Schell Bridge archaeological survey in Northfield seeks out site’s Indigenous history

  • Elnu Abenaki Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Rich Holschuh, right, looks at a historical map of Northfield and surrounding areas on Tuesday with Historical Commission Vice Chair Joe Graveline. An archaeological survey is being done at the site of the Schell Bridge reconstruction project in an effort to find signs of Indigenous life. FOR THE RECORDER/DAN LITTLE


  • Project archaeologist John Campbell works on completing a sampling survey Tuesday morning at the site of the Schell Bridge reconstruction project. FOR THE RECORDER/DAN LITTLE

  • Archeologist Andrew Polta sifts through soil samples at the survey site of the Schell Bridge reconstruction project in search of signs of Indigenous life Tuesday morning in Northfield. FOR THE RECORDER/DAN LITTLE

  • Project archeologist John Campbell sifts through soil samples Tuesday morning at the survey site of the Schell Bridge reconstruction project in search of signs of Indigenous life in Northfield. FOR THE RECORDER/DAN LITTLE


  • The Schell Bridge in Northfield was closed in 1985, after deteriorating to a point where it was deemed unsafe to use. FOR THE RECORDER/DAN LITTLE


  • The Schell Bridge in Northfield was closed in 1985, after deteriorating to a point where it was deemed unsafe to use. FOR THE RECORDER/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/5/2021 4:56:39 PM

NORTHFIELD — An archaeological survey of the Schell Bridge reconstruction site is searching for signs of Indigenous life from up to 20,000 years ago.

Up until its closing in the 1980s, the Schell Bridge provided residents with a link between the two sides of Northfield, which is divided by the Connecticut River. Due to lack of funding, the bridge had not been adequately maintained and was closed in 1985, after deteriorating to a point where it was deemed unsafe to use.

The state Department of Transportation previously devised a plan to rehabilitate the bridge, but the town could not justify the costs of assuming responsibility for maintaining the renovated structure. In 2004, the nonprofit Friends of Schell Bridge group was formed to try to “trigger rediscovery of the Schell.”

During Monday’s Annual Town Meeting, voters approved moving forward with two legal requirements necessary to transform Schell Bridge into a route for pedestrians and bicyclists. The final structure will be owned and maintained by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), relieving Northfield of liability. As a result of Monday’s approval, the project should be on track to reach a 100 percent design stage this fall, with construction aimed to start next spring.

On Tuesday morning, Historical Commission Chair and Selectboard member Barbara “Bee” Jacque, Historical Commission Vice Chair and Planning Board member Joe Graveline, and Elnu Abenaki Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Rich Holschuh spoke to the history of the local land while members of Public Archaeology Laboratory Inc., a hired cultural resource management firm from Rhode Island, sifted through soil samples near the bridge.

Graveline explained that the land, at the bottom of East Northfield Road on the east side of the Connecticut River, used to be engulfed by the ancient Lake Hitchcock — a glacial lake that was formed as the massive ice sheet but began to melt and retreat northward more than 14,000 years ago. The changes in elevation in the steep banks along the river highlight the size and depth of the glacier as it moved through the Pioneer Valley.

“The glacier stopped in Middletown, Connecticut,” Graveline said. “It pushed up a pile of earth the size of a mountain in front of it, and when it did, it had an earthen dam. From that point on, as the lake melted it created (Lake Hitchcock).”

As the glacier melted, gravity pulled large rocks and other minerals down, and now, Graveline said, the land in Northfield and along the Connecticut River Valley is among the richest in the world.

“Richest meaning … the amount of topsoil here is unheard of in other places in the world,” he explained. “We’ve got 5 or 6 feet of tillable soil here, rock-free soil, all up and down the valley.”

According to Graveline, the ancient Lake Hitchcock existed for about 4,000 years before melting and moving north. During this time the higher ground, closer to East Northfield Road and Route 63 today, became “a tundra environment” with high winds, few trees and tall grasses. He said these conditions were difficult on the Paleo and Plano people that existed here.

“But they knew how to live with it. They knew how to build their clothing and forage for the appropriate stuff,” Graveline said. “There were high winds all the time so the lake consistently had whitecaps on it, and it was constantly in motion stirring up all this silt. But every winter when the lake froze over, the waters became calm and all that silt settled down. Every single season it settled down and built a new layer on the bottom — layer, after layer, after layer…”

Sand dunes found along the valley, Graveline said, were created by these same constant winds. He said there was a project a few years ago where a farmer who had bought land on the south side of the Route 10 bridge bulldozed a large sand dune to level it. The day after he finished bulldozing, Graveline found a fire hearth — a small surface fire area with fire-cracked rocks. In archaeology, Holschuh and Graveline explained, fire-cracked rocks are identified by a change of their color, and they have cracked and split as a result of the deliberate heating.

“This means people were in this valley hunting before the sand dunes were formed, because it was underneath that sand dune,” Graveline said of the discovery.

“I think a lot of people in town who asked me about finding things are always thinking about objects like arrowheads or actual little things like that, but really what this process is about is uncovering evidence of life,” Jacque said. “You put all of these findings in context, so if you’re digging and finding things then it will start to tell the story about what was going on there.”

Holschuh said that because they are looking for evidence of cultural presence on the land, it is important to include voices who can speak directly to that culture in the process. The National Historic Preservation Act, Section 106, is a federal law that requiresan archaeological survey, and the insight of Native peoples, for such projects.

“If that’s not done, and if it’s not done properly, things that should be paid attention to — well, it doesn’t happen,” Holschuh said. “Because there are entirely different ways of looking at things, culturally and foreign. So I am here and working with the Northfield Historical Commission to help inform the process. This is as much about process as it is what actually happens.”

Whether the survey uncovers any evidence of historic life or not, he said it is important the process be conducted properly.

Holschuh said he hopes working with Northfield and state officials on this project could set a new precedent for earlier and more thorough collaboration with Indigenous communities onfuture projects.

Graveline referenced a study by Dena Dincauze of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and recited a footnote she had listed in one of her archaeology reports: “With whatever we thought we knew about the archeology of the Connecticut River Valley, what we’ve learned in Northfield tells us that we still have a lot to learn.”

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-930-4579.

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