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Expanding Universe: The Recent Paintings of Al Held, November 7 through January 11, 2004, at the BU Art Gallery

Week of 31 October 2003· Vol. VII, No. 10

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A whale of an archaeological tale
Student analyzes Native American artifacts found beneath Quincy playground

By Brian Fitzgerald

Margo Davis (GRS’02,’05) examines a stone weight that is part of an atlatl, an ancient spear-throwing device. 1999 photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Margo Davis (GRS’02,’05) examines a stone weight that is part of an atlatl, an ancient spear-throwing device. 1999 photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Archaeology graduate student Margo Davis was intrigued by the discovery in 1999 of rare Native American artifacts along the Quincy shore, artifacts described as thousands of years old and a “once-in-a-100-years-type find” by Massachusetts state archaeologist Brona Simon.

Davis (GRS’02,’05) hurried over to Quincy’s Caddy Park to participate in the site’s excavation, along with fellow graduate student Jennifer Sennott (CAS’98), CAS Archaeology Associate Professor Ricardo Elia (GRS’93), and Thomas Mahlstedt (GRS’84), staff archaeologist for the state Department of Environmental Management.

Davis was so thrilled by what they unearthed — 256 stone tools, some carved in whale shapes — that she decided to write her doctoral dissertation on the find. Four years later, on October 11, she revisited the park, leading a tour and explaining to the public the significance of the artifacts. A week later she delivered a talk at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton, Mass., describing the solved and unsolved mysteries of what is called the Maushop site, named after a benevolent Native American spirit.

“ They were building a playground there,” she said at the museum lecture, which along with the Caddy Park tour, was part of Massachusetts Archaeology Week. “We had our eye on the site, but nothing was found. However, it turned out that the artifacts were an inch below where the ground had been bulldozed. We were extremely lucky. If the bulldozer had gone down any further, the site would have been completely lost.”

Davis said that archaeologists always knew that the area, next to Wollaston Beach on Quincy Shore Drive, held a lot of potential to yield artifacts because it was rich in natural resources and traditionally a popular place for Native Americans. “It was known as Moswetuset Hummock, and it had fish, shellfish, and planting fields near the shore, and the upland portion of the area had deer,” she said. “It was also the summer seat of Chickatawbut, the local Wampanoag sachem, in the early 17th century.” In the late fall, the Native Americans who lived in Moswetuset — the word from which the state’s name is derived — followed the Neponset River inland to the Blue Hills, where they stayed for the winter.

“ There were two playgrounds built on the site before,” Davis said. “But the only artifacts found back then were a G.I. Joe’s head, and a plastic ring. We waited around while the construction crew started digging, but nothing was found, so we left. The next day, a worker digging a hole at the base of a slide dug up a 13-inch knife blade made of felsite, a volcanic rock that was probably quarried in what is now the Blue Hills nature reservation. They immediately called Thomas Mahlstedt.”

The artifacts also included an adz (a canoe-building tool) in the shape of a whale, a stone weight and a pendant resembling whale’s tails, numerous stone hand axes, arrowheads, and stone net sinkers. Davis says the large size of the knife and the whale shapes on the other tools suggest that they were used to cut blubber from beached whales.

Davis’ first question in trying to solve this archaeological puzzle — the age of the artifacts — wasn’t easy to answer. Carbon dating wasn’t possible because no charcoal or seashell fragments were found. Davis knew it was probable that the tools weren’t made any later than 1,600 years ago because after that, Native Americans used projectile points somewhat different from those found at the site. At first, some archaeologists thought the tools could be up to 8,000 years old, but Davis thought that 6,000 years was more accurate. She has since narrowed their age down to 3,000 to 4,000 years, “give or take 500 years,” she says. Before then, the sea level was much lower because the ocean to the north was ice-locked, so the coast would have been about 10 miles east of the burial site — not likely because of the maritime motif of some of the artifacts.

The second question in the puzzle: why were the items put there? “It could have been a cache, a highly specialized tool kit that was stored there for the season,” said Davis. “We also found red ochre, which is ground-up hematite, sprinkled throughout the site.” The rust-colored mineral oxide was used ceremoniously in ancient Native America, and “it could have been used as a warning to people not to dig there, that the site was supernaturally protected, and whoever left it meant to retrieve the contents later, but for some reason, didn’t,” she said. “It could also have been an offering to the god Maushop, a votive offering that wasn’t meant to be disturbed. They believed that this giant being provided them with stranded whales for food.” No bones or ash were found, so it might also be the site of a bodyless burial, perhaps for a person who was lost at sea, maybe while hunting a whale.

Another question is how aggressively did the Wampanoags pursue whales as a food source? There is no doubt that they ate beached whales, but the creatures rarely grounded themselves in Quincy Bay. Davis pointed out that the last time this occurred was in 1986, when a nine-foot pilot whale washed up on Wollaston Beach. There is speculation among a few historians that the area’s indigenous people might have gone out to sea and speared whales before the colonists arrived. After all, in the early 1700s, Nantucket 20-foot whalers were manned by a British captain and five Native Americans from the island. Davis showed the museum-goers a slide of the legendary Wampanoag whaler Amos Smalley (1877-1961). “Whale images have always been important to Native Americans,” she said. It has even been asserted that Native Americans taught the English how to hunt whales.

But Davis hasn’t come across any evidence that suggests the Wampanoags went any further than the beaches in search of the huge mammals. Indeed, Native Americans on Martha’s Vineyard believed Maushop picked up whales by their tails, killed them by slamming them on the island’s clay cliffs, and laid them on the shore to feed the population — a legend that also explained why some of the cliffs are red.

The tools found in Caddy Park tell a tale of local hunting and possibly local ritual, but Davis is continuing the quest for more specifics. Although no wear patterns were found on the larger tools’ edges, bolstering a ritual interpretation of the site, many of the smaller tools had been used repeatedly, and some were in various stages of construction. It’s an unusual mix. “We’re still doing testing on this exciting find,” she said.


31 October 2003
Boston University
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