by Jess Robinson
At its most basic, archaeology is the study of the human past through the things people left behind. For archaeologists, the value of artifacts rests in what they reveal about the people that made or used them. Events in the past are reconstructed by analyzing how and where artifacts were deposited, how they relate to other artifacts at a site, and how a site is situated on the landscape.
While the individual artifact rarely tells a complete story, they nevertheless provide valuable insight and help us connect the dots. The following three artifacts, found recently in various locations around Vermont, are remarkable encapsulations of three particular periods in Vermont’s long and rich human history.
Paleoindian fluted point: ca. 12,200–11,600 Years Old
This spear point was found by a landowner on his property in Jericho. He graciously contacted the Division for Historic Preservation and allowed us to photograph and measure it. The characteristic shape, the channel running up the center of the point, and manufacturing techniques reveal that it was made between approximately 12,200 years ago and 11,600 years ago—a time when Vermont had a tundra-like environment and the Champlain Valley hosted an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. The red stone from which the point was made came from a specific quarry in northern Maine, approximately 340 miles away. Paleoindians are thought to have traveled long distances in search of caribou, and the stone may have been acquired on one of those journeys. Alternatively, the stone may have been traded between groups.
Copper Axe: ca. 3,000 Years Old
Prior to European contact, Native Americans in the eastern woodlands did not possess any metal smelting technology. Nevertheless, sources of chemically pure drift copper in Nova Scotia and Michigan were widely known to Native American groups, and the copper from these sources was highly valued and traded across many areas of North America. This copper axe was found by a private citizen in a lake in northern Vermont. Because it was the property of the state, it was graciously turned it over to the Division for Historic Preservation and is now permanently curated at the Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center. Although there is no way to directly date it, its shape, flaring bit end, and the way it was made suggests it dates back 3,000 years. Axes such as these are very rarely discovered in Vermont and are nearly always degraded and green with verdigris. This axe, however, was submerged in lake bottom mud, which preserved its original luster. Evidence of cold hammering and shaping are likewise still easily visible.
Powderhorn or bottle stopper: ca. 300 Years Old
This artifact was recovered by the University of Vermont Consulting Archaeology Program during their recent excavations at the Chimney Point State Historic Site in Addison in advance of the replacement of the Champlain Bridge. It appears to be a stopper to a powderhorn or possibly a bottle and is made of stone. Although subject to interpretation, the etchings on one side appear to depict a flag raised over a point of land, possibly with the sun rising behind it. Because it was found in the area of the 1730s French fort, this artifact might be an early, rough depiction of the French occupation on the point.
Jess Robinson is a Vermont State Archaeologist with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.