SWANTON – The Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge might be one of the richest archaeological sites in the state of Vermont.

This was one of the overarching themes introduced by Vermont State Archaeologist Jess Robinson to a sizable crowd at the refuge Wednesday night when he, at the invitation of the Swanton Historical Society, presented on the archaeological history tracing the Missisquoi River from Highgate to Swanton.

“This is probably one of the richest, most intense areas of Native American archaeology in the state,” Robinson told the audience.

He walked the audience through a series of archaeological sites from an area near Highgate Falls to a farm site tracing the banks of the Missisquoi in Swanton and even across Missisquoi Bay to traditionally-flooded shoreline in Alburgh.

Those archaeological sites dated as far back as 5,000 B.C.E. and as recently as the early 1800s with the discovery of a root cellar belonging to a colonial-era farm.

According to Robinson, there were artifacts that could be traced as far away as Pennsylvania and included everything from pottery to French gun flints, implying a historic trade network.

There were extensive collections of animal bones, Robinson said, as well as evidence that Native American settlements along this stretch of the Missisquoi grew everything from corn and squash to sunflowers.

State Archaeologist Jess Robinson talks through the precolonial history of the Lower Missisquoi River and some of the archaeological work done in that region. (Michael Frett, MESSENGER STAFF)

Despite the extensive timeframe Robinson listed, he said it wasn’t really until 2,000 years ago that there was a “massive explosion in the amount of occupation” in the Missisquoi Delta now largely occupied by the refuge. The arrival of agriculture 1,000 years ago only intensified that occupation further, Robinson added.

The intensity of the archaeological evidence in the area has led the Vermont Division on Historic Preservation to seek designation for a sector of the refuge on the National Register of Historic Places as an archaeological district, according to Robinson.

“It’s got 21 archaeological sites, at least six of which are totally and completely eligible for the National Register of Historic Places on their own and the others of which likely would be but they just haven’t been as explored,” Robinson said. “It’s a great encapsulated area of a particular time period in native history that we really think deserves that special district nomination.”

Much of the archaeological research done along the Missisquoi has been as a mechanism of regulation, Robinson said, as development and road expansions triggered a mandatory archaeological survey.

That’s part of the reason the region around the Missisquoi saw more research than counterparts in the eastern reaches of Vermont, according to Robinson, despite the fact there was likely a similar intensity of archaeological evidence along the Connecticut River.

Without the development triggering any regulatory archaeology and without a robust professional archaeological presence otherwise – offhand, Robinson estimated that 99 percent of archaeology in Vermont was regulatory – much of Vermont’s archaeological history remained buried.

“We know almost nothing about the eastern half of Vermont,” Robinson said. “The Connecticut River, we know, is very archaeologically rich. There just hasn’t been a lot of work done there because it’s all farmland.”

“Really, the only decent window we’ve gotten into it is damming licensures,” Robinson said. “We get these little glimpses into these remarkable sites.”

Maps shown by Robinson confined much of the studied archaeological sites in the area to corridors immediately adjacent to roadways or other developments, like a proposed dike along a stretch of the Missisquoi River that never actually materialized.

There was likely more archaeological evidence buried deeper into the delta, he said. “Those are only the little, tiny corridors,” Robinson said.

That statement in particular spurred interest from member of the audience. “So we all should get shovels when we’re done here?” she asked with a handful of accompanying chuckles from the audience.

“That is the absolute next point I was going to make,” Robinson said. “The refuge is federal property, and taking any artifacts from a federal property is a felony. So, please don’t do it.”

“They’re here to be preserved as much as possible.”

Screeners sort through dirt that is thousands of years old looking for artifacts such as fish bones, stone flakes and rocks used to heat water. (Messenger File Photo)

That was part of the reason why maps presented by Robinson only generally identified archaeological sites. The state was looking to keep archaeological sites as ambiguously defined as possible, he said, with the hopes that people wouldn’t look at a map and be inspired to start digging entirely on their own.

Even some of the sites along Route 78, the highway stretching north from Swanton toward the bridge to Alburgh, were kept somewhat anonymous, despite the fact that many of those in the room likely knew exactly where some of those sites were.

“It’s not really easy to hide on Route 78,” he admitted. “Everyone knows where it is – many of you drove by it.”

He also warned of another threat to some of these sites, as water levels continued to rise. Sites were threatened with being drowned by what’s appeared to be consistently higher water seen in Lake Champlain, increased storm events and what Robinson summarized as an “increased velocity in climate change.”

He pointed to one site in particular, dubbed the “New Channel Site,” where, according to Robinson, “a channel of water actually blasted through a formally stable landform and on both sides of that cut, we could see Native American deposits.”

“Over the last 50 years or so, we’re likely losing those little fringes,” Robinson said, pointing toward some of the smaller fingers of the Missisquoi Delta. “These could be very interesting 1600s, early 1700s Native American sites where they’re utilizing some European goods but also still using traditional crafts as well, and these sites are in a lot of danger.”

“Natural processes are certainly continuing to take a toll on some of them.”

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