Science for Everyone

Digging into the Past

Guest blog post by Research Assistant Bailey Moritz

I was recently given a grim yet beautiful book of Hurricane Island poetry written back in the early 1900’s by Harold Vinal. In it he writes, “The granite cannot speak; it has no voice; and all is silence save for the great sea. Ah, my fastidious sire, if it could!” Yes, if only it could. The granite may not be able to speak, but the artifacts embedded around it certainly can if one pays close enough attention. That was the 5-day task set before the research team during our 2016 Archaeology week; allowing historic remains to speak their stories using archaeology as our coercer. Along with Madelaine, an archaeology student from Washington University, we were guided by Fred Koerber, an archaeologist by passion who has put an impressive amount of work into researching the details of Hurricane Island history and who led our first archaeology program last summer.

Jessie and Fred on the brink of discovery!

Arriving at an overgrown granite foundation and water well on the North End of the island I had previously paid little attention to, we learned that this site only appears in the records a handful of times and is thought to have pre-dated the quarry era. Several flowering trees sit adjacent to a field and just around the corner sit the only 2 headstones found on the island. Questions arose immediately and we brainstormed as a team to determine where we thought best to dig in order to answer them. Was there agricultural activity? Who lived here and when? What can be learned about their lifestyle? The archaeological process began.

Hardness test for buttons to determine what time period they were made in

Digging both in and outside the stone foundation, a plethora of artifacts made themselves known almost immediately below the surface. Bags worth of glass, metal, coal, and animal bones were washed and inventoried from 20 cm sections of dirt. Given the islands history of use with Outward Bound, it is likely that some of the material was deposited during their time on Hurricane, which made the interpretation more difficult than usual. However, some of the artifacts were unmistakably 19th century; buttons, earthenware pottery shards, redware pottery that had shell pieces molded into its fabric, and bricks from the old building. Possibly more interesting were the artifacts we didn’t come across with our trowels. There were no pieces of the ubiquitous smoking pipe found at dig sites elsewhere on the island. Also, nothing gave any indication that women were present here, perhaps indicating it was not a place of domestic activity.

Pieced together shards of an uncovered glass bottle

Pouring over the unearthed artifacts, we pulled together our best interpretations as well as a whole slew of questions. The week culminated with 60 visitors from the Vinalhaven Land Trust island hopping, as they did back in the days of the granite town for theater performances and the like, to see the work we had done. Visitors received a historic tour of the south end and then hiked over to our dig site to see for themselves what was found and what new information our work can tell us about the purpose of this old foundation. It’s exciting to leave the site with more questions than answers and we hope to continue excavating archaeological units this fall. Huge thanks go to Fred for sharing his knowledge, time, and storytelling skills with us. Seeing firsthand some of the secrets left beneath the soil of this island, I have a whole new appreciation for the people who walked these granite shores before us.

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