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Diving for History in Narragansett Bay

Researchers at URI and Narragansett Tribe members are diving for evidence of early humans in Rhode Island's waters

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Not all of our state’s beauty and historical value is on the surface. Like most things here, if you look just a little deeper you’ll find an abundance of unexpected treasures. For instance, just off the shore and under the water there’s a research study being conducted called the Submerged Paleocultural Landscapes Project. This partnership between the University of Rhode Island and the Narragansett Indian Tribal History Preservation Office aims to identify and protect submerged paleocultural and Native American archaeological sites. More precisely, it’s a collaborative effort that draws on aid from the federal government, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council and other local tribal communities.

The North Atlantic Planning Region of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) stretches along the eastern coastline from Maine to New Jersey. This shelf is called an “underwater landmass” because thousands of years ago it was above the waves. That was before it was engulfed by rising sea levels due to melting glaciers. Rhode Island’s section of the OSC gives us great beaches, stabilizes the tides and provides a durable base for wind-energy turbines (a central impetus for the URI project). It also means that the waters contain Pleistocene-era tribal artifacts, including those left by the Narragansett Indians who once lived on now submerged areas such as Narragansett Bay, Greenwich Bay and the waters around Block Island.

When Deepwater Wind, headquartered in Providence, first began evaluating the Block Island area as a possible location for the first offshore wind turbine farm in the country, they contacted the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The BOEM’s job is not only to manage energy development on the OCS, but also to serve as stewards of the landmass’s natural and archaeological resources. The BOEM was aware of the oral history passed down by the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes, which detailed how their ancestors had lived around the waters off West Beach Road on Block Island and Cedar Tree Beach in the northwest section of Greenwich Bay. So in 2012, they commissioned a multi-year “best practices” study from URI to generate recommendations on identifying submerged lands with cultural or ecological value and protecting them from development. This study continues to be led by URI oceanography professor John King, marine archaeologist David Robinson and Narragansett Indian Deputy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Doug Harris.

So far, says King, the collaborators have discovered “three submerged sites – terrestrial landscapes preserved in an underwater environment. Two, actually, with cultural material” – “cultural” meaning hand tools and other artifacts demonstrating that Paleo-Indian (late Pleistocene) humans lived or traveled through these locations. In two cases the artifacts seem to have been preserved thanks to a thick layer of peat, the presence of which indicates that the areas were wetlands, with substantial vegetation that trapped items underneath it as it decomposed. The peat attached to the ground and covered the artifacts, protecting them from washing away.

This validates the oral history that local tribes have passed down for generations – that the studied areas were once fertile fields where people lived, hunted and fished. The oral history of the Narragansett Tribe alone dates back 15,000 years – an extremely valuable asset for researchers that provides context for newly discovered cultural and ecological materials.

Of the researchers’ three survey locations, Mud Hole is by far the oldest. Located east of Block Island and almost eight miles north of Coxes Ledge, this area is popular for its reliable fishing. While no submerged cultural material has been found there, it remains ecologically fascinating. Beneath the seawater are the remains of a freshwater lake that was flooded 11,000 years ago. Water, salt and time usually invade and make it hard to distinguish any preexisting topography, but in this case a noticeable depression and minerals that would have existed on dry land have been found in and around it.

At the Cedar Tree Beach survey site in Greenwich Bay, a large amount of stone chipping tools continue to be found, held in place beneath the peat. Researchers consider this a huge win because of the large volume of tools recovered and their relatively good condition after being submerged for 6,500 to 7,000 years.

The West Beach Road site off Block Island is located under only three meters of water. While chipping debris has been found there, the real excitement will come this fall when scientists examine a cultural feature that they believe to be a hearth – not quite our modern idea of a fireplace, but an area built by Paleo-Indian humans for cooking and warmth. This discovery could provide great insight into early human culture in Rhode Island before the glacial melt.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is particularly eager to solicit the input and knowledge of the tribal communities on further submerged archaeological projects given Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which makes federal agencies accountable for the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. This fieldwork is adding to the federal playbook for working with tribes for the betterment of both groups: using the land in non-significant locations while protecting culturally significant underwater areas from private development, as well as assisting the tribes in augmenting their oral history with physical artifacts and more detailed scientific information.

The Submerged Paleocultural Landscapes Project funding, $2 million thus far, ends in 2018; while John King is pleased with the amount of work they’ve accomplished and hopeful about the work yet to be done, he is quick to recognize a potential roadblock. Although paperwork has already been submitted to Rhode Island’s archaeological office that would designate the West Beach Road and Cedar Tree Beach locations as historic sites with “protected” status, President Donald Trump’s April 26 Presidential Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act could roll back federal protection for the sites. The president’s order mandates that the size and scope of national monuments over 100,000 acres and established after 1996 be reviewed. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906 partially as an attempt to prevent the looting of tribal artifacts from active archaeological sites. President Trump’s executive order, if it lessens the Act’s effect, could worsen the relationship between the federal government and tribal people throughout the country, including those here in Rhode Island. In the meantime, Doug and John continue digging for treasures beneath the sea, carving out a deeper understanding of our Rhody ancestors.