Archeologists find artifacts up to 3,000 years old in Laurel Beach

A recent archeological dig in the Laurel Beach area has turned up evidence of a coastal Native American settlement dating back about 3,000 years.

Of course, it’s no surprise that evidence and artifacts were found. Daniel Zoto, an archeologist with Archaeological and Historical Services based in Storrs, and a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, said Laurel Beach has been the subject of archeological finds and studies for a number of years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, formerly known as the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, in Andover, Mass., and Yale University conducted a study in the area, focusing on what is called the Eagle Hill site, which is one of the sites where Claude C. Coffin found many Native American artifacts in the early 1900s.

The Coffin collection at the Milford Historical Society is an exhibit of more than 4,000 Native American artifacts that Coffin collected mostly in Milford. The collection includes spear points, celts, large axes, choppers, knives and large pestles, and a collection of pottery described as “one of the most important in Southeast New England, representing a wide range of known styles for this area.”

We know there was significant occupation here, and there were a lot of human remains interred here at the beach,” Zoto said during a presentation of the latest survey and findings at Laurel Beach this past Saturday afternoon.

Zoto continued, noting that in the 1980s and 2000s, archeologists from the Institute for American Indian Studies in  Washington, Conn., conducted a survey in the Laurel Beach community, and in 1990, workers installing a sewer line in the area found a Native American skeleton believed to be 2,500 years old.

According to a news report at the time, the Native American skull and shoulders, along with three tools, were found during a site excavation on Third Avenue. The artifacts dated to the Early Woodland Era, and according to a Milford Citizen article from 1990, the teeth indicated the young man was a hunter/gather, perhaps from the Ohio River Valley area.

Zoto said some kind of copper ornamentation covered the man’s head at the time of his interment, and that is why his skull and shoulders were preserved.

“I would say that he was a very important person to the tribe,” Zoto said, “because he was interred with a dozen or so artifacts that were made from exotic materials.”

And then there are Milford history books offering further proof of the Laurel Beach area’s Native American roots: According to History of Milford Connecticut, “A long narrow peninsula at the extreme west, now Milford Point, had been for many years the site of a large Indian village and the scene of many an Indian oyster feasts. The shells were scattered thickly over nearly twenty-four acres.”
One large archeological treasure

With the history books and the findings dating back thousands of years, the Laurel Beach neighborhood is generally considered one large archeological site, Zoto said, and that is why when roadwork was planned to alleviate drainage and flooding potential, the state requested an archeological survey be done of the area.

The survey, conducted by Archaeological and Historical Services, took place between September and November of 2017, and later Zoto returned on his own to do additional work for his graduate studies at UConn.

What was uncovered between September and November was a Native American shell midden and artifact assemblage, between 500 and 3,000 years old, which represents 2,500 years of Native Americans living at Laurel Beach.

A shell midden is essentially a site where refuse was discarded all those years ago.

According to a 2017 article in the New York TImes, among the massive pile of oyster shells left by Native Americans can be found “detailed stories thousands of years old.”

That’s because the shells, according to Zoto, help to preserve other items that normally would have decomposed by now.

“The soils are very acidic, so we usually don’t find organic remains. But calcium carbonate in shells will neutralize the acid and allow preservation of bones and seed,” Zoto said.

The researchers started with two test pits, where they found marine shells and an arrowhead. While there was a large oystering industry here in the 19th Century, the arrowhead indicated this find was much older than the 19th Century. So with that find, work continued.

Zoto didn’t want to say exactly where the excavation site was, but it wasn’t too far from the community hall where a gathering of residents listened to his presentation Saturday.

Digging holes that were about four feet wide and 2.5 feet deep allowed the researchers to “peel back the layers of time,” Zoto said. “As we go deeper, we’re going further back in time.”

The researchers found four classes of artifacts: Faunal, which relates to the animals of that time; botanical, stone and ceramic.

The faunal remains included an estimated 120,000 fragments of shell — 60% from soft shell clams; 30% from eastern oysters; and 10% that were classified as “other,” like quahog, ribbed mussel, slipper snail, and bay scallop.

Zoto said the different shell types may represent what was available at different times, or peoples’ changing preferences over time.

Additional faunal remains included 323 bone fragments, including nine from white tailed deer and others from fish in the flounder family.

Botanical remains included 17 nut fragments, one positively identified as a hickory nut and later radiocarbon dated to 1180 AD, approximately 822 years old.

Ceramic artifacts included 23 sherds, or fragments, of ceramics. Three of those are believed to date to the Middle Woodland Period, which was 1,000 to 2,000 years ago; one from the Late Woodland Era, which is 500 to 1,000 years ago, and nine were suggestive of the Early Middle Woodland transition, which was 2,000 years ago.

With the pieces of ceramic, researchers start to piece together a picture of how long the area was occupied and what the people were doing there.

“Ceramics are important because they are an indication of domestic activity happening at the site,” Zoto said, “people processing food or rendering oil from the fish … also a type of artifact you will find at a site where people are hanging out for a period of time. Groups that are highly mobile are not going to be walking around with their ceramic vessels.”

There were 402 stone artifacts found including 17 flaked stone tools and 366 pieces of chipping debris, which is indicative of tool making. The oldest spearpoint or arrowhead found is between 2,700 and 3,500 years old.

Two main classes of stone were found: quartz, which can be found in the area, and red brown chert, which Zoto said was brought to the site from somewhere else.

“People were coming to the site with this material,” he said. “They were making tools, and those tools were transported offsite to the next place they were living. So they were preparing for wherever they were going next with that red brown chert.”

He said if you trace the stone, you can trace the movement of the people. The closest place for the Native Americans to have found the red brown chert was in Kingston, N.Y., and the central Hudson Valley. Tests on the chert found here indicated it likely came from there, as it was nearly identical to the New York stone.

“We are very confident that this stone came from the Hudson Valley,” Zoto said. “It shows people living here had connections to the Hudson. Either they were going there and acquiring stone firsthand or they were trading it. The outcrop is over 100 miles away, but if you’re coming down the Hudson River and into Long Island Sound, it’s really not that far. And those were the highways of the day — the rivers and the byways.”

Zoto concluded his presentation with a scene he found on the Internet, which shows a Native American settlement near a body of water. He said that is essentially what the area probably looked like: Large groups of people living at the mouth of the Housatonic River, perhaps seasonally, in the fall and summer. They took their resources from the river, the marsh and the land. Living next to a salt marsh, he said, would have been like living next to a grocery store.

“It’s an amazing spot,” Zoto said.

He speculated that the Native Americans whose refuse was uncovered during the recent dig were probably ancestors of the Wepawaug tribe that sold the land to Milford in 1639, though he doesn't know what they would have called themselves at the time.