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Eastern Pequots' land yields colonial-era clues

LANTERN HILL, Conn. - Archaeologists working on Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation land this summer uncovered four pits of cultural material - a trove of 18th century artifacts that will help tell the story of how the tribe's ancestors lived during the colonial era before the United States self-generated as a nation-state on what had been indigenous peoples' land for millennia.

The Eastern Pequot Archaeological Field School, which conducted the dig, is a collaborative project between the tribe and the University of Massachusetts Boston. The project began five years ago and was created by tribal member Kathy Sebastian Dring, the tribe's historic preservation adviser, in partnership with Stephen Silliman, associate professor of anthropology and director of the historical archaeology master's program in the university's anthropology department.

''We got the project started in consultation with the tribal council. We discussed it probably for about six months to a year before it actually got off the ground because it was the first project of this sort that we had ever done. We've really established a pretty strong educational program and developed good relationships. It's been very rewarding,'' Sebastian Dring told Indian Country Today.

Silliman had led the digs each year on the tribe's 225-acre reservation. The project's goals are to help the tribe discover, document and protect its cultural sites; provide education to university students and tribal interns in the methods and practices of archaeological research; to study the tribe's ancestral community and how it dealt with colonialism and survived until today; and to share all the discoveries with the wider Native community, other professionals and the general pubic.

''I love it,'' Silliman said. ''It's been so rewarding for me, and the students get so much out of this relationship with the tribe and being invited to the pow wow and being recognized for their work. It's been a great cultural experience aside from the research experience.''

This year, students from the University of Massachusetts Boston; Northwestern University in Illinois; Connecticut College in New London, Conn.; Willamette College in Oregon; and Assumption College in Massachusetts joined tribal interns and historic preservation officers in the field.

The team works from around 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week for five intensive weeks of field work. The students stay in a dorm Silliman rents at Connecticut College, which is 20 minutes from the site. In the evenings, the students attend lectures, do lab work and hold discussion about the finds or about colonialism and history. The project is funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Although the grant was to study colonialism and the Eastern Pequots' response to it over the centuries, another aspect of it fit Silliman's advocacy of community archaeology.

''Part of the proposal itself was to do this in a very collaborative way and ways that would enhance the tribe's need for help in building infrastructure that would train tribal members and would get them involved in the production of history. In the past, archaeologists would figure out what they think the history is and then come and tell it to the tribes. This way, the tribe is involved in the actual production of the material and the discussion about what it might mean,'' Silliman said.

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Through the partnership with Silliman and the University of Massachusetts, the tribe has expanded its connection with other nations across the countries that are conducting similar work, Sebastian Dring said.

The field school's work was featured in American Archaeology magazine, and Sebastian Dring and others participated in a national conference hosted by the Society for American Archaeology at which the tribe's work was selected for the Amerind Museum in Arizona, she said.

Over the past five years, the dig has yielded artifacts that are close to 10,000 years old, Sebastian Dring said, including arrow heads, spear points, soapstone bowl pieces and woodworking tools.

But Silliman's interest is focused on the shards and fragments from the lives of Eastern Pequot families who lived on the land in the 1770s and 1800s.

''This is a critical period since the colonial pressures of racism, dispossession, economic strife and land encroachment were harsh, but the archaeological record demonstrates that households found ways through these tough times and maintained their community through a variety of material, economic, dietary and social practices,'' Silliman said.

This year, the team worked in four pits on a site that was likely a residence between 1740 and 1760. The site yielded shellfish remains, animal bones, glass beads, buttons, gunflint, copper straight pins, stone tool flakes and a variety of pottery, including porcelain, white salt-glazed stoneware and other items.

When the dig is completed, the pits are filled in and a tribal member offers tobacco on each site.

The items found are taken to the university where they are cleaned, analyzed, labeled and stored for now, but ''some or all of them will end up in the tribe's hands,'' Silliman said.

Sebastian Dring said she hopes to organize an exhibit of the artifacts at the tribe's longhouse soon.

''Perhaps in the future we may have our small museum. We're trying to pass this knowledge on not only to our community, but to document it and have it in a formal educational format so it can be used and so the public can come and view it and gain knowledge about our historic conservation,'' Sebastian Dring said.