John Hanson Mitchell
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Night of the Falling Stars
Bird of Dreadful Night

The Cult of Monadnock

Deep Time

In September of l978, highway construction crews working on a new exit ramp at the end of Route 290 hit an impasse. In the side of a hill, just where the engineers wished to have the ramp placed, was a large, overhanging rock wall consisting of portions of bedrock ledge.

Minor impediments of this sort do not necessarily disturb those whose intention is to reshape the land to fit their needs, and so the engineers called in the dynamite crews and ordered them to blast away this barrier to progress.

As the crews were preparing the site, one of the workers came across a small stone that was later determined to be an arrowhead; one thing led to another, and, thanks to the requirements of the National Preservation Act of 1966, all work on the highway was halted and an archeological survey crew from Harvard University was called in to assess the site. It turned out to be one of the more important archeological finds in recent history.

The crew discovered a large overhanging, south-facing grouping of immense bedrock outcroppings that, while not exactly a cave, had once offered a fine winter shelter to untold generations Native American people.  The Flagg Swamp Rockshelter, as it came to be called, was one of many such shelters that were scattered throughout the New England landscape.  Unlike the others, however, thanks to the work of the survey crew, Flagg Swamp is one of the best documented.  We know a lot about how people lived in New England a thousand years ago because of it.

The family groups that sheltered there subsisted by hunting and gathering, judging from the plant and animal remains and the artifacts uncovered at the site. Archeologists found evidence of whitetail deer, wapiti, bears, and turkeys, as well as the bones of smaller fare such as heath hens, rabbits, beaver, and woodchucks. And even though the rockshelter was thirty-five miles from the coast, the survey crews found the remains of migratory fish, such as alewifes, tomcod, and eels.  The people at the shelter also hunted skunks, lynx, wolves, and foxes, and collected  --- probably for ceremonial purposes --- many saw-whet owls and screech-owls.  And they were skilled plant gatherers. Archeologists found black walnuts, acorns, hazelnuts, and hickory nuts, along with the seeds of dogwood, hawthorn, grape, crab apple, and smartweeed.

The plant and animals remains, as well as locally fashioned tools that were found at the site, such as stone axes, knives, arrowheads, spearheads, and other tools, speak of a people well adapted to the their environment; and, in fact, archeologists determined that the Flagg Swamp Rockshelter was used over a very long period of time.  Family groups began taking cover there nearly five thousand years ago, and the site was still being used in the 1300s, which means it was occupied continuously every winter for some four thousand years. We, by contrast, have not as yet been in New England more than four hundred years, and, as anyone with any perspective on environmental history will tell you, things are not going well.

With the archeological salvage efforts completed, work resumed at the intersection for the Route 290 exit ramp.  The dynamite crews returned and drilled into the bedrock above the sheltering wall, inserted the sticks of charge, fitted the blasting caps, sounded the warning siren, and in a matter of seconds blew away four thousand years of cultural history .

And now, we who cruise the highways of New England in oversized, well-heated vehicles, cell phones to ear, car stereos pounding out the latest news, the latest music, the latest stock reports, can slip across the landscape undisturbed by the fact that we are skimming the surface --- at sixty-five plus --- of the dwelling places of a culture that once measured time not by weeks and days and hourly schedules but by the cycle of the seasons, the arrival and departure of migratory birds, the quarters of the moon, and the passage of fish in the local streams.


Sanctuary: The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society
January/February 2000
Volume 39 Number 3

© 2011 John Hanson Mitchell
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