What We are Learning about the Isles of Shoals
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Consider yourself warned. My exhibit “Under the Isles of Shoals” closes forever on August 31 at Discover Portsmouth. The good news is that Cornell University has asked to move the displays and artifacts to its museum for a run in Ithaca, New York. I truly hope you will bring the family – kids especially – before we dismantle this important exhibit and ship it out of town. Why important? Let me count the ways. (Continued below)
Five years of scientific digging have changed the way we see the Isles of Shoals. I was on Smuttynose Island this June when a student unearthed the neck of a bellarmine or “Bartmann” jug, what archaeologist Nathan Hamilton likes to call “the Coke can of the 17th century.” Hard-drinking English fishermen all carried them. Originally created in Germany in the 1500s, these stoneware jugs were decorated with the face of a bearded man.
The young archaeologists were ecstatic to find the entire neck of the bottle with the face intact – a rare discovery. Barely an hour later, the students found an ancient arrowhead in the deepest strata of marine clay that had been locked between bits of bedrock for eons.
This latest arrowhead reconfirms the presence of prehistoric Native Americans on Smuttynose island, a fact proven by Hamilton’s students only three years ago. We now have dozens of stone tools and thousands of discarded “flakes” from the manufacture of arrowheads and spear points. We know that prehistoric Indians made at least seven visits to hunt and fish at the Isles of Shoals as far back as 6,000 years ago.
They really came to fish
The “bearded man” jug reinforces the message that European fishermen were also here, and not just casually. On just two acres of land at Smuttynose, in just 50 cubic meters of excavated soil, over 10,000 fragments of clay pipes dating to the 1620s have been found, preserved, and catalogued. Last week, as I was interviewing Hamilton in the field by telephone, a digger found the first fully intact smoking pipe. This astonishing density of pipes – plus fishhooks, gunflints, hand-made lead bullets, thimbles, glassware, and ceramics – indicate that the island was teaming with fisherman for decades in the second half of the 1600s.
The more we find, the more we know. Last year, based on the huge density of artifacts, Hamilton’s team concluded that a tavern, only briefly mentioned in the historic record, really did stand at the entrance to Haley’s Cove on Smuttynose Island.
This year, based on the volume of dried brick unearthed nearby, Hamilton says they may have also found the site of a seventeenth-century church building. Smuttynose, according to a few accounts,, was originally called Church Island.
SEE ALSO: How we created the SHOALS exhibit
“This has been a really great summer, “Hamilton says. The diggers produced another 50,000 artifacts this year, bringing the total to about 300,000. Among the most important items are the shells of gastropods (aka periwinkles) that are being studied by Robin Hadlock-Seeley of the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore. Her work, Hamilton says, may have a profound impact on what we know about climate change and global warming.
This summer students also recorded another 2,500 artifacts on Star Island in front of the manager’s cottage near the dirt path that leads up to the familiar stone Gosport Chapel. At the bottom of a meter of soil the diggers found more evidence of the early fishing industry dating to about 1640. That means there were seasonal fishermen from England on Star as early as those on Smuttynose.
“It’s a very strategic vantage point,” Hamilton says of the digging site on Star. “When you stand there and look around, it is the place with the best ventilation for drying fish. You can look out to sea and see where the other fishermen would have been living on Appledore and Smuttynose.”
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