Can You Dig It: Internationally significant find in Valley
Updated: Jan 23, 2022
• 10,500 BC — Archaeological Dig Reveals Farmington Valley’s Secrets
This article first appeared as the cover story in the October edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Dr. David Leslie — Special to Today Magazine
Editor’s Note — To mark Connecticut Archaeology Awareness Month this October, Today Magazine offers this story on the state’s oldest archaeological dig, discovered in Avon — a find of international significance.
This report is by the senior archaeologist at Storrs-based Archaeological & Historical Services Inc., the firm that made the discovery. The unearthing occurred before the state DOT built a new bridge over the Farmington River where Old Farms Road meets Route 10.
IN JANUARY 2019 archaeologists from Archaeological and Historical Services, working for the state Department of Transportation in Avon, uncovered evidence of the oldest known archaeological site in Connecticut, and one of the oldest in New England.
The Brian D. Jones (BDJ) Paleoindian Site, named posthumously for the late Connecticut state archaeologist, is a 12,500-year-old Paleoindian site located on the banks of the Farmington River, about 5 feet beneath the modern ground surface.
The location is southern New England’s oldest archaeological site.
Paleoindians, nomadic hunters and gatherers, were the first people to inhabit North and South America. They migrated from Eurasia via the Bering Strait Ice-Free Corridor or by boats along the Alaskan coast and established themselves in the Americas about 14,000 years ago, or perhaps earlier. In New England, Paleoindians inhabited the region after the retreat of glaciers following the end of the last ice age, between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago.
The BDJ Site has been the focus of a webinar lecture series by diverse scholars throughout 2021, supported by the town of Avon, Avon Historical Society, Avon Free Public Library and Avon Senior Center.
The title of the series is — Unearthing History: The Discovery of a 12,500 Year Old Paleoindian Site along the Farmington River in Avon, CT.
Preliminary analysis of the BDJ Site was presented to an overflow crowd of about 350 at the Avon Senior Center auditorium in February 2020 — the last major event at the center before the COVID shutdown.
The presentation included evidence that people repeatedly visited the site to hunt and gather, collect stone for toolmaking, and make and repair their organic and stone tools and camping gear.
Excavations revealed a complicated buried sequence of archaeological deposits, situated on a raised ancient floodplain (or levee) of the Farmington River. This levee, situated between the river and a wetland, provided an ideal campsite for people in the past.
The Farmington River continued to flood seasonally in this location for several thousand years, burying and stratifying archaeological deposits at the site between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Paleoindian sites are rare in the Northeast, and sites preserved by rivers and buried by them are even more rare. No other sites in the Northeast have preserved stratified Paleoindian deposits.
Over 100 formal tools — scrapers, spear points, knives, etc. — were recovered during the excavations, and over 15,000 individual pieces of stone chipping debris, a byproduct of stone tool manufacture and use on site. Stone tools were manufactured from a variety of materials found in specific locations throughout the Northeast, including jasper from the Delaware Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, chert from the Hudson Valley in eastern New York and possibly from northern Maine, and rhyolite from the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire.
Local raw materials such as hornfels, quartz and chalcedony were also exploited by site occupants.
Similar to other Paleoindian studies in the region, these disparate sources of stone tools indicate Paleoindians likely traveled over large territories following the migration of large game animals such as caribou.
Other significant artifacts uncovered during the excavation include a drilled pendant fragment and grinding stones for processing nuts, tubers and red ochre pigments.
Twenty-seven cultural features — that is, non-portable remnants of past behavior such as fire pits and post holes — were also found during the excavations.
These features contained the burned remains of food, including cattail, pin cherry, strawberry, acorns, sumac, water lily and dogwood, as well as small animal bones, indicating a varied diet, likely reliant on wetland species of plants.
Because these food remains were charred, they did not biodegrade over time and were identified by a botanical expert using a high-powered microscope. Initially, a piece of charcoal from a hearth was radiocarbon-dated to between 12,410 and 12,568 years ago.
The distribution of these features, along with the recovered artifacts, indicates that discrete areas were the focus of specific activities, such as spear point production, scraping and tanning hides for clothing or camping material, and general food processing activities.
In the year-plus since the initial publication of the findings at the BDJ Site and the February 2020 presentation, we have learned much more about the site inhabitants through active research on the artifacts recovered from the excavation. An additional 21 charred botanical specimens have now been radiocarbon-dated from cultural features.
One of the radiocarbon dates indicates that it was likely contaminated by modern rodent burrowing activity, but the remaining 20 radiocarbon dates indicate a complicated pattern of occupation, spanning 7,966 to 12,679 years ago.
These radiocarbon dates span the Early, Middle and Late Paleoindian Periods (9,500 to 13,000 years ago) as well as the Early Archaic Period (8,000 to 9,500 years ago). Also, they indicate there were at least six separate occupations of the site — including three dates from the Early Paleoindian, 12 from the Middle Paleoindian, four from the Late Paleoindian (at least two separate occupations) and two from the Early Archaic (at least two separate occupations).
Most of the radiocarbon dates indicate a peak site occupation about 12,300 years ago, during the Middle Paleoindian Period.
Other examination is proceeding, including detailed geochemical analysis of soils, environmental reconstructions of the site based on pollen, microscopic analysis of plant remains, microwear analysis of stone tool use, testing for the presence of animal proteins on discarded tools, and general stone tool analysis.
The Avon Historical Society, Avon Free Public Library and Avon Senior Center will continue the Unearthing History series in 2022 with new topics and speakers — details TBA. +
• This article was first published as the cover story in the October 2021 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
• Unearthing History: 2021 Series — webinar links are in the Today Calendar
• Today Magazine has previously reported on the BDJ Paleoindian Site in our March 2020, April 2020 and April 2021 editions — www.TodayPublishing.net/digital-editions