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Pelham talks highlight local history through physical remnants

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, holds a found object brought by Merrick Stromgren, of Pelham, after speaking to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday. He determined the object was naturally formed and not an artifact.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, holds a found object brought by Merrick Stromgren, of Pelham, after speaking to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday. He determined the object was naturally formed and not an artifact.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, holds a found object brought by Merrick Stromgren, 11, of Pelham, right, after speaking to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday. He determined the object was naturally formed and not an artifact.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, holds a found object brought by Merrick Stromgren, 11, of Pelham, right, after speaking to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday. He determined the object was naturally formed and not an artifact.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, holds a found object brought by Merrick Stromgren, of Pelham, after speaking to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday. He determined the object was naturally formed and not an artifact.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, speaks to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Eric Johnson, a University of Massachusetts professor, holds a found object brought by Merrick Stromgren, 11, of Pelham, right, after speaking to a group about archaeology in Massachusetts at Pelham Public Library Monday. He determined the object was naturally formed and not an artifact.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

The Pioneer Valley has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, but until recently, not much research into the remains of different settlements and dwellings took place. With renewed efforts from researchers and staff at the University of Massachusetts and other local institutions, however, that’s starting to change.

In a series of lectures hosted at the Pelham Public Library last month, several members of the Department of Anthropology at UMass shed light on some of the excavation projects taking place around the state and how they have influenced historical knowledge of the area.

“With archaeology, we tend to think of Egypt or Mexico, not Massachusetts, but this state has sites both ancient and modern,” said Eric Johnson, an adjunct instructor with the department who spoke at the library on Oct. 22. “A lot of people bring little odds and ends to us that end up being really fascinating.”

The speaker series, which is co-sponsored by the Pelham Historical Commission, is part of a broader effort on the part of professional academics and amateur historians to better publicize the importance of archaeology and to encourage more people to come forward with their own discoveries.

“In Massachusetts, archaeological sites aren’t protected unless there’s evidence of physical human remains, such as in old cemeteries,” said Elizabeth Chilton, a professor of anthropology at the university. Chilton estimated the number of such sites in the state at approximately 8,000.

“A lot of people don’t come forward with things that they find on their property because they are unsure of the laws surrounding this issue, but there really isn’t anything to worry about,” she said.

Johnson, who specializes in pre-modern Native American history, noted that many finds are discovered because of construction or renovation work performed by state or federal authorities.

“Federal law requires that an archaeological survey is done in the affected area before construction begins on a project using public money, like a highway extension or urban demolition,” he said. For that reason, he explained, most of the major finds have happened in densely populated areas such as the inner Boston metropolitan region, where urban renewal projects uncovered numerous remnants of human habitation ranging from 5,000 years ago to the early colonial era.

“We’re still learning a lot about more rural areas in the state, like this one, because we know less about what’s out there.

According to Chilton, some of the most interesting finds happen by chance.

“I walked into Pelham Library last year and saw that they had a bunch of family heirlooms on display, including a handmade stone bowl,” she said. Chilton immediately recognized the piece as a valuable example of pre-Columbian Native American tool design and was curious about how it had ended up in a private home.

“I asked (library director) Jodi (Levine) and she said that the person who brought it in had had it around for years and thought it was just a curiosity,” said Chilton. “There’s a lot of great material out there that nobody knows about yet.”

Most found objects are carved projectile points or accumulated animal remains that point to extended settlement in the area. “Most of the items that turn up come from the period between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, when small communities of hunter-gatherers lived off the land,” said Johnson.

However, archaeological digs sometimes turn up unexpected remnants of more recent eras as well. While excavating the Charlestown house of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, Johnson and his team uncovered foundations of a colonial tavern underneath it, including a privy.

“Privies are really exciting for us because a lot of things end up in them besides human waste,” Johnson said. This particular privy held an unusual surprise for the researchers: a wooden bowling ball dating from the early 17th century, the oldest known so far.

“This was a time when the Puritan government frowned upon bowling as a form of gambling, so they might have hastily thrown it here to avoid detection,” he said. “Obviously the city still knew how to have fun.” Individuals with objects of interest are encouraged to contact the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts as well as the Old Deerfield Historical Society and the Pocomtuck Historical Museum.

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