Ramah Chert

A Letter From the Field (sort of)

*Note: I’m posting for a friend who is out of internet range this Day of Arch. *

Hi there!

I’m so glad you could join us for Day of Archaeology 2016. My name is Chelsi Slotten and I am a current PhD student at American University, as well as a cohost on the Women in Archaeology Podcast. I’m writing this a couple weeks before the Day of Archaeology on my way into the field since I will be excavating in Northern Canada on July 29th. I will be participating in an expedition run by Dr. William Fitzhugh from the Smithsonian Institution. This is of course assuming that the weather is cooperating and we don’t get stuck anywhere as a result of rough seas.

As much as I am looking forward to the expedition itself, and hoping for cooperative weather gods, it takes a lot of effort to plan for and get into the field. It will take us 2 solid days driving, an 8-hour ferry ride and 3 full days on a boat to get where we are going. As I am writing this, we are currently driving though Maine on our way to the boat we will be living on for the next month. One of our favorite topics so far is the important historical and archaeological sites along our route. Maine is the location of the Maine Maritime Archaic tradition, as first discovered by Warren K. Moorehead in the 1920’s. The burials in Maine are referred to as the Moorehead complex for that reason. The Maritime Archaic tradition was famous for “red paint” cemeteries. These cemeteries are identifiable by the layer of red ochre paint that was sprinkled over bodies and tools in burials. These days no bones remain in the Maine cemeteries, as the soil is too acidic to preserve bone. Following this discovery in Maine, similar sites were found first in Newfoundland by Dr. James Tuck in the 1970’s and then in Labrador by William Fitzhugh. Clearly the burial tradition was wide-spread.

While no bones had survived in Maine or Labrador, the soil in Newfoundland is more conducive to bone preservation, so there were skeletal remains found there. The wide geographical spread of this burial custom helped to explain some of the artifacts that Moorehead found in the 20’s. While the burials contained no skeletal remains, many of the stone tools did survive. Many of the tools were made out of a stone called Ramah Chert, a beautiful translucent type of chert found up in Labrador, Canada. When the tools were first found, no one was sure where the stone had originated from. Decades later, that question was answered when the source of that stone was located in Labrador.

While there are similarities between these three geographical locations- similar burial traditions, use of the same type of stone for tools and evidence of trade- they are not identical. Rather, the cultural traditions should be thought of as 3 subgroups- one each in Maine, Newfoundland, and Labrador. Later work by Dr. William Fitzhugh revealed that the Maritime Archaic tradition in Labrador lived in longhouses, some up to 100 meters long. The tradition included ritual hunting of large sea mammals and even, in Maine, of swordfish with antler harpoons and slate spears. The swordfish bills were often used as daggers and knives. They also hunted caribou, seals and walrus for survival.

This summer we will continue working on Maritime Archaic sites, particularly in Groswater Bay, Labrador. If you are interested in learning more about the red ochre cemeteries, Dr. Fitzhugh was the principle archaeologist in a film on the subject called “Mystery of the Lost Red Paint People” by Ted Timrek.

Here’s hoping for a great field season and some interesting new discoveries!

Adventure Awaits!

Chelsi