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Leaf Home arrow Heritage arrow Heritage2 arrow Students unearth history in Cambridge
Students unearth history in Cambridge
Written by Administrator   
Thursday, 18 June 2009

Students unearth history in Cambridge

Site reveals artifacts up to 7,000 years old

By Matt Sutkoski, Free Press Staff Writer • June 18, 2009

CAMBRIDGE — In a sun-baked oat field near the banks of the Lamoille River, a few modest holes in the ground are revealing secrets of a society that might be 7,000 years old.

College students are in the initial phases of targeted digs along the Lamoille River, searching for clues to how American Indians lived and worked before white settlers arrived.

The students have already discovered one spot, behind the Boyden Farm, was busy. They’ve found fire pits, spear tips and evidence of at least one structure on a slight rise just above the river floodplain. The artifacts disclose clues about habits, trade and life among American Indians. The students and their teacher, Corbett Torrence, say they have to do a lot more hunting before major details emerge, like whether the site was a permanent settlement.

The bulk of the finds are from 500 to 1,000 years ago, Torrence said, but some items could date back as many as 7,000 years.

Most of the students are from the University of Vermont but are taking an archaeology class with Torrence. The six-credit, five-week class mostly involves searching land near the Lamoille for artifacts. Credits from the Johnson State College class will transfer to UVM or whichever college the students are attending.

Aziz Fatnassi, 23, of Burlington was waist-deep in a perfectly square hole Wednesday, carefully digging and watching for telltale, small stones. The land is in an old flood plain, where water moved slowly. Silt was deposited there, but few rocks were, so any rocks in the soil were likely carried in by humans.

Fatnassi and Simone Schiess, 20, of Burlington have found several stones that appear to be partially made spearheads. Fatnassi showed the small marks on the triangular stones, indicating someone was chipping them into shape. “We’re looking for the culture, evidence of human interaction with the land,” he said.

The students are trying to figure out whether the spot was a permanent settlement or an occasional encampment. Food remains would help tell the story. If they find remnants of different foods available through all seasons, that would indicate a permanent village. Food from just one season, autumn nuts, for example, would show the spot was a temporary stop.

The place to find evidence of the food would be a fire pit, which Victoria Managan and Mandy Talan, both 21 and from Burlington, found and were examining Wednesday. Fire can preserve food remains, Managan said, but the pair had come up empty.

Subtle differences between layers of earth in the pits the students dug can reveal clues. Katherine Moser, 21, of Burlington showed a gently curving line on the wall of a hole they had dug. Above the line, the earth was a little darker than the soil beneath it. The darker layer suggested organic material, and the curve of the line showed there was some type of American Indian house there. Moser and Julia Doyle, 19, of Burlington were trying to figure out how big the house was. A small house would indicate one nuclear family lived there, a larger one would suggest an extended family or community shared space, Moser said.

The dig, Fatnassi said, enables him to see how American Indians acted as stewards of the land. “There is evidence of people respecting land. This is a very large part of our history,” he said.

The students have uncovered evidence of trade. The rocks for spearheads came from New York, New Hampshire, the Lake Champlain shoreline and the Otter Creek area.

Trade was not simply an economic exchange, Torrence said. “We need to think about it in a social context. Trade is friendship,” he said. “Vermont has a long history of barter, exchange and cooperation. We see that in the original Vermonters.”

The Lamoille River Valley has not been as extensively studied as areas such as the Winooski, Missisquoi and Otter Creek valleys, so Torrence said he is excited about this study. For now studies will be conducted at sites between Johnson and Fairfax, but other areas could be looked at in future years, he said.

Torrence said people in the valley have been enthusiastic about the project. Landowners have peppered him and the students with questions about what they’ve found and what the discoveries mean. The landowners have also shared artifacts they’ve found on the property. Boyden Farm, Parker & Stearns, Johnson Garden and Hardware, Trudell Consulting Engineers, Jeffersonville Ace Hardware and Green River Canoe have donated material and services, Torrence said.

The current group of students is nearly finished with the class, but new groups will cycle in to continue the study, Torrence said. Local volunteers are also interested in helping, he said.

Contact Matt Sutkoski at 660-1846 or This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it .


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