WestConn Students Uncover Native American Treasures At Archaeological Dig In Litchfield County – Torrington Register Citizen | Eco Friendly Side

DANBURY – Sifting through dirt on your hands and knees for weeks is not the “dream job” most students can imagine. But for four students from Western Connecticut State University, an archaeological dig in a sun-drenched field in Warren offered a fascinating glimpse into the life of New England’s first inhabitants thousands of years ago.

These four students were enrolled at WestConn’s Field Archeology School, which visits the Deer Run site at Lake Waramaug and other locations each summer to recover and analyze Native American artifacts. This site is a treasure trove for archaeologists, and the WestConn class collaborates with the Institute for American Indian Studies in nearby Washington.

“Native Americans were all over the Northeast before the arrival of Europeans,” said Faline Schneiderman, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Western Connecticut State University and vice president of Historical Perspectives, Inc., a cultural resource management company based in Westport .

“This is a six-credit class, and it’s hard work,” added Schneiderman. “You have to crouch for hours and you have to deal with poison ivy, snakes and spiders to name a few. Luckily for this year’s course we had a dedicated group of people who love learning about archaeology.”

Schneiderman led the classroom and laboratory portions of the course while Associate Professor Craig Nelson conducted them on site. Paul Wegner, deputy executive director of the Institute for American Indian Studies, offered support. They are continuing the work of WestConn Professor Cosimo Sgarlata, who passed away in May.

For protection, students wore long sleeves and long trousers on the field. They brought kits consisting of bug spray, rulers, pencils, pens, trowels, Ziploc bags and permanent markers to mark the contents of the bag.

For the students who took part in this year’s dig, it’s worth a few muscle spasms and a sunburn to get up close and personal with ancient history.

“You don’t just uncover objects when you dig,” said Madeline Russa, a WestConn senior from Danbury who studies anthropology and sociology. “You discover why people were there and what they were doing back then.

“It was slow for me at first and very labor intensive,” added Ressa, who later wants to do museum work. “I wanted to do it right. You uncover history… for that reason alone, you must be very careful in your work. Spending days hunched over to carefully walk through the floor means your back is always tired and sore, but I found the class fun.”


The largest finds were several cooking stoves, each measuring about 8 by 12 by 1.5 inches. This was a major accomplishment for this class since most of these summer groups don’t dig up artifacts that large, said Nelson, the field leader.

The students found many other treasures on the site. These included mortars and pestles, knives, scrapers, cooking stones, fire-cracked stones, and calcined bones, which are burned remains of bone. They also discovered and recorded eight different classes of projectile tips – commonly known as arrowheads.

Although these archaeological treasures are mainly only a foot underground, the digging must be done carefully with trowels and the soil and its contents carefully sifted to look for anything significant.

“Early Native Americans made tools out of large stones and left a lot of stone debris,” said Wegner of the Institute of American Indian Studies. “There is also a lot of evidence of fire, which they used for cooking and as light.”

Once found, artifacts are placed in a float or bath where all lighter material floats to the surface of the water. This yielded charcoal, fish scales and seeds to name a few.

“All materials will be carbonized and most will remain in our lab for further study,” Wegner said.

Some materials also undergo a process called lipid absorption analysis. As anyone who has had a cholesterol test knows, lipids are fats, and the pottery and utensils used by Native Americans show this.

“Through lipid analysis, thousands of years later, we can find that their diet consisted heavily of fish, which makes sense given the site’s location on Lake Waramaug,” Wegner said.

An archaeological dig begins with a grid pattern for digging, said Nelson, who guided the students in creating such a grid.

“Each week of instruction consisted of two days of classroom time and two or three days in the field,” he said. “Deer Run is on a small plateau above Lake Waramaug, has no trees and has never been plowed – which makes it a great place for us.”

“We have discovered things that date back to 4,000 B.C. going back to BC,” he added.

In years past, students have uncovered both clay and soapstone, some of which bore the marks of early artists. They used sticks wrapped in cord to emboss patterns on their wares. Projectile points were plentiful, and their classification or type provides archaeologists with clues as to their age.

“Based on the types of projectile tips found at Deer Run, we know they’re between 2,000 and 4,000 years old,” Nelson said.

The projectile tips were mounted on thin poles and used for harpooning fish or hunting deer and elk. The latter were widespread in Connecticut before becoming extinct in the eastern United States

importance of work

This work has a personal connection to Nelson, who works with several schools and associations at dig sites throughout New England.

“My 14th great-grandmother was a Shawnee,” said Nelson, who was once Warren’s first chosen. “And her father was a community leader by the name of Cornstalk.”

Schneiderman points out all too often that today’s students have been told by parents and others to avoid subjects like archeology and instead focus on strictly career-oriented courses. However, archeology and other social sciences have deep relevance beyond the academic or research world.

Schneiderman’s work for Historical Perspectives, Inc. often includes reviewing the impact of new government construction—including roads, office buildings, and schools—on sites of historical or cultural importance.

“As part of the review process for a new project, we need to consider the impact it would have on our cultural heritage,” Schneiderman said.

The annual course has implications for students in all majors, Nelson added.

“At the end, all of our students get a certificate of completion,” he said. “If they stay in this area, it shows that they have learned a lot. But it’s always worth putting on a resume, no matter what you’re going to do later on.”

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