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Our archaeological work in Deerfield

What’s been happening in Deerfield

There have been some recent references to archaeology conducted by anthropologists at UMass Amherst in Gary Sanderson’s sports column. The university’s research is well respected and involves collaboration with many community partners. Allegations that the work is deceptive and secretive are unfounded and it is a great disservice to the many people involved in protecting an invaluable aspect of our local heritage.

Let me lay out what’s actually happening in Deerfield.

Most of the archaeology we conduct at UMass Amherst falls under the category of “cultural resource management archaeology,” that is, seeking to conserve archaeological sites or, if the sites cannot be preserved, seeking to preserve the archaeological remains and the knowledge gained in public repositories for future generations. This work often entails working with local communities, descendant communities, landowners, conservation commissions and state and federal agencies. Working with such a large and diverse group of stakeholders is very complicated, and many different legal and ethical considerations need to be carefully balanced and engaged.

We have taken just such an engaged approached for a recent project in Deerfield. From the beginning we have worked with avocational archaeologists, the Deerfield Historical Commission, the landowner, Historic Deerfield Inc., and the Massachusetts Commission on Indians Affairs. We developed a research design in response to questions that came out of lengthy conversations, several site walkovers, and a workshop with the stakeholders. We would not have undertaken the project without the support and engagement of all of these stakeholders.

All of the archaeology that we do at UMass is under permit from the state archaeologist at the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC). There is a rigorous permitting process that requires submission of a detailed application and a final report. These reports are maintained by the MHC and can be requested from their office. All of my archaeological excavations in Deerfield have been conducted as part of a UMass Amherst Archaeological Field School, and when we work in Deerfield we maintain a lab that is free and open to the public in Historic Deerfield. During the last field school (in 2011), 124 people visited the lab and observed our work there. We have published our findings in Historic Deerfield Magazine, in some local press and in academic journals that are available to all, and we have made presentations at Archaeology Month talks (October annually) in Deerfield and elsewhere in the valley.

We also initiated two blogs on the project website to keep project stakeholders and the interested public informed about developments in the field and lab on a daily basis. Because the site is on private land, we cannot open it to the public, and the lab and blogs were attempts at bridging that gap. Most recently, my colleagues and I wrote a collaborative grant with two area museums, two universities and a regional school district. The goal of that project is to build interest in local history and to distribute the results of our work even more widely in local communities by developing classroom materials and a traveling exhibit that would be installed in Deerfield and surrounding towns.

To conclude, we have made — and will continue to make — a good faith effort to work with those who have an interest in the sites and histories of the valley and who share the important values of preservation and stewardship. Archaeology can be painstakingly slow, whether it is in the careful excavation process, or the many years of lab work and curation of collections that follow. Archaeological lab work, in particular, is very time consuming. For every one day in the field, it takes weeks in the lab to conduct the analysis of each and every artifact and soil sample, to create maps and artifact databases, and to interpret each individual feature and the site as a whole. And then we start the work of publishing and otherwise disseminating the results.

The cloak and dagger version of archaeology — in the vein of Indiana Jones — may seem more exciting to some. But for me, the 13,000-plus years of Native American history in New England, and the amazing diversity and richness of Native American heritage past and present, is what is most exciting … and worthy of far more attention in our school curricula, our newspapers, and other ways of celebrating cultural heritage.

Dr. Elizabeth Chilton is a professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Center for Heritage & Society at UMass Amherst. She received her PhD at UMass in Anthropology in 1996. She was an assistant and then associate professor at Harvard University, where she also served as the associate curator of the Archaeology of Northeastern North American at the Peabody Museum. She returned to UMass as a faculty member in 2001.

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