Archaeology in New Hampshire

Digging up history and treasures
Dr. Richard Boisvert, New Hampshire's State Archaeologist
Photo by John Hession

Some people might be surprised that New Hampshire has a State Archaeologist, but it does. Dr. Richard Boisvert, a Deerfield resident,  has been heading up digs around the state for the last 25 years. Most recently, he’s been at some archaeologically significant sites along the Israel River in Jefferson. He’s joined in the search for artifacts there by volunteers from SCRAP (State Conservation and Rescue Archaeology Program), which is an avocational archaeological training and certification program run by the NH Division of Historical Resources. In fact, it was a SCRAP volunteer, Paul Bock, who first discovered the Jefferson sites by examining the rootballs of storm-toppled trees and digging test pits near his home back in 1995. Boisvert and his cadre of volunteers do their digs on a financial shoestring, funded mostly by donations from the public, tuition from courses Boisvert teaches at PSU and occasional grants. Work will continue on the Jefferson sites but this coming summer Boisvert and his volunteers will head to the southwestern part of New Hampshire, hoping to unearth more treasures. 

Is it true that the Israel River sites in Jefferson are the first confirmed Paleoindian sites in northern NH, and one of the largest?
Yes, the first site was identified in 1995 and others followed shortly after. The latest site was discovered in 2010. They include two sites that cover several acres each. A similarly sized site is located in Randolph, some 15 miles east of Jefferson.

What era are the artifacts from?
They date from about 12,500 to 11,000 years ago.

What sorts of things are you finding?
We find mostly the debris of making and repairing chipped stone tools, such as spear points, knives, scrapers or drills. Nearly all of the tools we find are either broken or worn out. Rarely, we may find remnants of hearths with charcoal and heavily charred fragments of food bone.

What does it feel like to hold something that’s 12,000 years old?
Awesome, in the most literal sense of the word.

How do you date the sites?
In a few cases, we have charcoal that can be radiocarbon dated; otherwise we use stylistically distinctive tools, typically spear points or certain scrapers that have been dated in other Paleoindian sites in the region.

What exactly does Paleoindian mean? It’s the term used to define the earliest period of human presence in the New World. It’s derived from the Greek word “paleos,” which means ancient.

Why should we care about finding these artifacts?
These are the only tangible pieces of evidence of the earliest people to live here. They arrived at the beginning of a remarkably cold period that was as severe as the glacial periods and that culture flourished for nearly 1,500 years. These artifacts are testimony of an astounding record of human adaptation to one of the harshest known environments.

It seems there’s very little Indian history in NH. How come?
I don’t know. The early history in the 17th and 18th centuries is rich and complex but historians, with a few notable exceptions, have not invested much effort in it.

Looking for volunteers?
We’re always seeking volunteers for SCRAP and are open to anyone interested from ages 16 and older. No special skills are required — just a sincere interest in learning and doing archaeology.

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Categories: Q&A