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Digging Up Clues To The Past
Tribe Members, Students Find Evidence Of Pequot Households From 1700s

Buy this Photo Tim Cook
Stephen Silliman, a UMass anthropology professor, holds a piece of stoneware discovered during the dig.
Buy this Photo Tim Cook
Eastern Pequot tribe member Darlene Fonville, above right, works with University of Massachusetts-Boston anthropology students and members of the Eastern Pequot tribe during an excavation of former tribal lands on the Eastern Pequot reservation Thursday.
Day Staff Writer, Casinos/Gambling
Published on 8/9/2003

North Stonington— Eastern Pequot Darlene “Tubby” Fonville found an arrowhead on the tribe's reservation last month and was hooked on archeology.

Fonville and a few other tribal members got down in the dirt with Stephen Silliman, a University of Massachusetts-Boston anthropology professor, and his students this summer as they conducted an archeological dig on the Eastern Pequots' 226-acre reservation. They found evidence of Pequot households from the 1700s and some signs of life before American Indians first had contact with Europeans, Silliman said. The work likely will continue next summer.

“We're trying to look at the struggle and continuity of the Eastern Pequots since the reservation was established in 1683,” Silliman said. “To come to grips with how it played out in their daily lives, what tools were used, what foods were eaten.”

Fonville, a cheerful, middle-aged woman who despite her nickname is far from fat, found the arrowhead soon after the dig started. It was the first of several artifacts the earth yielded and will be analyzed along with the others to learn more about the people who lived here over the centuries. Fonville's friends said she would last just a couple of days in the woods, but she stuck it out, bugs, humidity and all, and is ready to sign up for next summer's dig.

“The days went by and it got more interesting,” Fonville said. “We found a lot of stuff: coins, buttons, pottery. I learned a lot being out here.”

She was sitting at a dig site deep in the woods Thursday afternoon, wearing dog collars for fleas and ticks around her ankles, listening to a Walkman and singing softly as she sifted through a pile of soil. She came up with several small pieces of clay and glass. Nearby, a few students worked in a square hole, preparing to excavate what looked like a larger piece of red pottery.

Silliman said that in the past 10 to 15 years, archeologists have had more opportunity to work with native people and to get their input. Before, he said, it was just the archeologists telling the natives what they had found.

Tribal member Bobby Sebastian, who lives on the reservation, is serving as historic preservation officer. He has walked and hunted the hilly, rocky woodlands for years, and helped the crew pinpoint areas of interest. He said he sprinkled ceremonial tobacco on sites after the students finished, as an offering of thanks to the Creator. Tribal elder Norma Parrish, 79, joined the dig from time to time, impressing the younger people with her speed and agility in the woods.

“It's so exciting to walk the lands and just to explore and find out these things,” she said.

Tribal Councilor Katherine Sebastian said the University of Massachusetts' anthropology department would serve as temporary curator until the tribe has a place to exhibit its artifacts. Sebastian brought some samples and pictures from the dig to a recent council meeting and said they generated “a lot of interest.”

The Eastern Pequot dig, the first scientific survey on the reservation, is one of at least three that took place on local Indian reservations this summer. Students from the University of Connecticut conducted a dig on the Mashantucket Pequots' reservation under the guidance of Kevin McBride, a professor and the research director of the tribe's museum. They explored dwelling sites to learn more about their occupants.

At Mohegan, 14 students from seven universities took part in a dig at Fort Shantok as part of the Eastern Connecticut State University archeological field school program. They helped locate a burial ground using ground-penetrating radar.


Back on the Eastern Pequot reservation Thursday, Silliman explained how archeologists start with a broad survey of a site then narrow their focus. The first step at the Eastern reservation was a “pedestrian survey,” in which people line up at intervals with compasses and head into the woods looking for points of interest. They used a grid system to ensure they weren't biased toward any particular areas and trudged through swamps and thickly wooded areas so as not to miss anything.

Bobby Sebastian led them to some gravesites and other landmarks, and they chose other areas that looked promising

The next step was a “sub-surface survey.” At points of interest –– near stone walls or animal pens –– the crew dug 225 test holes a half-meter square to see what they would yield –– “to understand how things are distributed and to start to narrow down where exactly people might have done things,” Silliman said.

“You're actually digging in people's garbage –– what they threw away,” he said.

They returned to the most promising sites and dug larger holes for a more thorough excavation. Silliman showed a few items they pulled from the earth, bagged and readied for laboratory analysis: a cow's tooth, a clam shell, a piece of plate with a deep blue edge that appeared to have come from England during the 1800s, stoneware and a pipe stem. One of the easiest items to analyze was a rubber button marked “Goodyear 1851.”


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