Artifacts found at Middle Island site

Sandra Peddie
February 3, 1986

By Sandra Peddie
IN A WINDOWLESS basement laboratory at Queens College archeologist Kent Lightfoot picked up a fist-sized rock from a cluttered table. "See how nicely it fits into the palm of my hand?" he said.

He ran his forefinger along the rock's serrated edge and explained that this quartz cobble could be used as a hammer stone to shape other rocks into useful tools. His explanation evoked the life of the Indians who lived on Long Island 400 to 1000 years ago.

The people who used the cobble left it behind when the time came to move on, either because they were driven out by invaders or because they were simply traveling to another seasonal camp, Unwittingly, they left behind a critical clue to a past incarnation of Long island life.

The cobble is only one piece of a discovery that may change our understanding of Long Island's past. It is among more than 15,000 artifacts uncov-ered at a four-acre site in Middle Island that archeologists believe may be the first entire ancient Indian village ever found on Long Island.

"It could change our picture of prehistoric Long Island markedly," Lightfoot said.

The cobble, the quartz flakes, the oblong pestle and bags of ash cluttering the laboratory table are part of a compelling detective story, one in which only a fraction of the clues have been unearthed.

archeologists have excavated less than I percent of the four-acre site. They plan to return this sum-mer and the next for more excavation.

For now, the archeologists - Lightfoot, an assistant professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; James Moore, an associate professor of anthropology at Queens College, And Robert Kalin, chairman of the Earth, Space and Science Department at Suffolk Community College - are connecting the clues in the laboratory,

Working on a tiny budget, they are cleaning, sorting and analyzing the artifacts. Each piece must be. Examined and fit into the larger puzzle. The village, in a sheltered hollow near a freshwater pond, is one of the first indication, that Indians lived in the interior of Long Island, not jut along the coasts.

"If there are these sites in the interior of Long Island, and I have a feeling there are a lot more on Long Island in areas that are undeveloped, there actually may have been a sizable population . . . living here," Lightfoot said.

Up to now, regional archeologists have focused their attention along the coasts, where they found remains of individual huts, but never an entire village. They theorized that several thousand years ago, small tribes of nomadic Indians fished along the coasts in the summer.

With the discovery of the Middle Island site, Lightfoot and his colleagues are questioning that theory. "We're not so sure life was so simple on Long Island," he said.

The early Indians may have been year-round villagers instead of nomads. Or, like some modern New Yorkers who winter in Florida, these Indians may have fished along the coasts in the summer and migrated back to their sheltered interior camp in the winter.

A Stony Brook graduate student currently comparing the temperatures between the coast and the interior has found as much as a 20-degree vari-ation. More moderate temperatures in the interior would be one factor that would support that pattern, along with the availability of game for food during the winter. Archeologists know the site was sheltered from wind; even Hurricane Gloria failed to disturb the trees in the hollow.

In the effort to ferret out the past, a botanist and a chemist are analyzing the plants and soil from the site. They hope to learn what sort of food was available to the early Long Islanders.

The archeologists also hope to get a grant to do some carbon-14 dating of the materials to determine the site's actual age.

THOUGH THEY HAVE just begun to connect the clues, these archeological detectives have recreated the village in their imaginations, aided by a computer-generated map. They believe the former residents cooked at a central hearth, made hunting tools at the edges of the village and scraped and sewed leather near the hearth. Most important, perhaps, the Indians lived in huts.

This is significant because early housing clusters have not been found before on Long Island. There has been no evidence of house structures in any of the sites on Long Island. Maybe, in two or three cases, they lived in wigwams," said Edward Johannemann, an archeological consultant for an engineering firm. Johannemann is not involved with the Middle Island project.

An apparently meaningless clue led to the discovery of the house structures. Like so many other archeological finds, it demonstrates how so little can yield so much. The key was a stain in the ground.

Soil is typically full of stains left by rotting wood or other organic material. But this stain was different. It was circular on the surface and narrowed to a V-1ike point as diggers scraped away a crow section. As they continued to excavate the area, they found similar stains each about 6 to 10 centimeters deep, in three circular groupings about 4 or 5 meters in diameter.

The stains were mold patterns caused by the decay of saplings pounded into the ground for house foundations. Within the groupings, the archeologists found pieces of fire-cracked rock, rock bested to such a high temperature that it had cracked. The pieces probably were part of a small hearth used in cooking meals.

The archeologists found thousands or other artifacts, pottery shards, pebbles, broken rock, a stone pestle, even nut fragments. "It looks like junk, and it is," Lightfoot said, fingering a quartz flake that probably once was used in whittling wood and was left behind by its owner.

Like the fire-cracked rock, each piece of junk is an artifact that leads to another clue. And, as the archeologists connect the clues and map out their locations, a clearer picture is emerging.

A large concentration of fire-cracked rock is situated in the south-central part of the village, an indication of one large hearth or several smaller ones.

NEARBY, PIECES of ceramics, the remains of cooking vessels used at the hearth, were found. There was also an oblong rock, or pestle, that the village inhabitants probably used to grind nuts, once an important source of food on Long Island. At the side of the hearth, the archeologists turned up a lot of burnt material and ash, probably where garbage was dumped.

South of the hearth, they found an oblong jasper stone that may have been used for piercing holes in leather for sewing. This led to an even greater surmise. Jasper is not indigenous to Long Island; its presence may indicate that the Indians engaged in trading, not something usually done in a simple society.

On the eastern and western edges of the village, the archeologists found hundreds of triangular stones, or arrowheads. They could have been used in hunting or in making other tools.

When it came time to leave the village, the early Indians had to choose what to pack on their backs and what to leave behind. Tools such as the quartz cobble, the pestle and the jasper boring tool were left behind. What else was left - and why - is part of the mystery for now.

Pothunters, or amateur archeologists, who stumbled upon the area, already have admitted to taking ornamental objects from the site. That is why the archeologists studying the site have asked that its exact location not be disclosed.

Nonetheless, word of the discovery has spread. When Lightfoot checked recently, he discovered 30 to 40 fresh holes. "Someone is pothunting the site," he said.

The despoilers have taken out stakes left by the archeologists and have dug through the mold patterns that provided evidence of house structures. Valuable clues to the past are being destroyed. "It only takes a few to spoil a situation," Lightfoot said.

Confronted with the pressure of pothunters and the rapid development of Brookhaven, the archeologists no longer have the luxury of unlimited time to unravel their detective story. Lightfoot would like to see the site, and others like it, protected by a town ordinance prohibiting people from digging in an area under study.

" We've got to do something, or that information will be lost," he said.

Lightfoot picked up another rock and held it almost absentmindedly. "We have to pause," he said, "and reflect about where we're going."         

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