Archeology in Vermont

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(Host) September is Vermont Archaeology Month, and commentator Tom Slayton began the month at a site that’s being excavated in Cornwall.

(Slayton) The clay soils alongside the Lemon Faire River in Addison County are dense and grey. A little more dense and grey and they’d be modeling clay. Nonetheless, a resilient (and muddy!) team of archaeologists is working the Lemon Faire’s gummy clay through sifting boxes, hosing the clay with water to force it through wire mesh, occasionally extracting flint chips, arrowheads, or other archaeological bits left by the people who lived along this river 6,000 years ago.

Or in some cases only 175 years ago. As I watch, two broken bits of a clay pipe stem – probably dropped by a farmer on this same land in about 1830 or 40 – are washed out of the clay. And then the hose uncovers a small chunk of fluted blue-gray rock: flint.

State archaeologist Giovanna Peebles thinks the piece may have been an arrowhead in the making that got broken and cast aside. She is visiting the site to see what the team of archaeologists there are finding, and she speculates a bit on where the stone may have come from and how it was used.

Archaeologist Rich Corey sits on the tailgate of a small van. He’s holding a tray of about 30 arrowheads that have been recovered from the sticky Addison County clay. These are more than just pretty arrowheads, however. Like the flint chip, each is a storehouse of information that the archaeologists hope to recover.

He pulls back a blue tarp and exposes a shallow excavation of scarred and stained and broken rocks. It’s a big firepit – a place where Native Americans cooked and warmed themselves and made arrowheads and baskets, about 6,000 years ago.

The firepit is being carefully mapped, and clay from the site will be taken back to the lab and analyzed. Seeds, bits of charcoal, and other organic matter will tell the scientists what the people who lived here ate, what plants they burned or used for baskets and implements.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle and we don’t have all the pieces,” says Corey. “Each piece we find makes the picture clearer.”

The Cornwall site is important but only one of many such locations throughout Vermont. And since September has been designated Vermont Archaeology Month, there are now many ways for Vermonters to learn more about the people who preceeded them on this land.

Archaeology workshops at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, visits to old mill and foundry sites, even an opportunity to make and throw an atlatl – a primitive spear – are all part of Vermont Archaeology Month. On the evening of September 28, the internationally acclaimed archaeologist Dr. Brian Fagan will speak in Montpelier on the plundering of Egypt and the illegal trade in antiquities.

Archaeology Month is a way of learning more about a distant past that affects all Vermonters. It’s a way of unraveling mysteries – and perhaps re-acquiring something the first Vermonters had and that we may have lost: a reverence for the land and for the ancient people who lived on it.

More information about Vermont Archaeology
Month and a list of events are online at

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our Montpelier studio.

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