Two Native American sites were found and excavated in the Marshfield Airport project. One, site called Locus 9, covered a one-acre area that sat on a slight rise. Archaeological evidence indicates Locus 9 was occupied from Middle Archaic Period (8000-6000 years ago) to the Late Woodland Period (1200-450 years ago), with the most intense occupation between 4000 and 450 years ago. More than 24,000 artifacts were recovered from Locus 9. Just 50 yards away from Locus 9, Locus 10 was occupied for almost the same time as Locus 9 and with the same activities generally represented.
For most of Locus 9’s occupation, sea level was much lower than today. Eight thousand years ago the site was a dry woodland near a small freshwater stream, and the Atlantic coast was six miles away. Archaeological evidence indicates Native peoples hunted animals, fished, and gathered nut and plant resources, and collected stones along the shore from which they made tools at the site.
Over time the sea level rose, steadily inundating the coast, until by 1200 years ago it was about 1½ miles away. Slowly the freshwater stream became a large tidal river surrounded by a huge saltwater marsh system. This brought an incredibly diverse, nearly unlimited range of natural resources directly to the site’s inhabitants, who had an intimate understanding of the environment and how to use its resources to acquire everything needed for living. Waterfowl such as ducks and geese, mammals such as deer and muskrat, and saltwater fish like cod and haddock, as well as seasonal species like herring, salmon and eels, were abundantly available and harvested. Shark teeth found at the site, along with stone net-sinkers and fishing line plummets, illustrate Native Americans’ masterful skill as mariners. Marsh plant resources were collected for food and medicinal purposes as well as for creating rush mats and cordage. Nuts were collected from nearby trees.
A single pestle fragment, for grinding plant foods, indicates longer stays at the site. No evidence of cultivated food such as maize, beans or squash was found, suggesting that the planting fields that developed in the area about 1,000 years ago were located outside of the site area, probably on higher ground further away from the marsh. People most often occupied Locus 9 in three seasons, coming when certain resources were most abundant or in season: spring fish runs to catch herring and fall runs for eels, for example; in fall for collecting three nuts and hunting when animals’ fur was thickest; hunting marsh fowl from spring to fall before migratory birds left. Certain plants were most available in warmer months, but some plants, like Jerusalem artichokes, could be dug up all year-round. Native peoples wintered inland in the woods to avoid the brutal ocean wind, but hunting in the site area would still have occurred.
Locus 10 had a crucial difference from Locus 9. It was on lower land and closer to the Green Harbor River. Consequently, it was submerged by the marsh development caused by natural sea level rise and was abandoned of necessity in the Woodland Period. Locus 10, like hundreds of other ancient Native American sites that are likely buried in marshes, would have remained submerged and unknown except for an event that significantly altered the marsh system: the building of tidal gates to drain the marsh in 1872 and “reclaim” inundated land as farmland. This massive undertaking drew water off the marsh, leaving peat deposits on top of which soil was added, and encapsulating Locus 10. The reclamation project failed because the dried land was too salty to grow crops, and the ecosystem was severely compromised, but it had a positive effect in that it allowed Locus 10 to be found.
Locus 10 was primarily occupied in the Terminal Archaic Period, nearly 4000 years ago, thus overlapping with Locus 9 in occupation. But Locus 10 had something Locus 9 did not: a large stone-tool production area, where projectile points (spear points) and drills were made of local stone. The drills, some worn and broken, were used on site. One explanation is that the unusually large collection of drills may indicate on-site perforation of animal skins and/or bark, perhaps for the manufacture of birchbark canoes. Such a workshop, close to the water, makes sense. Interestingly, in the colonial period, when Euro-Americans took control of the Green Harbor area, the Native American population reserved the right to fell trees for canoe-making. Oral tradition among the Wampanoag indicate the use of both wooden dugout canoes (mishoons) and birchbark ones.
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