Archaeologists to search for Great Falls Massacre artifacts in Greenfield

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2023 11:54:33 AM

GREENFIELD — Archaeologists will ask the permission of “a couple hundred” property owners to collect 17th-century artifacts along the final stretch of the Great Falls Massacre’s colonial retreat route within the next two weeks, according to the Battlefield Grant Advisory Committee.

The work is part of a near decade-long effort to study “how and why this particular battle precipitated a shift in the military strategy and war efforts of Indigenous and colonial groups, and how those changes contributed to the foundation of this country,” according to the project narrative. The contracted Heritage Consultants of Berlin, Connecticut is now rounding out the focus area with a third phase centered around the retreat route of colonial forces. The company will distribute letters, sealed by the town of Montague (the leading municipality that received the project grant), asking private landowners for permission to have their properties surveyed and artifacts extracted.

According to the Nolumbeka Project, an Indigenous history and culture preservation nonprofit, the Great Falls Massacre of May 19, 1676 is considered the major turning point of King Philip’s War, when 300 women, children and elders were killed during a surprise pre-dawn attack led by Capt. William Turner. Ten years after the reconciliation ceremony of 2004, during which the town of Montague and members of the Narragansett Tribe formally recognized the conflict, four Indigenous tribes and Historical Commission members from five municipalities began doing pre-inventory research and documentation relative to the massacre.

Over the next nine years, the Battlefield Grant Advisory Committee completed two grant-funded phases of land surveying and artifact recovery. This third phase serves to “document battlefield actions and investigate areas of the battlefield that were not surveyed or examined during previous battlefield surveys,” according to Heritage Consultants’ proposal. The project narrative states 3.5 square miles of the 6.5-square-mile battlefield remains to be surveyed following the project’s first two phases. More than 600 artifacts were recovered over the 350 acres already surveyed.

Historical Commission member Tim Blagg, who represents Greenfield on the intermunicipal advisory committee, said the retreat route occurred “along the margins of town” as we know it today. This includes areas near Interstate 91, the Franklin County Fairgrounds on Petty Plain Road, Poet’s Seat Tower and White Ash Swamp by the French King Highway. Those living in these areas will be among the primary residents contacted as part of this project phase, but Blagg stressed that the boundaries of the researchers’ field of interest are loosely defined.

“The problem is, of course, that the colonial accounts of the battle relied on landmarks that aren’t there anymore,” he said.

The search is primarily intended to yield clusters of musket balls that “indicate a skirmish,” Blagg said. The rounds themselves may also indicate which types of weapons were used during the retreat, which Blagg described as a “running battle.” In addition to musket balls, archaeologists will also be on the lookout for items such as metal musket parts that may remain intact long after the firearm’s wooden frame rotted away.

Artifact detection and extraction will not be “your typical archeological dig,” Blagg said. It will involve heavy-duty metal detectors that are able to discern objects of interest from just any piece of metal.

“They’re sophisticated enough so they won’t be distracted by a bottle cap or something of that sort,” he said of the devices. “These guys that do the metal detecting by now are experts. They’re not your regular guy looking for a ring on the beach.”

Blagg stressed that digging will not be invasive or destructive, comparing the extraction device to a plug cutter used on golf courses. Any hole that would be made on a surveyed property would be small and filled in after an artifact is extracted.

This work is expected to begin on private properties essentially as soon as the landowners grant permission, Blagg said, adding that the work may begin sooner on some municipally-owned land.

Work will be funded by a $82,000 federal Preservation Planning Grant. Such grants, given as part of the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, “support education, interpretation, preservation planning and research projects that contribute to the protection of historic battlefields and sites associated with armed conflicts on American soil,” explained Philip Bailey, the program’s grants management specialist.

In the relative short-term, the Battlefield Grant Advisory Committee hopes information gathered through this survey work can be translated into educational signs and kiosks to install near where the conflict occurred. The project proposal explains the long-term goal is to have the involved land entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or


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