On The Trail: Attic treasure
This fluted, ground-stone point was found in a Newton, N.H., attic and sold at auction recently. Archaeologist Mike Gramly speculated from the color and mottling that the stone is argillite, a hard, slate-like rock that's more consistent and less likely to break than slate. The artifact is the only complete specimen of its type known to exist.
One expert called this 5,000-year-old artifact of the Archaic Period a knife, another called it a bayonet. Whatever it is, it's a rare ground-stone point that's a hair over four inches long.
Whew! This prehistory stuff is attacking like rogue waves, one after another — wild, powerful and quite exciting.
No, I’m not bellyaching. I won’t allow this stubborn winter that’s clinging with a white-knuckled grip to get me down as spring tiptoes in and I lug heavy armfuls of cordwood in from a disappearing woodshed mound, the trip frequency steadier than expected this time of year, when it should start to wane. What else can I do but continue filling the iron stove-side cradle that keeps the hungry, roaring pig fed, me pondering this and that while performing wood-related chores, sometimes muttering under my breath and hoping no one’s listening, always trying to connect the dots, make sense of it all.
Take, for instance, the maritime-Archaic artifact pictured above and on Page B5. I published both photos to display both sides of the beautiful, pale-olive stone, probably slate-like argillite, used to fashion the rare, fluted, ground-stone point purchased by a Vermont buddy at a recent estate sale. The 5,000-year-old, four-inch, semi-polished tool came from a northeast New Hampshire attic chest of drawers, where it had likely lain covered in cloth for decades, perhaps even more than a century, before finally coming to light at what is called a family “dead end” in auction jargon. The purchaser has studied stones for many moons, was intrigued by the banded mottling, thought it unusual enough to pursue and bought it. He then photographed it and e-mailed the images to me, aware by following me online that his latest find was right in my wheelhouse.
When friend Bud Driver stopped by to chat on Friday, I shared the fresh photos with him. He couldn’t contain his enthusiasm, marveling, “Wow! What a beautiful piece. I’d love to get my hands on that, take a closer look through an eyepiece or under a microscope. I can’t say I’m familiar with the base. I’ve never seen ears like that. You ought to send the photos to Bruce Bourque. He could probably identify it.”
I called the purchaser and told him I had a visitor who wanted to examine his artifact, asap. “Come on down,” he said without hesitation, and off we went a half-hour north. Once there, Driver, a longtime amateur archaeologist and collector, was delighted to discover that my friend not only owned a jeweler’s eyepiece but a microscope as well, both of which he put to good use for minute evaluation, which only got better the longer he studied the maker’s marks. Judging from the two edges of what he called a knife, he figured the man (or possibly woman) who carried it was a lefty, an opinion that blew the man who bought it away, made the visit even more rewarding.
A few days later, about 9 a.m. Monday, Driver phoned to say he was headed to a Greenfield appointment and hoped to stop by with some documents he wanted to share. Despite the mess delivered by my grandsons’ weekend visit, the dining room reluctantly cleared as a temporary gymnasium, I told him I’d be waiting and, sure enough, his gray Toyota pickup rolled up the driveway at 10:30, me just dressed out of the shower, my wife at the sink in her bathrobe. He had in his right hand many pieces of paper wrapped around a long white tube containing maps as we walked toward my study for copying duties and, well before crossing the threshold to my inner sanctum, the subject quickly jumped back to my buddy’s handsome Indian artifact. Driver was still raving about it, said it should be professionally photographed and sketched, maybe even cast and sent around for expert evaluation. He even suggested it may be significant enough to justify an illustrated article in the “Massachusetts Archaeological Society Bulletin,” the organization’s official publication. The piece was, in his humble opinion, that important; potentially one of a kind. Plus, the basal fluting with the flared ears had to be a clue to the place of origin. Where that place was he could only surmise, even though he had studied Northeastern maritime-Archaic culture.
Although I remained silent, it was right then and there that I decided to learn more about the photos I possessed. When Driver left, I immediately e-mailed them to Bourque, the respected Maine State Archaeologist and author of “Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine” (2001) and “The Swordfish Hunters: The History and Ecology of an Ancient American Sea People” (2012). Having bought (and read) Bourque’s latest book from his friend and fellow archaeologist Mike Gramly — leader of the September Sugarloaf Site Paleo dig along the Deerfield/Whately line — I recommended it to the man who bought the ground-stone point of this discussion. My friend promptly bought the book online and read it, familiarizing himself with the beautiful color photos of artifacts characteristic of Maine’s Red-Paint Culture. Then, when perusing the auction lots and stumbling upon the handsome ground-stone tool, he recognized it, piquing his interest. Bourque’s e-mail evaluation of the photos only enhanced my friend’s appreciation of his recent purchase. Praising it as, “by far, the nicest specimen I’ve ever seen,” (and few if any have seen more), Bourque, a Princeton native and Bates College professor explained: “These fluted-base, ground-stone points are seen occasionally in Maine west of the Kennebec (River), but so far none are from datable contexts. I’d guess they’re around 5000 years old, maybe older, probably not younger.”
It gets better. After speaking to Gramly early Wednesday morning, an excited Driver phoned to say his friend was eager to view the photos. “When I began to describe the base to him, he stopped me and described it to me,” Driver gasped. “He’s excited, and really wanted me to call you for the photos. He can’t contain his enthusiasm. He said he’s dug those points with own hands in New Hampshire.”
Well, at this point, with deadline looming large and my hourglass quickly draining, I knew I was playing with fire but jumped right into the raging conflagration. Hey, if I make a harmless little mistake, I can always correct it next week, right? I too am excited about this discovery and would like to get it “out there” sooner than later. Who knows what new information will appear? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that someone else has such an artifact tucked away or has seen an identical piece somewhere. But I had to cross my fingers and hope Gramly would promptly respond. Finally at between noon and 1 Wednesday, my phone rang and it was Gramly, his infectious enthusiasm immediately driving the most pleasing pulsations down my right ear canal.
“Those photos you sent display a rather elegant example of a ground-stone point with a fluted base,” he gushed. “I’d call it a bayonet. In 1979, I unearthed a similar point, about four inches long, certainly resharpened, at the Molls Rock site near Lake Umbagog in extreme eastern New Hampshire. As I recall, we also found a tip of what might have been another point of this shape. I published pictures of the specimen in the little 1980 site report I wrote. It’s shown in Figure 3 of the essay ‘Molls Rock: A Multi-component Site in Northern New Hampshire’ (Man in the Northeast 24: 121-134).
“The absolute age of this variety of ground-stone point is yet unknown, and their exact cultural affiliations are likewise unknown,” he continued. “Certainly they belong to the Archaic period. If I were to guess, I would have them fall within the period 3000-2000 B.C. Fluted, ground-stone points seem to be confined to interior New England.”
Bourque’s book would suggest a Red-Paint origin, though I don’t want to put words in his mouth. And with that, I gotta go, am outta time.
Who knows what next week will bring? I suppose after all these years I’m ready for just about anything. Hopefully, though, new information won’t come at me like this week’s 11th-hour tsunami did.
When you sit in a seat like mine, sometimes you just gotta take whatever, whenever, then let ’er rip and hope for the best.
Off I go. See you next week.
Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.