31 December 2005
Ancient 'Weapons Factory' found in Connecticut
About 3,000 years ago, a group of hunters perched on a ridge near what is now New Haven Harbor in Connecticut (USA) and fashioned quartz into projectile points. The points were likely intended to form the lethal end of an atlatl, or spear-thrower, dart. A skillful stalker could wield the weapon, which predated the bow and arrow, with enough force and accuracy to send a dart into a deer, turkey, or other small prey. Those ancient hunter-gatherers have since vanished, but the quartz artifacts survive on the ridge, known as West Rock.
Michael J. Rogers, associate professor of anthropology at Southern Connecticut State University and his student, Nancy Parsons, have found almost 5,000 stone artifacts at the site, including several unfinished points and at least one unbroken dart point. The discovery reveals the importance of stone ridges to the hunter-gatherers of 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and adds details to the sparse knowledge of the Late Archaic period of North America. The find also hints that dozens or hundreds of similar sites probably lie inaccessible under parking lots and buildings across the Northeast United States.
Rogers and his students found the site after first consulting Cosimo Sgarlata, now a graduate student at the City University of New York, who had discovered other archaeological sites in the West Rock area. "West Rock was of central importance," Sgarlata said. "By the Late Archaic, people had become more specialized, and the population grew, so they wanted to exploit all resources of the environment."
While walking a path, Rogers and Parsons spotted a few small pieces of quartz that had been shaped by human hands—and their excavation began. Parsons has now cataloged and recorded the location and type of every stone uncovered at the site. Since last fall, Parsons and assistants have excavated to a depth of about 1.5 feet (46 centimeters) through countless shallow scrapings. The team filters soil from the site to find small flakes of stone. Continued excavation revealed thousands of quartz fragments and a prize quartzite projectile point in pristine condition.
The features of the artifacts and the soil depth at which they were found suggest their age, as ancient peoples in the Northeast produced points with distinctive shapes at different times. The West Rock points resemble a quartz type common in southern New England known as 'Squibnocket triangles,' although more intact points are needed to confirm the style. They are known to date from 4,800 to 3,600 years ago.
Rogers says the point makers were probably hunter-gatherers, perhaps living in a seasonal hunting camp. "Quartz was probably not their first choice" for making stone points, he said. Although very hard, quartz cracks unpredictably and is difficult to work. The hunter-gathers probably selected fist-sized lumps of quartz and broke them into two parts. The ancient craftspeople then used rocks to shape the quartz, Rogers says. Once the quartz gained a sufficiently triangular shape, pieces of wood or antler were then pressed against the edges to flake off small pieces to shape the final product. Parsons says she wondered why the site contained so many imperfect points. The answer is probably that the "good" points were used for hunting, while less-than-perfect pieces were discarded, she says.
State of Connecticut archeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, of the University of Connecticut, says similar sites probably dot Connecticut. Settlement sites would be close to water and well-drained land—the same features that led European settlers to found their cities at these locations.
Source: National Geographic News (29 December 2005)