkover,” allowed the team to identify 165 sites around the island that are culturally and/or historically significant.

On Tuesday, June 24, the team was tying up loose ends from phase one, and identified a post mold in the dirt. McBride explained that the indentation in the earth suggested that an end post for a home had once stood there, probably about 2,000 years ago, when the native population “exploded” in numbers. They also identified a hearth and found several tools.

“The island is very culturally rich,” said Melissa Floyd, Land Use and Environmental Planning Consultant for the museum.

McBride confirmed this when he revealed that 25 percent of the land surveyed yielded important insights into the past. He pointed out, too, that their survey included only shorelines — there may be even more sites inland.

“Basically, 25 percent of the island is an archaeological dig site,” McBride said.

Floyd said that archaeologists were searching mainly for artifacts and features dating back before European contact, like the post mold and hearth they found on Tuesday, though items found in the past were sometimes from the 18th or 19th centuries. What counts as “historical” is somewhat of a “moving target,” Floyd said, but the main goal is to find out more about the former indigenous people of the island.

“The goal is to understand colonial and native history in a way that we never have before,” McBride said.

Finding the sites has not proved difficult so far — the team searches for quartz, in which the island is rich, as the natives utilized quartz to make tools. The team then records the GPS coordinates and geographical features of the sites, like erosion, so that they can return to them later.

McBride is currently drafting his report of the team’s findings, after which he will pare down the 165 sites to those that the team will continue pursuing. Though there is not yet definitive criteria to determine which sights to pursue, McBride said that the team will consider things like how threatened the area is and if there is further archaeological potential. The sites around the Great Salt Pond, for example, are not threatened and will most likely not be pursued, McBride said.

Sites that are deemed significant may be included on the National Register of Historic Places, and perhaps allocated funding for protection. If the Mohegan Bluffs, for example, are deemed significant, erosion control measures could be taken.

The second phase of the project, namely further surveying and examining the identified sites, will be a bit more rigorous and intensive. This is the portion of the project, Floyd said, that will require contacting landowners and gaining permission to dig and conduct testing on the various properties. Some of the property is government land, which means that permits are required before any work commences. According to Floyd, McBride is aiming to begin phase two of the project in August, though outside factors may push back the timetable.

Floyd said that all landowners are encouraged to attend a meeting about the project at 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, at the Block Island Historical Society on Old Town Road. The more landowners that attend, Floyd said, the easier and more streamlined the process will be. The team will present its findings, and landowners will be able to ask questions and learn about permitting. In addition, McBride encourages any island artifact collectors to come forward and share their knowledge of the land.

McBride said that he does not anticipate any difficulty with landowners and permitting. He said that he’s never known a Block Islander to get in the way of preserving history.

“This may be the most supportive community I’ve ever encountered,” he said.

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