It’s time to put some teeth into dig sites

  • Historic Main Street in Northfield. December 26, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 2/2/2019 9:55:24 AM

Members of the Northfield Historical Commission have sometimes felt like bystanders on the sidelines of history as archaeological sites with potential significance get dug up without accountability.

It’s an age-old problem. One has only to visit any local museum and browse the collection of arrowheads, pottery shards and other artifacts, often stripped of their connection to a specific site, to realize that important history may have been lost. Objects with a provenance offer clues to settlements and migration patterns that add value and interest beyond their inherent appeal as an ancient object.

According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Franklin County “is home to a large number of Native American, Dutch and English sites dating from 13,000 years ago through the Contact Period of the 1600s and continuing on through the Colonial Period into the present.” That’s why the state historical commission has developed an Archaeological Accountability Policy for adoption by towns hoping to protect their archaeological resources. In Franklin County, Deerfield and Gill historical commissions have adopted the MHC Archaeological Accountability Policy. Now, the Northfield Historical Commission would like to get its own version passed as a town bylaw.

Among other things, such a bylaw might require a research design plan and map showing the scope of proposed work, allow members of the local historical commission or their designated expert to visit the research site, and submit a site report and artifact inventory to the local town when finished. In exchange, the commission assists researchers by providing public records of historical relevance along with “local knowledge” about the site.

Their concern for archaeological oversight has frequently collided with decisions made by the Zoning Board of Appeals. “We’ve been disappointed three times in feeling that history was incidental,” said Historical Commission Chairwoman Carol Lebo in 2017, referring to excavations done in connection with projects at 24 Main St. (the site of an early fort), along Route 63 (Millers Falls Road) and on land owned by Lane Construction across the river on Route 142. A bylaw wouldn’t restrict such projects, said Lebo, but it would likely keep the work within the purview of the Historical Commission and guarantee good record keeping.

For example, last September, First Light power company undertook an archaeological study of the Connecticut River as part of its relicensing. In such a process, the workers dig pits every 7 meters, 50 centimeters square and 1 meter deep. The excavated soil is screened through mesh. When artifacts are found, they are sent to a lab and the location is earmarked for more study.

“The object is to make sure they’re not missing any cultural horizons,” said Joe Graveline, who is on the Northfield Historical Commission and is a former president of the Nolumbeka Project, an organization that promotes knowledge of New England’s native cultures. A cultural horizon, he explained, is a surface where humans settled for enough time to leave evidence of some kind. The Northfield Historical Commission advised on the study, along with the Nolumbeka Project.

The historical commission is now working on rewriting the MHC’s Archaeological Accountability Policy as a bylaw, with the goal of putting it to a vote at this year’s annual Town Meeting. Lebo expects the commission to have a firmer idea of what the new bylaw will do by the end of February.

“The intention of this commission is not to veto projects,” Lebo said. “It’s to educate people.”

No doubt the commission will hold a public hearing prior to the Town Meeting vote. We hope Northfield residents turn out to learn how the town can better preserve and account for any buried artifacts.


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