Monday, April 11, 2011

Talking Ossuaries and Middens Over Breakfast

I like to think of all our guests as remarkable, but every once and a while individuals come who feel like old friends. Margaret and Jim are of that category. Jim is an archeologist and excavated on Cape Cod in the late 1970s, on assignment for the National Seashore. Margaret has an equally fascinating job working with scientists in Boston and does community volunteer work. The four of us hit it off immediately. We had great discussions over breakfast.

Margaret had heard of Our Stolen Future but not read Dr. Theo Colborn’s excellent book on endocrine disruption, so I gave her a copy.

Jim shared marvelous stories about first encounters between colonists and Native Americans. Here's one: apparently, some colonists gave a group of “Indians” a copper kettle. There was copper in the “new world,” and the natives were skillful at working it. The natives must have thought, why put such a large piece of valuable metal over a fire pit? Instead, they cut up the kettle and created rings and bracelets, much to the surprise of the foreigners.

Jim also recounted discovery of the first ossuary on Cape Cod, over on Indian Neck where homeowners were putting in a cesspool or septic system and called to report bones. The bones, belonging to 70 individuals, were over 1000 years old. There were no laws in 1979 to protect burials, although such a law was passed the following year. “There was a shell midden on top, from the time of European contact,” Jim said. The ossuary proved Native Americans had lived here full-time, that they were not summer visitors, as previously thought. “They had no reason to go anyplace else,” he concluded, since the food was so abundant. (This ossuary was written up in Scientific American in 1986.)

It seems people are finding artifacts all the time in Wellfleet and should be especially careful over near the marsh, where houses are rising on top of potential archeological sites. We even have what I think might be a midden up Old King's Highway.

Jim said he hoped landowners would report any archeological discoveries and added, “It’s a piece of history that isn’t going to come back.”

I took Jim up the road before departure and showed him the midden. Could it have been created by Native Americans? Our guest thought not, as the location is too far from the shore. He guesstimated that the midden dated from colonial times and even pulled a piece of red ware out of the earth as proof. What fun!