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Robbins Museum is dedicated to New England's Native cultures

MIDDLEBOROUGH, Mass. - The original people of Punkapoag who lived at what is now called the Blue Hills in Canton were imprisoned on Long Island in Boston Harbor during King Phillip's War of 1675 - 1676 by the colonial government of Boston.

Today, according to a state archaeologist spokesman, artifacts from Long Island are at the state museum, but archived in boxes. ''There are photographs from finds at The Boston Common where there was once a fish weir, at The Boylston Street 'T' station, though,'' he said.

The state also contracts with private firms who bid on current digs prior to state-funded development and are licensed to archive findings, but not show them unless ''you can prove you know what you are doing,'' said a spokesman from John Milner Associates of Acton.

If you want to see the real thing, though, as well as talk to scientists and Native people in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere - not to worry. Both the state and its private contractors point out The Robbins Museum in Middleborough, in operation for more than 45 years, as the place to visit.

On a typical Wednesday, visitors can enter the small white clapboard building and see Donna Russo, a master's candidate at Bridgewater State College studying under Curtis Hoffman, emptying stone shards from Punkapoag on a desk in the open office of the museum for cataloging.

Nearby, Repatriation Officer Ken Alves, Assonet Wopanaak Nation, listens to museum photographer Jeff Boudreau discuss projectile point discoveries.

Down the hall, in front of snowshoes collected from New Hampshire to the St. Lawrence River, a Ph.D. candidate writing on tribal people's resistance to Christian conversion discusses sacred landscape with a student of ceremonial stone piles.

Jean Jacques Rivard, present at many of the digs conducted for thirty years in Massachusetts, who then created the dioramas and artwork on view throughout the museum, works on a mailing to members while stopping to explain that the Wapanucket site (in Middleborough) is ''the most excavated site in New England.''

And a few actual wooden stakes from the ancient Boston fish weirs are on display.

''The information and staff here is a tremendous gift,'' Alves said.

''We want to know everything about the people [he repatriates] and a lot of the information is here.'' Alves uses the world-renowned MAS bulletins and then checks the information with museum coordinators. ''Some of the staff here did digs as young men; they are a unique resource. They can tell me if the written article is a little off, and give me even better information.

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''This is a great place to do research and hands-on work. We can get a closer tie to our past; we can tell [because of this museum staff and past research] if a burial ground is from a seasonal or year-round area, even what the people were eating.'' Alves and other Wampanoags have been friends to the museum for decades; Russell Gardner (Great Moose), a Wampanoag historian, has regalia displayed there.

''Ken even helped us hang the sheetrock'' at the museum's current location, said Tonya Largy, president of the museum. Largy, who has a master's degree in anthropology, has written articles in the MAS bulletin on subjects such as the Clamshell Bluff site along the Sudbury River in Concord, where freshwater shell middens preserved bone artifacts such as awls and needles. She has also written about unusual pendants from southern New England after one was given to her that was found in a flea market. Largy, also available to museum visitors, worked on the first systematic dig in Wayland, at the Castle View site, which is now a soccer field. She, and others, can take people to working sites.

''Ours is one of a very few societies that has property to maintain as well as twice-yearly newsletters and bulletins for members. Many of our collections came before professional archaeology. Now, most of those sites are developed, so if not for collections, there would be no way to understand the past,'' she said.

Museum coordinator Gene Winter said the collection from the Clamshell Bluff site, now a parking lot for Emerson Hospital, ''started out the Peabody Museum.''

Winter explained that ''We have the material that supports big museums. We are all volunteer and no funds,'' he said, smiling. ''We don't know what millions mean.''

A visitor, however, can confer on many levels with Winter for site research as well as cultural history; the museum collections are not in a searchable computer database, but reside in the stories and knowledge of this man, and other board members like him.

Winter brings a visitor into a room of cases and explains ''only three are known to exist in the world'' of a carved stone within a carved wooden handle found by a fisherman off the Elizabethan Islands of Cape Cod where mud preserved the handle.

A badly burned, and therefore ''extremely rare, preserved'' wooden bowl from Assawompsett Lake was borrowed by bigger, ''living'' museums and is now back at the Robbins.

Winter stated that theirs is also the ''largest collection of ceramics in the state, and possibly New England; all have been restored and are from Massachusetts, except one from Vermont.''

According to the museum brochure, the facility is ''leading the way to the development of a cultural resource that will enrich the economy and quality of life in southeastern Massachusetts and improve heritage tourism.''

For more information, call (508) 947-9005 or visit www.massarchaeology.org.