Archaeologists find 4,000-year-old artifacts at Seabrook nuclear plant – Robinson, Nurse, Heller et al.


4,000-year-old artifacts shed light on early Native Americans

Dr. Brian Robinson photographing an old land surface under the beach at the dig site in Seabrook, where possible evidence of climate change was discovered this summer. Photo by Sky Heller 

Dr. Brian Robinson photographing an old land surface under the beach at the dig site in Seabrook, where possible evidence of climate change was discovered this summer. Photo by Sky Heller

SEABROOK — New archaeological findings on land protected by Seabrook Station nuclear power plant could shed light on the New Hampshire Seacoast’s indigenous people and its climate change history, a University of Maine anthropologist said.The 4,000-year-old artifacts, which range from fish bones to archaeological remnants of Native American huts, tell researchers about the lives of indigenous people, what they fished and possibly why some fish species no longer exist in the Gulf of Maine, according to UMaine’s Dr. Brian Robinson, who headed a recent excavation.

Robinson, an associate professor at the university’s Department of Anthropology and Climate Change Institute, was accompanied by graduate students from UMaine and the University of Connecticut. They completed the excavation over the course of three weeks, ending this past Sunday. This was Robinson’s second visit to the location. In the 1970s, he and his team discovered human remains on site, which have since been repatriated to the Abenaki tribe. They also found swordfish remains, which indicated the species, now gone from the Gulf of Maine, was abundant 4,000 years ago. He said swordfish were likely caught with harpoons and floats attached to boats.

Returning to Seabrook this summer allowed Robinson to reinvestigate the site with more advanced tools than he had on his last visit. “We’re doing things we can do now that we could literally not do 40 years ago,” Robinson said. “We keep getting more and more precise perspectives and that takes increasingly precise work. ”One of the big differences between the first dig and the one this summer is the use of finer screens to sift through soil for smaller animal bones and charred plant remains, Robinson said.

Forty years ago, Robinson’s team used one-quarter-inch screens and lost most small fish remains, he said. On this trip, team member and UMaine graduate student Sky Heller used a screen finer than window mesh to sift through tiny fish bone particles. “It’s just a wealth of small fish remains and of other animals that we used to lose,” Robinson said. “Without quantifying smaller bones it would not be possible to tell whether moose or herring was a more important food source”. It will take months to process the bones, Robinson said, but the tiny bone particles could show more species fished by the Native Americans 4,000 years ago. The team’s awareness of climate change this time around made a big difference as 40 years ago it wasn’t on archaeologists’ radar, he said. “Even a decade ago, (climate change) was sort of new. Twenty years ago, we weren’t even worried about it, not in terms of public awareness,” Robinson said. “Now we know how important it is in the present, so we’re looking over these things in the past.” Learning patterns of fish stocks over the past 4,000 years will help researchers better understand how the Gulf of Maine ecosystem changed over time, Robinson said.



In addition to the fish bones, Robinson’s team found evidence of huts much larger than expected. The team found archaeological remnants of structural posts called post molds, Robinson said. Native Americans bent long posts to form the base for the huts they lived in, he said. While the team knew they’d find post molds there, Robinson was surprised by how large they were. Their size indicated the huts were used for more than just one year, indicating a more permanent residence, he said. Before agriculture was adopted in the Northeast, Robinson said it is thought that most houses were temporary structures with small wood poles. “These were substantial structures,” he said. “We knew there were post molds, but I didn’t know there were as many of them or that they were as large… it wasn’t a major focus, but now it is.”

The team also found a plummet, a heavy object used as a fishing weight, standing upright inside the post molds, Robinson said. The position indicated it had been found in the exact place it was left by the hut’s occupant. Artifacts left in this manner can tell archaeologists a lot about previous cultures, he said. Robinson said his team owes a lot to Seabrook Station for allowing them to access the site, especially considering how unique it is for its bone preservation. In the 1970s, he took note of the preservation and had hopes of finding similar sites. Since then, only four other sites have been found in the Gulf of Maine similar to the one in Seabrook, he said, and those sites are above sea level. The fact that sea level rose 10 to 15 feet in the last 4,000 years, he said, makes the site at Seabrook particularly unique. It allowed the site to be protected by marsh sod, allowing for the preservation, he said. Without Seabrook Station protecting the land, the sites could have been destroyed, he said. “The preservation and the fact that the site is still there so we can do these kinds of analyses, is largely because the site is within a protected zone of the Seabrook nuclear power station,” Robinson said. “It’s because of that that we can do all these different things, and hopefully we’ll be able to come back again in 40 years.”

NextEra Energy Seabrook Station spokesman Alan Griffith said the company was proud to be involved in the effort. “It’s been fascinating to support Brian and his team as they are opening a window into the past giving us a better view of how people lived thousands of years ago,” Griffith said. “Our desire and obligation to be responsible stewards of this property go well beyond the safe operation of our plant.”

By Max Sullivan

Posted Aug. 13, 2015