From the State Archaeologist

Delving into the Past is this year’s theme for Massachusetts Archaeology Month.

The dictionary has two interesting definitions for the word “delve.” The more common definition is to make a careful or detailed search for information, while the other definition is to excavate or dig with a spade – how appropriate are both meanings for Archaeology Month.

The cover of this calendar features a number of chipped stone tools that were crafted by Native Americans about 3,500 to 3,800 years ago. Archaeologists have named this style of tool Atlantic bifaces. A biface is a stone tool that is chipped (or worked) on both sides (faces) of the stone. Some bifaces are called projectile points, meaning they were attached to the tips of wooden spears or arrows and used by throwing or shooting them through the air in hunting. Other bifaces, more commonly called blades, were hafted to a small handle and used as a cutting or butchering tool. The Atlantic phase is within the so-called Susquehanna Tradition of the Late Archaic Period.

Initially archaeologists thought that Atlantic phase sites were only on the coast, where the seasonally mobile Native Americans would go to fish, dig for clams, hunt seals, and gather wild plant foods. However, more recent archaeological excavations have discovered Atlantic blades in the interior, particularly at riverine sites where fish weirs had been built as a means of trapping fish and along lakes.

Look again at the cover page. Do you see how the Atlantic stems are short and wide? Imagine that the stem would easily slide into a thick wooden handle, like a knife blade. Do you also notice how small the one at the far left is, compared to the other three? It had originally been the same size, but was used and resharpened over and over again. The tips of the two blades on the right had probably accidentally been broken off. These two blades were not discarded, but were probably just set aside to be resharpened when needed.

Archaeologists must delve harder to solve the mysteries of the Atlantic phase. So many questions are still unanswered. Why were Atlantic blades used for such a short time (only 300 years when other types were used for thousands of years)? What is their origin? Who could make them – a specialized craftsman? What were they used for? How did they become obsolete? What changed – society, climate, environment or some combination of factors?

If you want to learn more about stone tool making or Native American life in ancient times, please peruse the events in this calendar and attend one of museum activities or flint-knapping demonstrations. I hope that you enjoy Archaeology Month this year.

Brona Simon
State Archaeologist

Many thanks to:

Thomas M. Blazej, Director of Graphic Communications, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth
Jeff Surette, Graphic Communications, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth
Corolette Goodwin, Director, Central Services, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth
Linda Santoro, Archaeology Month Coordinator, Massachusetts Historical Commission