Connecticut’s Archaeological Record

Paleo-Indian Period 12,000-7,000 BC

The Paleo-Indian period begins with the first settlers in the area, the Paleo-Indians. During the Ice Age Connecticut was covered by an ice sheet, which made the area uninhabitable until about 13,000 years ago. The Ice Age created a much different landscape than the one we are familiar with today. Since most of the sea water was trapped in ice sheets, sea level was much lower. This resulted in large areas of dry land that are today underwater, likely where the earliest inhabitants lived. When archaeologists talk about the earliest inhabitants of Connecticut they are usually referring to the inhabitants we have archaeological evidence for. This evidence is usually on land, not under what is today beneath Long Island Sound. The date of the earliest inhabitants is the subject of much debate and is likely to change, and may be pushed back even further, with new methods for and more extensive archaeological testing being undertaken.

The oldest known site in Connecticut is Templeton (also known as 6LF21), in Washington, Connecticut. This site provided a firm date for inhabitation at 10,490 years ago while also providing important information on the early physical environment of what is now northwestern Connecticut, which was very different from that of today. When Templeton was occupied most of Connecticut was an ice-free tundra, many of the bodies of water, rivers, lakes, and streams that are today a fixture of Connecticut’s landscape were not yet settled or formed. Early inhabitants would have shared the landscape with megafauna such as dire wolves, mastodon, mammoth, giant beaver, and other extinct species. Mastodon remains have been found throughout Connecticut, such as the 1913 find in Farmington. Radio-carbon dates from other regions have shown that these animals and humans were contemporary; as of yet, however, no Paleo-Indian artifacts in Connecticut have been associated with the remains of such animals.

The Paleo-Indian period is characterized by use of the fluted spear point and a highly mobile Hunter-Gatherer subsistence strategy. People were moving around the landscape collecting resources they needed for survival. It is important to note in Hunter-Gathering societies the majority of food resources come from gathering rather than hunting, as plants provide a predictable, reliable, food resource.

There are likely far more sites from the Paleo-Indian period in the landscape that have not been discovered yet. This is what Archaeologists refer to as a sampling bias. Since the Paleo-Indian period was 10,000 years ago, there has been much time for soil to accumulate and deeply bury the artifacts. Most archaeological surveys do not excavate to such depth, which limits the amount of information we have on this period of Connecticut’s past.

Early and Middle Archaic Periods 7,000- 4,000 BC

These periods follow the Paleo-Indian period; during this time the environment was rapidly changing. The Early Archaic is a dry and very warm period, which caused environmental changes that affected both the human and animal populations in the area. Water sources shrunk and some dried up as temperatures rose. Human population was still very small worldwide and Connecticut was no exception. People were still mobile hunters and gatherers, who were very skilled at use of their environment. It should not be assumed that because they were mobile they did not have complex ideas of social structure and use of available resources. Swamps were important resources during this period, as many sites are found in these areas. At some sites evidence for paint stones and jewelry making has been recovered, the archaeological record indicates there were regional cultural differences between groups who moved in predictable seasonal rounds. Archaeologists can see evidence for the seasonal subsistence round in the archaeological record through the presence of caches which appear during the Middle Archaic Period.
The environment continued to dry and change throughout the Middle Archaic. During this time period ground stone tools in the form of axes, adzes and gouges appear in the archaeological record. These tools indicate an increased usage of wood, but also a change in how the wood was being used. As the environment continued to warm the rivers and waterways stabilized, dugout canoes became an important method of travel. The process of repeated burning and gouging to make the canoe required the heavy ground stone tools found during this time period. These same tools would have been used for felling trees and making wooden objects. Woodworking was an important activity during this time period and items made of wood would have been commonly used. Canoes were made both in the dugout style and using birch bark, with dugouts being preferred in Southern New England for salt water travel, though they were used for freshwater travel as well.  In northern New England birch trees were more common, making them a reliable source of material for canoe making. Use of waterways for travel increased the trade of goods and ideas between groups throughout the area and beyond.

Late and Terminal Archaic Periods 4,000-750 BC

Occupations were focused along major rivers during this period as the environment continued to dry and warm and wetlands that had previously been reliable resources diminished. Subsistence strategies focused on populations living in what archaeologists refer to as base camps. These camps would move seasonally, and usually be located along a major water source while smaller temporary camps would be set up to collect specific resources in a variety of environments. These camps would be set up near a resource to collect what the group needed before rejoining the main camp. In Washington the Kirby Brook Site likely represents a berry picking camp used by Archaic period people. These camps were often small and housed only a small portion of the larger group.  

By the Late Archaic period there are two distinct populations living in the area. During the Late Archaic period, the Narrow Point tradition  sites occurred in a variety of micro-environments, while the base camps of the Laurentian tradition were located along rivers and lakes. The Laurentian population likely migrated to the area from the north and northwest of the area. By the Terminal Archaic period the Laurentian population appears to have been replaced by the Susquehanna, or Broad Spear, tradition. There is much debate in the archaeological community as to if the Laurentian populations changed their subsistence strategies and morphed into what archaeologists call the Broad Spear Tradition, or if the Broad Spear tradition represents a new population on the landscape. At the Dibble Creek 1 Site we see an example of possible trade between the two groups. Both the Laurentian and Broad Spear populations utilized a more narrow spectrum economy than the Narrow Point tradition. The Broad Spear tradition lacked fishing tools and evidence of fishing but did utilize veins of Steatite to craft stone vessels and other objects that were then traded to other parts of the region. This is likely the beginnings of the tribalization of the area, and the earliest evidence archaeologists have for distinct cultural groups in the area. This idea is supported by the fact that there is a population increase in the area shown by an increase in the number of sites during this time period as the environment could support more people.

Early Woodland 750BC-300AD

The Woodland Period is defined by major changes in settlement patterns, and physical environmental changes, identifiable in the archaeological record by the introduction of different artifacts. Environmentally this period sees a cooling trend which changed the species of trees, plants, and therefore natural resources which were available to people at the end of the Terminal Archaic and into the Woodland Period. The first major shift that occurs is the change from steatite vessels to clay containers and cooking vessels. Clay vessels have a larger surface area than steatite vessels, enabling them to cook faster more evenly when in the fire. The usage of clay allowed for easier cooking and preparation of vegetal resources enabling communities to better utilize the changing resources they had available. Foods which need to be simmered or slow-cooked are ideal for using in these clay vessels.

The archaeological record shows the Broad Spear tradition disappearing while the Narrow Point tradition moves into the areas previously occupied by the Broad Spear tradition. This may be evidence of assimilation of the Broad Spear tradition into the Narrow Point or a disappearance of Broad Spear people from the area. Compared to the Terminal Archaic period there are significantly less known sites in Connecticut from this time period. This lower number of sites can be interpreted to mean there were less people in the area during this time.

The earliest wampum found in the archaeological record is dated to this time period and was likely traded to other areas as part of the extensive trade network that existed across North America, linking Connecticut to the Midwest, as evidenced by the presence of boatstones, birdstones and chert objects from the Midwest Wampum would have been an important trade item along these trade routes. The earliest known pipes for smoking in Connecticut are also dated to this period. The Native Americans used tobacco and other herbs in curing (the first aromatherapy sessions!) and in ceremony and with great respect; tobacco was not used as a recreational material until the Europeans arrived and brought the idea back to Europe.

Middle & Late Woodland Period 300AD- 1524AD

During this time the seasonal subsistence round with multiple base camps shifts to a more sedentary lifestyle enabled by the stabilizing climate. While seasonal resources were still vital to Native American Subsistence Strategies, the introduction of maize horticulture allowed for a staple crop which could be stored translated to a more sedentary lifestyle. Villages were located near good areas for growing corn along with the beans and squash that made up the three sisters when planted together in a circular mound.  Corn was domesticated in Central America over the course of thousands of years before it was dispersed through trade to other parts of the Americas. Corn was also ideal for cooking in the clay vessels developed during the Early Woodland period.

As the Woodland period progresses we see more and more of these vessels in archaeological contexts. The techniques for developing these clay vessels was improved; the walls of the vessels became thinner, their mouth diameters become small to retain heat, and the size of the temper decreases. During this time period we also see an expansion of the decorating techniques used to treat the pottery. Archaeological evidence has uncovered relatively extensive settlements that would have supported a large numbers of people. The Hicock-Benson-Palmer Site and the Morgan Site provide examples of what life was like in a large village complex during these time periods.

Final Woodland Period 1524-1633AD

The Final Woodland Period shows some of the most rapid cultural changes in indigenous history. With the arrival of traders and colonists from Europe, Native American communities were forced to adapt to the changing social and political environments of what Europeans hailed as the “New World.” Upon the arrival of Europeans, Native American communities already had extensive trade networks spread across North America, with complex ideas of tribute and intertribal political alliances. The arrival of Europeans represented the arrival of potential new trade, and political partners. Europeans were brought into a world of complex Native American sociopolitical networks and trade routes in which Native Americans would try to use the European colonists and traders for their own political gains.

