Richmond land yields trove of artifacts; stone structures found by researchers

Richmond land yields trove of artifacts; stone structures found by researchers


RICHMOND — For the past year, Massachusetts researchers Steven DiMarzo Jr. and Todd Carden have been walking the DeCoppet estate in Richmond, documenting mysterious stone structures on the 1,800-acre state-owned property. To date, they have photographed and recorded 1,212 structures, noting their exact locations using GPS.

“We’ve found boulder top cairns with niches, and the niche is a place where we believe Native Americans would put offerings to the spirits for whatever reason,” DeMarzo said. “We found some boulder-to-ground cairns, which means boulders on top of a base boulder, trailing down the boulder onto the ground. We found a cairn on the side of a boulder, lots of rocks pushed up against a boulder in a certain shape. We found enclosures. Usually it’s a circular or semi circular array of stones up against a large boulder for no apparent reason other than ceremony.”

DiMarzo and Carden have documented nearly 7,000 stone structures in Rhode Island, most recently on Lawton Foster Road North in Hopkinton. They forward their findings to the Narragansett Tribe, Massachusetts historians James and Mary Gage, Rhode Island State Archaeologist Timothy Ives, and Curtiss Hoffman, a professor of archaeology at Bridgewater State University who is documenting sites along the East Coast and two provinces in Canada.

Opinions differ on the results of the research. The Gages and Hoffman concur with DiMarzo that the structures are not simply piles of stones that were cleared for farming, but Ives disagrees.

“For the current Native Americans, the sites are a physical and spiritual link to the land, the spirits, and to their ancestors,” James Gage said. “These sites are a reminder that Native Americans have lived in Rhode Island for thousands of years. They deserve to be treated with the same respect we give to churches and other places of religious worship.”

Hoffman said there were eight documented clusters of stone structures in Rhode Island, the greatest density of sites on the east coast.

“I can tell you that the highest density of sites per state is to be found in Rhode Island – for the whole eastern seaboard, and by a factor of about two” he said. “And it’s a very intensive activity. The state boundaries of course are created by Europeans, and one of the Rhode Island clusters spills right over into Connecticut. That boundary was not there at the time.”

Hoffman noted that the fact that the sites are clustered leads him to believe they were probably used for ceremonial activities.

“That’s one of the characteristics of these things,” he said. “They’re not everywhere. They are in limited areas, and that says to me that it really is very likely that these are the result of Native American rituals or ceremonial activity.”

Ives said there was an ongoing disagreement over the structures’ original purpose.

“There’s people who have a certain theory that they’re Native American, and they find site after site, because these are actually extremely common,” he said. “We have them all over Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut. You probably have hundreds of thousands of these stone structures out there, and it’s an ongoing dialogue between people who are interpreting Native American features and sort of challenging what they believe to be the government establishment interpretation...It doesn’t matter what analysis or interpretation I’m going to bring to it. There’s people who are going to be unconvinced and just keep looking for new sites to bring it all up again.”

In a 2015 paper for the academic journal “Archaeology of Eastern North America,” Ives concluded that the sites, which he calls “cairnfields,” were created by early farmers who had degraded their land through overgrazing, which destroyed the topsoil, leaving a rock-strewn surface.

“The working hypothesis at the heart of this paper is that farmers built most of the region’s cairnfields to mitigate degradation of overgrazed pastures, chiefly during the nineteenth century,” Ives wrote. “Though this land management approach is not directly addressed in prominent works on New England’s environmental history (e.g., Cronon 1983; Foster 1999; Merchant 1989; Thorson 2002; Wessels 1997), it may have been widely practiced by the Euroamerican, Native American, and African American farmers who considered the hills home.”

Narragansett tribal historian John Brown said he had not yet been to the DeCoppet site, but he said it was unlikely that the structures were piles of discarded rocks.

“We have not reviewed the site, and until we review the site, I would reserve final judgment,” he said. “However, I am not prepared to write these things off to the musings of some mad farmers in the middle of the night over the last 200 years, because, we clearly know, we have seen hundreds of these studies where the farmers have cleared fields to make stone walls and so on and so forth, and where they have incorporated within their modern structures the ancient structures of the Narragansett. This is not uncommon. So while some of these areas may be the work of farmers, I would have a question about anything that is structured. If it has structure and there are many of those type of stone cairns, that is probably not the work of any farmer, or any group of farmers, or any group of wood-cutters.”

DiMarzo is also adamant that the structures are not the result of farmers clearing their fields.

“I’ve been in the field now with Todd, every week for five and a half years, documenting almost 7,000 structures, and you begin to see patterns forming and you begin to see what might be field-clearing and what is definitely not field-clearing,” he said. “Field-clearing seems to be piles of stone, approximately the same size, the same kind of stone, usually located at the end of a field, or where two walls come together, they would usually put the stone at that juncture, and I just haven’t seen it.”

Regardless of the origins and purposes of the stone structures, Hoffman said they were more likely to survive in Rhode Island than in Massachusetts.

“The way in which the [M.A.] process works is the Historical Commission maintains an inventory of sites and if construction is going to take place with public input – that is either public land, public funds or public permits - then if there is a site on the inventory, then they have to do a survey. But they refuse in Massachusetts to put these sites on the inventory, so they’re unprotected,” he said. “In Rhode Island, Tim Ives is still keeping these things on his inventory, and so, that’s better.”


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