Archeological Dig In West Haven Unearths Evidence Of Vermont’s Prehistoric Past

Jul 7, 2017

A team of archeologists is conducting a dig at one of the most remote farms in Vermont this summer. The South Champlain Historical Ecology Project is digging in West Haven for the second summer, and its early findings include some objects that may date back almost 11,000 years.

On a weekday morning, volunteers and paid interns gather at the former Galick Farm in West Haven to shift through buckets of clay soil carefully removed from small pits, looking for artifacts. When they find something interesting they stop.

“We’re finding quite a bite of FCR here,” says volunteer Zak Ransom, pulling out a rectangle of rock.  He explains, “Fire-cracked rock. It means like when the Native Americans were here the fire would crack the rock because it got so hot.”

“So if you had a hearth or a cooking fire the rock around it breaks apart. So if you find that you now there was probably a fire nearby or some other activity that’s heating the rock,” said archeologist Matt Moriarty. He runs the South Champlain Historical Ecology Project along with his fellow archeologist and wife, Elly Moriarty. 

The volunteers carefully press the small balls of clay soil in the shifter looking for sharp objects. “What’s this?” asks Ransom.

“That’s a flake. A flake is a piece of stone that someone was making a stone tool in this spot and they took this piece off of that stone,” Moriarty said.

This farm is part of the Helen W. Bruckner Nature Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy. The preserve is known for its biological diversity, including endangered species like the timber rattlesnake. It’s 4,000 acres are in one of the most remote parts of Vermont. By road, you come through New York to get there, but Matt Moriarty says when people traveled by water, the site was an important junction between Lake Champlain, the Poultney River and a portage to the Hudson River.

“A lot of times when people come out here they’ll say, you’re in the middle of nowhere out here, when it reality this a crossroads. You can get a lot of different places,” Matt Moriarty said.

A lot of what they have found points to temporary stays at the site. “This is a site where we’re not finding, people aren’t starting from a big cobble to make a stone tool. They are arriving here with tools that are complete and they are re-sharpening them or they have something that’s close to the final shape.”

Some partial projectile points have been found that may be 11,000 years old.

“The earliest stuff we’ve found here is from a time period we call Late Paleoindian. Over 11,000 years ago, this area would have looked radically different, very different trees, the Champlain Sea would not be all that far to the north,” Moriarty said.

Many of the artifacts have been from the year 600 up to the European contact period.

Everything that’s found is carefully bagged and taken back to Castleton University, where it will be catalogued and made available to other researchers.  The archeology team has also examined the collection of items found by the Galick family as they farmed the land.

"11,000 years ago there were people coming through this area, people don't realize that we have that historic time depth in human activity in this part of New England." - Elly Moriarty, South Champlain Historical Ecology Project

While the Galick Farm has been visited by collectors over the years, little research has been done. This is the first extensive dig on the site.

Elly Moriarty is looking at a possible hearth, carefully scraping away layers of soil and taking samples. “It’s, I think, fascinating that we can fill in so much to the prehistory of Vermont, that 11,000 years ago there were people coming through this area. People don’t realize that we have that historic time depth in human activity in this part of New England,” she said.

Archeologist Elly Moriarty examines a possible hearth in West Haven.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Elly Moriarty says a lot of archeology is driven by development, but this dig is simply for research and educational outreach to the community. Last summer, over 85 volunteers helped with the dig, and Moriarty has been sharing findings with community groups.

“We believe that the more people that know about the cultural resources about the area, the better care that they will be able to take of them,” she said.

Just as the team is about to close one pit, they make another find, two large flake tools.

“This is different from the other one,” Moriarty said.  “Look at the unique shape, that’s a very, very large flake. It’s like a serrated edge,” said intern Bryant Garrow.

Castleton University student Garret Srift says as someone who loves history and being outside, moments like this keep bringing him back.

“I’ve always wanted to do a dig like this ever since I was a kid. This is a dream come true,” he said.

The dig is open to volunteers throughout the summer.

Archeologist Matt Moriarty, left, Castleton student Garret Srift, center, and South Champlain Historical Ecology Project intern Bryant Garrow examine a large flake tool.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR