Exploring the NHA's Archaeology Collections

Institute of Museum and
Library Services Grant
In September 2020, the NHA was awarded a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to catalog the NHA’s archaeological materials, upgrade the physical space in which they are housed, and insure the long-term preservation of individual collections with the implementation of federal curation standards. Ultimately the process will dovetail with the development of new exhibits highlighting Nantucket’s Native American culture and technology.

Many of the Native American and colonial artifacts were donated to the NHA over the years by local artifact collectors. Other assemblages derived from archaeological excavations on Nantucket by the Massachusetts Archaeological Society (MAS), the NHA under the direction of the late Dr. Elizabeth Little, the University of Massachusetts, and several cultural resource management firms. The collection also includes notebooks prepared by Dr. Little with collector artifact inventories, as well as a detailed field notebook from the Shawkemo Chapter of the MAS.

Karl Wietzel and Mary Lynne Rainey are part of the NHA team working on the development of the grant priorities and implementation of initial tasks.
Virtual Lecture:
Archaeological Collections at the NHA:
A Multi-Year Preservation and Public Education Initiative
with Karl Wietzel and Mary Lynne Rainey
Tuesday, January 5, at 5:30pm EST
Held Via Zoom
$5 for non-members/FREE for members
Their presentation will provide an overview of the grant priorities, canvas the origins and types of material cultural represented in the NHA archaeology collections, and report on the initial priorities for this multi-year endeavor.
The Archaeology of the Polpis Road Bicycle Path

By Mary Lynne Rainey
This article is from Historic Nantucket, Summer 2004, Vol. 53, No. 3.

Nantucket Island was first explored by Native Peoples approximately 11,000 to 12,000 year ago during the early Holocene Paleolndian migration into the Northeast. From a small peak on the vast coastal plain to a remote island at sea, Nantucket’s dynamic terrain has been home to a succession of remarkably adaptive human groups and their descendants since the late glacial recession.

The enduring legacy of a one robust indigenous population is the perpetuation of Native place names throughout the island, referencing the locations of former community settlements or culturally important natural landscape features. Another legacy familiar to most Nantucketers is the material culture of past Native life that blankets the island, commonly discovered by local residents as a result of natural erosional processes and construction. These beautifully crafted stone tools, broken pottery, shelf and animal-bone refuse heaps, organic soil layers, and occasionally burials, are among the finite archaeological resources of Nantucket. 

Photo: data recovery excavation in progress at Polpis bike path site.
Native American Burial Grounds
One known Native American Burial Ground, also known as the “Miacomet Indian Burial Ground”, lies on Surfside Road. Remains were found when ground was broken for construction of a housing development by the Nantucket Housing Authority in 1987. The burial ground was dedicated in September 1993 in a ceremony featuring blessings and speeches by representatives of Native Peoples groups, plus town and state officials. Augie Ramos and Joanne Holdgate received an award from the Massachusetts Historical Commission for their efforts.
Overview of Native American Culture and Technology on Nantucket through the 1700s with Mary Lynne Rainey
Excerpt from
Collecting Nantucket:
Artifacts from an Island Community
By Michael R. Harrison

The native Wampanoag people lived on Nantucket for thousands of years. The stone tools they used bear witness to a thriving population that often numbered in the thousands. They fished the waters of the sound and the island’s ponds, hunted birds and what mammals there were, and, eventually, farmed as well as the sandy soils allowed. The people moved around the island seasonally, living closer to the ocean in summer and retreating to more protected areas in winter. 
The projectile points on this sheet are part of a collection of one thousand Native artifacts collected by botanist Alice Albertson Shurrocks (1880–1967) and her husband, the architect Alfred F. Shurrocks (1870–1945). Alice’s passion for botany and ornithology led her on long walks to every corner of the island, where she began collecting the Wampanoag points she found on the ground. She and Alfred, whom she married in 1929, devoted large amounts of free time to arrowhead hunting, or “Indianing,” as they called it. They kept journals of their walks and made a detailed catalog of their finds, noting types and conditions, as well as places and dates of discovery. Their friends gave them additional pieces. Almost everything they collected they found on the surface; they were not trained archaeologists and did almost no digging.

When they donated their collection to the historical association in 1940, it contained thirty-eight assorted stone tools and 962 points, which the Shurrockses laboriously glued and tied onto cards for display. The scope of their collection demonstrates the range of indigenous activity on the island prior to English settlement; as Alice wrote, their finds were “gathered from all parts of the island—among beach pebbles along the Harbor shores; inland near springs and ponds; in plowed fields and rutted roads.”
Tune in for our next
NHA University Virtual Lecture:
The Archaeology of Submerged Paleolandscapes: Nantucket Sound
and Beyond with David Robinson
Tuesday, January 19
at 5:30pm EST
Held Via Zoom
$5 for non-members
FREE for members
Over the past two decades, the archaeology of submerged paleolandscapes drowned by post-glacial global sea level rise has developed from a theoretical to an actualized research endeavor in North America. Advances in the technologies, methodologies, theories, and approaches for locating drowned, formerly terrestrial, ancient landscapes underwater have successfully identified for the first time intact paleolandforms and ancient Indigenous cultural materials preserved in situ. Research conducted in the waters of Nantucket Sound and nearby Rhode Island has been at the forefront of this development. This presentation will provide an overview of some of this recent research, its results, the sites that have been found, and the knowledge gained, as well as propose several goals for future research in Nantucket Sound and beyond.
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