For many Vermonters, summer means cookouts, creemees, and languid afternoons at the local swimming hole. But for a group of intrepid students and volunteers in Rutland County, it means days spent in a field in West Haven, sifting through clay-like soil. They are assisting on an archaeological dig at the Galick Farm site, which lies within the Helen W. Buckner Preserve at Bald Mountain. Through collecting, analyzing, and classifying the artifacts they find, these amateur archaeologists are seeking to understand the people who settled on this land thousands of years ago.
The team of amateurs is being led by a professional: CCV instructor Matt Moriarty, who is also supervising the South Champlain Historical Ecology Project. Moriarty also teaches at Castleton University, and he says that the area wasn’t always as remote as it seems now.
“We’re in a backwater now. But in ancient times, in historical times, this was a crossroads. Because you have trade routes and transportation routes coming up here.”
He explains that thousands of years ago, people would have camped or visited this field on their way up Lake Champlain or the Poultney River. The evidence of these travelers comes mostly in the form of stone flakes, which were created by the production and repair of stone tools. But because this site was probably more of a way station than a permanent settlement, the team is finding diverse materials from the western slopes of the Green Mountains, Northern Vermont, the Hudson River valley, New Hampshire, and Maine.
To gather these flakes, as well as other artifacts, groups of students and volunteers work in teams to sift through the soil. They dig pits at ten meter intervals, creating a grid that will eventually cover the entire field. The pits are 50 cm by 50 cm, and are 20 cm deep. Moriarty says that this “tiny little window” will allow his team to identify the site boundaries and learn everything they need to know about its history.
CCV students Bryant Garrow, right, works with Rob Southworth, center, and Zak Ransom at the Helen W. Buckner Preserve at Bald Mountain. Listen to Garrow discuss the project.
All artifacts are meticulously labeled. After the dig is complete, these samples will be analyzed in a laboratory, and the results will be mapped. This map will show a variety of data, including what types of activities occurred in which areas of the site and where the heaviest activity was conducted. Students from Moriarty’s Archaeology: Tracing the Human Past class at CCV are excited to be part of this effort. Very few of them were interested in the subject when they signed up, but halfway through the class their energy was palpable.
Bryant Garrow couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice when discussing the significance of the project.
“It’s so cool how you can find all these things that are thousands of years old, and get a bigger picture of how humans interacted with their environment long ago,” he said.
He’s been volunteering with the project since it began, months before the course got going. Garrow is also doing research on the area’s environment for his Aquatic Ecology course at CCV. He explained that this area is among the most biodiverse regions in Vermont, with many species of flora and fauna that don’t exist anywhere else in the state.
“This is a special place. Driving up the road, it’s like coming into a rainforest,” Garrow said while looking around and taking in the landscape.
The class saw that biodiversity firsthand a few weeks ago, when a timber rattlesnake arrived at the site with its signature sound. It contemplated the group for a moment, then slithered on its way.
Moriarty believes there has been a lot of myth-making about snakes throughout history. To combat these negative ideas , he spent the first couple weeks of class emphasizing how rare and exciting it would be to see a rattlesnake in Vermont.
“The rattlesnake population is so endangered, the single worst thing we could do out here would be to hurt one,” he said.
Along with an abiding respect for the environment, Moriarty makes it a personal mission to undermine the many mistaken assumptions about archaeology. He believes it’s crucial to replace the Indiana Jones image of archaeology that reigns in popular culture with a more realistic portrayal of the precise, analytical science that helps human beings dig through our past.
“One of the things that archaeologists deal with all the time is that there are huge misperceptions about what we do,” said Moriarty. “There’s this idea that we’re treasure hunters or looters. Everywhere I’ve ever worked, people have wondered if I was finding gold or tombs. Even when I was at a famine village in Ireland.”
Moriarty said he thinks that’s one major benefit of students getting to come out and work on an actual archaeological dig. They start to understand that they are not hunting treasure, but are after something more subtle and significant.
“When they come out and do archaeology, one of the things students always say is ‘this is so different from what I thought it would be. So much more systematic. So much more rigorous.’ It’s important that people understand that. What we’re trying to do is to find out about a past way of life. That’s why we have to be systematic and so careful.”
The hands-on experience of working in the field helps students grasp the concepts they first hear about in the classroom. Tonya Magoon recently came back to school at CCV after 15 years in the working world. She is currently taking classes at CCV, and will be starting at Johnson in the fall as a psychology major. Magoon never expected to take an archaeology class, let alone enjoy it as much as she has.
“It’s kind of a hybrid class,” she said. “There’s a lot of reading online about different archaeology digs around the world. So putting that together with what we’re doing here helps to have a better understanding of what we’re actually doing in the field.”
Moriarty knows that the skills his students are learning in West Haven may be useful to them in whatever career they pursue. And more importantly, the hands-on experience is beneficial to students regardless of their future plans, Moriarty said.
“When you’re out doing something it just sticks,” he said. “They might end up doing something that involves fieldwork. If somebody goes on to be a biologist, they can do fieldwork now. They’ve gotten their hands dirty.”