NARRAGANSETT—For over 20 years, Public Archaeologist Joseph “Jay” Waller, Jr. has been digging through the dirt and marshlands of New England, piecing together the lives and activities of Native Americans before Europeans stepped onto North American soil.
The greatest find of all his travels, however, is RI 110, which rests on the upper portion of Salt Pond just south of Commodore Perry Highway, arguably the most significant pre-European contact Native American find on the east coast.
Waller spoke Sunday afternoon to a packed house at the Towers, detailing his research on site RI 110 at Salt Pond and its significance to the historical, social and political fabric of the state and the Narragansett Indian Tribe.
“In the 1990s and early 2000s, [The Public Archaeology Lab in Pawtucket] was retained to go back out and look at this development,” said Waller. “It was a large property and we needed to examine the site substantially and quickly, getting out a lot of archaeological data.”
“We removed the top soil and focused on features because not a lot of artifacts were found there, and everywhere we looked, we found evidence of pre-contact activity,” he added. “We expected to find some evidence, but found more than we bargained for.”
Waller and his fellow archaeologists discovered the largest and best preserved Native American settlement around, a focal point for trade and significant food production for the Narragansett dating from the 1300s-1400s A.D. Charred animal and fish bones and ground were dug up alongside shell pits, demonstrating hunting and cooking at the site, as well as various collections berries and other plants.
“We removed the top soil and found all these concentrated storage pits, and storage at this level is evidence of a larger occupation,” said Waller. “RI 110 is ideally located at the head of the pond, near a fresh water source, other ponds and rivers, and is very close to the coast itself.”
“You have fruits, nuts, birds, mammals, marine mammals and fish, reptiles, shellfish, all located within a five minute walk,” he added. “Everything was right there. This area was the pre-contact Stop and Shop.”
What was most significant for Waller, however, were two things: clear evidence of varied and numerous structures, and the significant usage of maize, or corn.
“A lot of regional archaeologists didn’t believe that maize played a role in Native American life,” said Waller. “Many believed that intensive maize horticulture did not develop in the region until just after European contact and archaeologist David Bernstein made the same conclusion that maize was not a major economic endeavor.”
“As soon as we started to look for maize, we found it, and we found 78 kernels in the first week,” he added. “The reason we don’t see a lot of this maize is because, in Narragansett society, it is ground and pulverized, which is not conducive to preservation. Not only do we find maize here, but all along these coastal sites such as at Ninigret Pond.”
According to Waller, evidence of nearly 20 huts were found at RI 110, making it the most concentrated collection of permanent structures at a Native American site on the east coast, equal to only ‘Werowocomoco,’ the native village to Pocahontas and political center of her father’s, Chief Powhatan’s, Algonquian domain.
“We found a wide range of structures, from round and rectangular to oval in shape,” said Waller. “They ranged in sizes, mostly in the 10-20 square meter range. The Narragansett word for village is ‘Otan.’ If we were to characterize their activity at RI 110, I would call them fishing horticulturalists.”
“I expect anywhere from two to four years of occupation at the site,” he added. “The Narragansett Tribe also has weighed in and the tribal interpretation is an ancient medicine compound of the Turtle clan.”
Waller also gave a history of the Narragansett in the area. The name Narragansett means ‘people of the small point,’ which may have referred to Point Judith. When Roger Williams asked further about their name on his journey throughout Rhode Island, the Narragansetts brought him to Sugarloaf Hill in Wakefield, and pointed to a passage where there was a Native American settlement in Point Judith Pond they called Nanihigonset.
Waller hopes that the history and land-use of the ancient Narragansetts can be kept alive in the minds of an educated public, and his lecture was just one opportunity to provide that information.
“Point Judith Pond is the place where the Narragansett literally came about as a people,” said Waller. “This is where they developed from, and the archaeology is now aligning itself with the Narragansett’s oral tradition.”
“This is the place of the Narragansett,” he added.