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UVM Archaeologist Suggests Abenaki Had Company in Pre-European Vermont

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Published September 25, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

Iroquoi pottery fragments - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Iroquoi pottery fragments

Tiny shards of pottery in a display case at the University of Vermont might seem a brittle basis for a controversial theory about the population of the Champlain Valley in the centuries before Europeans arrived. The style of these fragments suggests to some archaeologists that the Abenaki were not the only early inhabitants of what today is designated as northwestern Vermont.

Evidence of the presence of St. Lawrence River Iroquoians — a people distinct from the Algonquian-speaking Abenaki — may not be conclusive, but it’s certainly compelling, says state archaeologist Giovanna Peebles. Besides, she notes, the nature of archaeology often involves degrees of speculation.

Furthermore, there may be more guesswork in Vermont than in some other parts of North America because “preservation here is awful,” says John Crock, head of the UVM consulting archaeology program. “Our soil is so acidic that it eliminates 95 percent of material culture from the view of archaeology,” he explains. Buried organic substances such as wood and fiber break down and meld into the Vermont earth.

But Crock and his crew did manage to unearth those Iroquoian pottery bits as well as arrowheads that are now kept under glass or sealed in plastic bags in Delehanty Hall on UVM’s Trinity campus. They are among the “groundbreaking discoveries” that Peebles says Crock will highlight on Thursday in a public lecture that’s part of Vermont Archaeology Month.

The St. Lawrence River Iroquoians, who are known to have lived in today’s Québec, produced pottery characterized by ridges — said to resemble ears of corn — protruding above the rim. Crock’s finds, mainly from a dig in Alburgh, date from 200 to 300 years prior to Samuel de Champlain’s 1609 voyage on the lake that now bears his name. The corn-ear-motif pots discovered on Grand Isle are by no means unique, Peebles points out. “A great deal of St. Lawrence Iroquoian-type ceramics have been found all over northern Vermont, from Newport to Alburgh,” she says.

Significantly, Abenaki vessels don’t have that feature.

Does that mean that Iroquoians settled in proximity to Abenaki in the Champlain Valley?

“One of our challenges,” Crock says in an interview in his office, “is to determine whether the corn-ear motif represents the presence of a distinctive people or is representative of a trade relationship.”

One possibility, he posits, is that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians may have come to the Champlain Valley as refugees. The sizable settlement of Iroquoians encountered by French explorer Jacques Cartier in the 1530s on today’s Montréal island had disappeared by the time of Champlain’s visit 70 years later.

What happened to the inhabitants of that big village, known as Hochelaga? Did they migrate to what’s now Vermont? And if they did, they may have been welcomed as friends or allies, because, Crock points out, no remnants of native fortifications have been found in the Champlain Valley.

Some Abenaki are rankled by claims of Iroquoian habitation 500 or more years ago in today’s northern Vermont, notes Fred Wiseman, chair of the Native American studies department at Johnson State College. He frames the issue by way of a question: “If archaeologists say that people centuries ago in northwestern Vermont were not Abenaki but were St. Lawrence River Iroquoians, does that mean the people here today are not really heirs to the land?”

The controversy occasioned by that hypothesis is not nearly as intense as it would have been a decade ago, notes Wiseman, who is himself of Abenaki descent. Four bands of Abenaki in Vermont have received official recognition from the state in recent years. After having repeatedly rejected Abenaki claims of being indigenous to and long settled in Vermont, state authorities finally acknowledged in 2006 that archaeological evidence does show the tribe to have been living in the Champlain Valley and in other parts of the state for several hundred years.

“We have recognition now,” Wiseman says. “And that makes a huge difference.”

None of the Abenaki bands has achieved federal designation.

Crock affirms that the archaeological record shows a native presence in today’s Vermont for more than 12,000 years. And recent discoveries are deepening researchers’ understanding of Abenaki patterns of settlement, he notes.

One especially rich and, in Crock’s view, “very exciting” site adjoins Burlington International Airport. A dig made prior to the recent reconfiguration of a Vermont National Guard roadway uncovered pieces of corn that can be dated “with 95 percent confidence” to about 700 years ago, Crock says. The site appears to have been a large village used in late autumn or winter, suggesting that its inhabitants lived along the banks of the Winooski River on a year-round basis, Crock relates.

“It looks like they may have stayed put and not migrated away,” he says — a potential refutation to claims that Abenaki moved in and out of the region but did not dwell in it on a continual basis. “It’s highly likely that the people who lived there are ancestors of modern Abenaki,” Crock adds.

His crew of diggers and sifters also found lots of arrowheads at the airport site. There’s something almost eerie about that, Crock says, noting that ballistics have been launched from there for many centuries — from stone projectiles in 1315 to the F-16 fighter jet in 2013.

Such finds are made possible by state and federal regulations that allow for archaeological excavations to be made before a site is worked over for development, Crock points out. “These regulations are sometimes referred to as ‘the onerous permitting process,’” he notes, adding that without them, our ability to learn about the past would be sharply constricted.

The Alburgh site that yielded the discovery of corn-ear-motif pottery was also opened to archaeologists as part of an infrastructure project: construction of a new Missisquoi Bay Bridge. Similarly, Crock adds, the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline planned to slice along a route in Addison County could offer important opportunities for archaeological discoveries.

But regardless of what may be found at those and other future sites, uncertainty will remain endemic to the archaeological profession, Peebles and Crock agree. “What we don’t know is much bigger than what we do know,” the state archaeologist concedes.

“The problem with archaeology, as opposed to anthropology,” Peebles continues, “is that someone like Margaret Mead could ask people questions when she had no answers of her own. We don’t have people to ask questions of.”

Ellie Cowie, an archaeology consultant to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, echoes that assessment. “Things in history are more complicated than we can know through the archaeological record,” she says.

And Wiseman sounds a similar note of caution in regard to the shards of corn-ear-motif pottery. Archaeologically speaking, Wiseman points out, “Pots don’t equal people.”

UVM archaeology professor John Crock talks about his recent groundbreaking discoveries related to native settlement in the Champlain Valley on Thursday, September 26, 7-8:30 p.m.,?in UVM’s Memorial Lounge, Burlington. For more info about the university’s consulting archaeology program, visit uvm.edu/~uvmcap/.

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