With the new trade relations came devastating European diseases spread through contact between the two groups. Accounts by early 17th century explorers speak of very healthy indigenous communities prior to the introduction of plague, smallpox and other European diseases. Colonists often remarked upon the tall stature and comeliness of Native American individuals and marveled at the fact their faces were unmarred by disease such as smallpox, which ravaged Europe. Overall the Native population in the pre-contact period was much healthier and enjoyed a much better diet than their European counterparts.

Many of the well traveled pathways that once connected indigenous village and camp sites were eventually modified into Connecticut’s present highway system. For example, what is today Route 7 was originally established as the Old Berkshire Path that connected indigenous villages along Long Island Sound to the Schaghticoke Village in Kent and the Mohican village of Stockbridge, continuing up into Canada. People, goods, and ideas traveled this path for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived, connecting communities and enabling a bustling trade of exotic goods that the Europeans were all too happy to adopt. The idea of a ‘Virgin Wilderness’ in the New World is an inaccurate way of describing America before Europeans. Native communities were thriving on a landscape they knew how to use and harvest with knowledge honed over thousands of years. Well known habitation sites such as the Binette Rock Shelter and Woodruff Cave continued to be used during this period by both Native Americans and the newly arrived Colonists who were now traversing the landscape.

Post-Contact Period 1633 AD- Today

Native American trade goods were much sought after by Europeans and there was serious  competition between the English and Dutch for access to the indigenous trade. Fort Shantok shows an example of how Native American communities adapted to the changing political landscape. The first Europeans to arrive in Connecticut were here to trade, not to colonize. During the mid 17th century the flow of traders ebbed while the tide of European settlers increased. Settlers often moved into areas that were once occupied by Native Americans who had been decimated by diseases or forced off of their ancestral homeland. Native Americans believed their homelands were given to the tribe by the Creator, therefore  any one person could not own land. Their conflicting ideas over land ownership and land use was a major source of discord between the Colonists and Native Americans. Europeans sought to purchase land from what they saw as the Native American owners. The Europeans believed that they were purchasing the land from the Native Americans permanently and therefore could settle there and call the area their own. The Native Americans believed that the Europeans were offering them tribute in exchange for use of the land as part of a tribute system which was already in place upon European arrival. This difference in ideas would be a source of conflict between the two groups.

Despite discrimination, racism, and English laws forbidding them to do so, Native Americans continued to maintain their ancestral traditions and communities. Reservations were established in Connecticut during the 17th century; however, often these lands were marginal, infertile, rocky, swampy tracts unsuitable for habitation. Even so, the tribes’ government-appointed white overseers  continued to sell off parcels of the reservation land and reduce its size. These marginal, small tracts could not support all tribal members, and many were forced to leave in order to better support their families. Most reservations in the state today are very small and serve as a gathering place for tribal communities, rather than a residence for tribal members.  

The beginnings of the Post-contact period in Connecticut creates a new category of archaeology known as Historic Archaeology. Unlike the excavation of Pre-contact period sites, Post-Contact period excavations can be compared to the historical records from the time of use. This allows us to ask different questions or find out information that was not recorded in historical, written, sources.

Archaeology can be used to supplement or contradict the contents of written records, as was the case in the Venture Smith Homestead. Historical evidence for what the homestead looked like comes mostly from Venture Smith’s narrative, however this historic document was written by a school teacher who had his own biases while writing. Through archaeological excavation we can determine exactly where buildings were, how large they were, and what they might have been used for.   

Excavations at Putnam Memorial State Park also allowed archaeologists to learn more about the lives of Revolutionary War soldiers than was mentioned in the documents. One example was the difference in camp living between officers and the average enlisted soldiers. Excavations at the park also allowed archaeologists to pinpoint the location on buildings that were recorded in the historic record. In knowing exactly where a building was or where an event happened both historians and archaeologists get a better idea of how the landscape was used, how the way the land shaped events or building techniques, and exactly what area should be preserved.

In Conclusion

Archaeology is a powerful tool for our understanding of the past — how past peoples lived, why they lived where they lived, and how past events, and lifeways have shaped our lives today. Archaeology is informed by the historic record, which is in turn informed by the archaeological record. The two disciplines complement each other to provide a more complete understanding of what occurred in the past.

Native American communities have lived on the land we now call Connecticut for thousands of years and their lifeways can be traced back through archaeology and oral histories. Native American tribal communities persist today, and the idea that the Native American population was entirely wiped out with the arrival of Europeans is a myth. It is important to respect and understand these groups, appreciating the wisdom they offer. Whenever an archaeological site or artifact is found, alert an archaeologist. If no action is taken and archaeological information is lost, it is lost forever. Once an artifact is taken out of context valuable information is lost and often the artifact alone cannot reveal as much information as it could have had it been found in its original context. Connecticut archaeology does not exist in a vacuum but rather is part of the larger archaeological history of New England.