Excavating Native American Heritage on Campus

November 15, 2017


Inside King Philip’s Cave conducting excavations on April 16, 1957 are, left to right, students Leo Kelly ’57, John Donovan '61 and William Nowick ’57.

By Jonathan Green '10

Whenever I am asked why Native American history is important to me, I offer one anecdote in explanation.

In 2009, I was working on my senior history thesis here at Stonehill. During a research visit to the Plimoth Plantation library, I was given the opportunity to walk through the Wampanoag Homesite, where I stopped to watch a mishoon (a type of Wampanog canoe) demonstration.

Lasting Impression
Visitors bombarded the Wampanoag (yes, he was actually Wampanoag) interpreter with questions. One question in particular left a lasting impression on me: “Do Native Americans still exist?”

In that moment I realized the “myth of the vanishing Indian” I read so often about in class was a reality. From that moment, I was determined to better understand the historical dynamics that lead to such beliefs.

King Philip's Cave
As I set out on various research projects I always ended up returning to Stonehill’s Native American history. At the start of my senior thesis, I learned about King Philip’s Cave and the archaeological investigations that sought evidence of Native American settlements on Stonehill’s campus. Since 1948, several archaeological excavations took place on campus, but only one produced evidence supporting the belief that Native Americans once resided on parts of campus.

During the fall of 1956 and spring of 1957, an eight-person team consisting of Stonehill students and faculty, as well as off-campus volunteers began archaeological excavations of King Philip’s Cave. The group initiated the project in order to ascertain evidence confirming King Philip occupied the cave atop Stone House Hill during the mid- to late-1670s.

Under the guidance of Stonehill science professor Dr. James Reedy, William Nowick ’57, Leo Kelly ’57, Paul Flynn ’57, and Timothy Maloney ’59 painstakingly excavated the cave floor and uncovered evidence of Native American habitation of the cave during pre-contact and colonial periods. Though the excavations proved successful, Stone House Hill’s Native American history remains shrouded in local legend and misinformation.

All that remains from those excavations is the final report, a couple news clippings, and several photographs. Objects are extremely valuable when interpreting the past, and the artifacts uncovered by Nowick and his fellow excavators could have helped interpret history to shake off myth and legend.

Lost Artifacts
Alas, the artifacts uncovered during the excavations vanished. Since the 1970s, Archives staff have made multiple attempts at locating the lost artifacts, but these searches all led to dead ends. To make matters worse, throughout the twentieth century, looters stripped the site of much of its material culture. Much like other Native American historical sites, Stone House Hill’s former abundance of lithics (stone tools, such as arrowheads) attracted amateur archaeologists, collectors, and hobbyists.

Losing artifacts in many ways led to a loss of history, culture, and identity. With the missing and looted evidence, Stonehill anthropology and history faculty along with Archives staff could conduct additional analyses of the material remains in order to better understand Stone House Hill’s Native American history. While the 1956-1957 digs produced no conclusive proof indicating King Philip camped on Stone House Hill, the name, King Philip’s Cave, endured. The lost artifacts in all likelihood could have corrected this misnomer and replaced myth with an evidence-based history.

History, Culture and Myth
As we observe Native American Heritage Month, it is important to reflect on the intermingling of history, culture, and myth. Though there is still much to learn about Stonehill’s Native American history, it must also be acknowledged that the past peoples we seek to learn about did not go extinct. They, like all extant cultures, struck—no, strike a unique balance of maintaining and transforming their cultural identities.

As a historian, I know full well I cannot use a 600-year-old stone hand tool or 300-year-old earthenware pot to interpret how Wampaoag communities exist today.

Why? First, because a Wampanoag tribal member can buy a hammer at Home Depot and purchase soup bowls at Ikea. Second, and most importantly, because I do not need artifacts to interpret how Wampanoag tribal members live today. All I need to do is ask.

Jonathan Green '10 is the Assistant Director of Archives and Historical Collections at Stonehill. This article first appeared in the College's Library Newsletter, November 15, 2017