|from the May 8, 2003 Record-Journal:
An archaeological enterprise
Byline: Allan S. Church
Bill Revill of the Meriden Land Trust had nothing to worry about Tuesday evening at the Augusta
Curtis Cultural Center. He had been concerned that perhaps folks didn't realize that the Connecticut
State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni was speaking - but at 7 p.m. we were bringing up extra chairs for an
audience which exceeded all expectations.
And it was a good audience, too: quietly attentive, laughing appreciatively and appropriately, asking
intelligent questions when it was over.
Laughing? Why would a talk by an archaeologist include material to provoke laughter? Isn't
archaeology about excavating rectangular plots of soil in the usually vain hope of discovering chips of
flint or splintered bones of long-dead mastodons?
Well, yes. But Bellantoni gave his audience a number of things to chuckle about, and I think he has
thought carefully about speaking to such crowds and about the expectations they have of
archaeological subjects. He has gone to pains to blow the dust off archaeology so that his listeners can
make the connection between those mastodon bones and arrowheads and their own habits.
For instance, he included a couple of slides showing the stone foundations of a saltbox home built in
Canterbury nearly 200 years ago by a Connecticut man named Cleveland. Cleveland moved to
Connecticut's "Western Reserve" (now Ohio) and founded a town, Bellantoni said, and wrote home to
his friends hoping that his new town would grow to be as large and fine as his former home. The town
was later named for him.
But around this 200-year-old foundation, the archaeologist told us, was a treasury. He could make a
circuit of the structure and tell, from outside, exactly where each window had been: it was a practice of
these early Connecticut farmers to toss their garbage out of their windows - whichever was handy. As a
result, under the inch or two of soil which has accumulated over the last couple of centuries, all that
garbage remained available for present-day archaeologists to study.
And it is garbage which is priceless to the archaeologist. A group of hunter-gatherers takes shelter for a
few days under an overhanging hunk of West Peak or Mount Higby a few thousand years ago, and they
cook their food, skin their catch, pare their vegetables, repair their weapons, mend their clothes. They
leave after a few days for better hunter-gathering, but they also leave things behind them: the charred
sticks of their cook fires, their broken arrowheads, the bones of what they ate. Some of those items
may survive the centuries. Even without such tools as carbon dating, the finding of particular items in
proximity to each other helps the archaeologist find out about these brief visitors. The arrowhead
stuck between the ribs of mastodon ribs not only tell a story, they can date a story, too.
Bellantoni got one of his chuckles when he observed that we are still hunter-gatherers except that we
now do our hunting and gathering at the supermarket. We pass the fruit aisles and gather apples and
pears; we push the cart past the meat counter and gather hamburg and chicken wings. The fact that we
accept this as possible indicates for the archaeologist the high level of faith we have in our technology
and our suppliers. And, he pointed out, we ourselves are very brief visitors to this area and we are
busily creating our own archaeological sites which mystified residents several hundred years hence will
be attempting to unravel.
One such puzzle will certainly be a clear plastic mold of the front half of a woman's bathing suit, now in
my cellar. It looks like the front half of one of those plastic kits of "the visible woman" that were sold
years ago, only full size. It came home with a bathing suit that one of the women of my household
bought a couple of weeks ago, and it bewildered me. I intend to dig a hole in my backyard and carefully
inter it with some spare ash from my charcoal grill and four or five of those unidentifiable parts of
something which lie around the house because none of us wants to throw away anything vital.
I figure if I can't tell what these items are today, the poor archaeologists 300 years from now will be
David Macaulay will be a familiar name to some readers: he wrote and illustrated "How Things Work"
as well as special volumes on castles, pyramids, cathedrals and probably others. One of his works,
dating from 1979, is called "Motel of the Mysteries" and presents archaeologists (in this case, a comic
archaeologist) with the task of deciphering a Motel, buried, as was everything else in North America, by
a cataclysm in 1985: all the "free" brochures were delivered simultaneously with the realization of
gravity by all impurities in the air which fell to earth ending life on the continent.
His archaeologist encounters the toilet seat and the plastic plants and assigns new meanings to them in a
Nick Bellantoni would appreciate the book if he doesn't know it, as it fits right in with is efforts to have
his audience look at archaeological artifacts in a new light.
Allan S. Church is editorial page editor of the Record-Journal. To reach him by e-mail: