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At dig site, average Joes help unravel mysteries of N.H.’s Paleoindians

  • Richard Boisvert, the state archaeologist, examines an excavation pit at a dig site in Jefferson on July 6, 2017. The site is believed to be where some of the first Native Americans hunted caribou. In the pit, several volunteers found piles of stones that suggest the Native Americans may have camped here some 12,000 years ago. (AP Photo/Michael Casey) AP

  • Richard Boisvert, New Hampshire’s state archaeologist, holds a stone tool found at a dig site in Jefferson. The site is believed to be where some of the first Native Americans hunted caribou some 12,000 years ago. AP

  • In this July 6, 2017 photograph, Nancy Decourcey, a retired teacher from Jefferson, N.H., open up an excavation pit at a site in Jefferson. The site is believed to be where some of the first Native Americans hunted caribou. In the pit, several volunteers found piles of stones that suggest the Native Americans may have camped there some 12,000 years ago. (AP Photo/Michael Casey) Michael Casey

  • In this July 6, 2017 photograph, Nancy Decourcey, a retired teacher from Jefferson, N.H., left, and George Leduc, a retired pipefitter from Loudon, N.H., sift soil while looking for artifacts at a dig site in Jefferson. Several volunteers found stones that suggest that Native Americans may have camped here some 12,000 years ago. (AP Photo/Michael Casey) Michael Casey

  • In this July 6, 2017 photograph, a team of archaeologists dig at a site behind a bed and breakfast in Jefferson, N.H., hoping to find clues about the first Native Americans who are believed to have hunted in the White Mountains about 12,000 years ago. (AP Photo/Michael Casey) Michael Casey



Associated Press
Sunday, July 09, 2017

Hidden behind a bed and breakfast in the White Mountains, teams of volunteers with trowels and shovels needle the soil in several shallow pits searching for clues about Native Americans who passed through 12,000 years ago.

The project is like many archaeological digs, with researchers hoping to find any artifacts that could explain just how these Paleoindians lived, why they set up shop above a valley and why they eventually moved on. But what makes this state-run effort a little different is that amateurs – a retired sprinkler fitter, recent high school graduate, a former teacher – are among those digging.

Almost anyone can apply to participate in the field schools that typically last two weeks. Several dozen are expected to take part in the digs this summer in Jefferson, as well as one at 17th-century mill site “the Hollow” at Livermore Falls, and some will stay on for the entire six weeks.

“What we are trying to do is educate the public about archaeology,” said Richard Boisvert, the state archaeologist who has been leading the schools for the past 30 years. There is no state funding beyond Boisvert’s salary; the program gets donations and tuition from some student participants.

Since first finding a 12,000-year-old spear point in the area back in the 1990s, Boisvert and the volunteers have returned each year to excavate six sites in Jefferson. There are nearly 60 sites around New England with evidence of Paleoindians, who occupied the area for about 2,000 years starting 12,500 years ago.

So far, the New Hampshire team has found stone tools and other artifacts that suggested Native Americans used this area as a staging ground to hunt and slaughter caribou that were commonplace soon after the Ice Age and before forests had taken hold in New Hampshire.

They have also found flakes and bits of stone from as far away as Maine and New York, which suggests the communities were nomadic – following herds as they moved from place to place. The Native Americans eventually moved to the coast or farther north as the climate warmed dramatically and the caribou fled.

“It is our belief that humans were living here and positioning themselves very carefully to see the caribou herds coming by,” Boisvert said. “Once they spotted them, then they could go out ... and take them in large numbers.”

On a recent morning at Applebrook Bed & Breakfast, several volunteers were digging up areas where ground-penetrating radar had suggested the possibility of additional artifacts. Several more were working a shallow excavation pit, where they had made one of their most intriguing discoveries – a collection of softball-sized stones dubbed the “rock garden.” Boisvert said this could have been a camp and the stones the remains of a hearth or sweat lodge.

Some of the volunteers on the site, like 66-year-old George Leduc, were drawn to the dig by the chance to “pull something out of the ground that hasn’t been touched by another human in 12,000 years” while others, like 73-year-old former tech executive Bruce Rusch, got hooked after taking part in a dig in the Southwest.

Still, younger diggers are trying to figure out whether this might be a career for them, including Lily Ten Eyck, an undergraduate at Central Michigan University who found most of the stones.

“It’s been really eye-opening,” Ten Eyck said. “It’s been really cool.”