February 2007-January 2008
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Paleoindian research provides the earliest substantial evidence of how people coped with Late Pleistocene environmental fluctuations and low population density, while sharing aspects of culture across North America. From about 11,000 radiocarbon years ago, the well known fluted projectile points are highly visible but often scarce, which turns out to be a good combination for some research. The distribution of sites, artifact clusters and exotic raw materials provide unusually clear evidence of settlement pattern, in part because they are not blurred by abundance. The largest Paleoindian sites in the Northeast are often composed of separate clusters of artifacts (hut locations?) seemingly unobscured by repeated occupation. The large sites pose a problem, however, because they occur in areas that seem to have had low population densities. Do the large sites represent repeated occupations by a few families, or large groups coming together from great distances? These questions are important to understanding all mobile hunter-gatherers.
The Bull Brook site in Ipswich, Massachusetts has over 40 loci that form a large ring-shaped pattern, the largest and most regular settlement plan known from the Late Pleistocene of North America. The site was excavated between 40 and 50 years ago in a cooperative effort between avocational archaeologists and professionals. The excavators insisted that the large ring-shaped pattern resembled a large camp circle, but anthropologists 40 years ago found this difficult to believe. Since then, the idea of large social gatherings among low density populations has become acceptable. Although the Bull Brook site is widely known, the evidence has not been published in sufficient detail to test some of the implications of the ring-shaped plan.
With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Brian Robinson (Climate Change Institute, Alaska Project, and Anthropology Department at the University of Maine) will work with faculty, graduate students and colleagues from New England and Quebec, to test whether the settlement plan at Bull Brook reflects the organizational characteristics of ring-shaped settlements among recent hunter-gatherers. The Bull Brook site plan will be meticulously reconstructed from original records, with direct assistance from some of the original excavators. Aerial photography, field reconnaissance and subsurface coring of an adjacent marsh will be used to reconstruct the modern and ancient landscape. The entire Bull Brook collection (over 8000 artifacts) was donated to the Peabody Essex Museum by the excavators. It will be newly described with two lithic specialists among the senior personnel to identify stone sources. The structure of the Bull Brook settlement plan will be analyzed from the distribution of artifacts and materials in the 40 artifact concentrations.
The history of research at Bull Brook reflects the interplay between discovery, changing theory and the quest for more precise evidence. Rare archaeological contexts that are particularly revealing must be "revisited" with new questions. The Bull Brook site has provided significant inspiration for theories on Paleoindian settlement and social organization. Although the site was destroyed long ago, it retains fundamental evidence of hunter-gatherer organization that is rarely preserved and excavated at a scale large enough to evaluate. The resulting monograph will be accompanied by a digital record of artifact catalogs and field records, allowing researchers to evaluate and address a wide variety of problems. A popular account of the remarkable salvage effort by the dedicated group of avocational archaeologists is also planned, for its broad appeal and educational value.
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Robinson, Brian S., "Testing for Paleoindian Aggregations: Internal Site Structure at Bull Brook" (2008). University of Maine Office of Research and Sponsored Programs: Grant Reports. 239.