A goal of two archaeological digs conducted this summer by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians is to find evidence from the 1700s, when the tribe lived in a Christian community with white colonists. But the first of the digs in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has turned up artifacts and other features that could be much older.
Beneath a 19th-century bell tower, archaeological teams measured, dug and sifted in a quest for the exact location of the community’s first meetinghouse, built in the 18th century.
“I think you can start to see it right in here,” said archaeologist Nathan Allison as he scraped some dirt away with his trowel. Allison also serves as the tribe’s historic preservation officer.
“Yeah, it looks like an edge right in there,” said Ann Morton, the archaeologist leading this dig.
This might be a typical archaeological moment, full of uncertainty — and hope.
“It could be a builder’s trench for a larger building,” Morton said. “And the only larger building that we know about in this area is the meetinghouse.”
A builder’s trench is dug when a foundation is made.
This did not turn out to be the trench. But they did find it the next day — a straight sided, flat-bottomed trench, near where a survey shows the meetinghouse would have stood.
The 1739 meetinghouse was the place where tribal members and colonists worshipped, and where they governed the township together. The community was first known as “Indian Town,” and later Stockbridge.
Tribal Historic Preservation Manager Bonney Hartley said the meetinghouse is where sachems, or tribal leaders, advocated for her people.
“So many petitions, really eloquent letters and things… that we know and love from our sachems were composed here,” Hartley said. “You know, this is where a lot of those documents originated or were pinned up on the door of this meetinghouse. So it just brings that to life. It makes that very tactile.”
Hartley said the meetinghouse also captures a key time when things were shifting for tribal members, when they accepted an invitation to join a Christian community with colonists.
“To our tribe, it’s the place that represents a beginning of major changes, of losing a lot of our vast homelands to consolidate here, and in the experiment of this being a town to be co-governed with our nation and four English families,” Hartley said. “So of any physical structure that there could be, this is the one that encapsulates all of that history.”
Only a few decades after this meetinghouse was built in the mid-18th century, the Mohicans began to leave, because their land had been taken from them.
This section of Main Street in Stockbridge is on the National Register of Historic Places. But the tribe’s history here is only mentioned in the register, according to Hartley.
By pinpointing the exact location of the meetinghouse, the dig could provide more depth about the significance of this site to the tribe and the town.
Some of the funding for the meetinghouse dig comes from an Underrepresented Community Grant from the National Park Service.
On this day, the dig uncovered two very old nails, probably made by a blacksmith.
“It’s a square head nail that could be from the meetinghouse structure itself, from the building,” Hartley said, holding the nail in her hand.
Later that day, something even more significant to the tribe was found.
It’s a tiny stone disc, beige with bits of brown, made of quartz. The team thinks it was chipped from a tool that was being sharpened, long ago.
Morton handed it to Hartley.
“[It’s] probably a thinning flake from re-sharpening a tool. [It] came out of that hole about 30 centimeters down,” said Morton, pointing behind her. “It’s pre-contact. It’s anything from 1600 back to 6- or 8000.”
“It’s incredible,” Hartley said.
“That’s definitely from the ancestors. No question about it,” Morton said.
As Hartley touched the stone, she said it made her think of members of the tribe who lived in Stockbridge centuries ago.
“[I] don’t just look at it as the material that it’s made of, or what category of toolmaking that is. I think about the people — the person who made it, their family,” Hartley said. “Kind of just feel connected across time.”
As exciting as that was, a day later, the dig had an even more palpable find.
“We found the floor of a Mohican house that’s at least from the 1600s, and probably much older,” Morton said.
It was a hard-packed dirt floor, about 1/2-inch thick.
“It has this dark gray color, and charcoal stains that came probably from the fire that they would have had inside the house,” Morton said. “And we also have some bits and pieces from toolmaking that they might have been doing while they were sitting around the fire. And it also has a funny smell — and that smell tells us that people were walking over that floor back and forth for a long time.”
The archaeologists later found a second floor.
Morton said the team will leave as much as possible in the ground: “Because so much of their past is being destroyed by construction, by modern-day building. So we are trying to save everything that’s left.”
The team hopes to continue its work next month in Stockbridge, at a second archaeological dig.