2012-10-25 / News

Professor explains the dig of 1967

58 graves, seven cremation burials uncovered on island
BY KEN SHANE


The archaeological dig of 1967 led by William Simmons uncovered seven cremation burials and 58 Narragansett Indian graves, as well as many artifacts. While the remains were given back to the Indians to be reburied, the relics remain on display in the Jamestown library. 
PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH The archaeological dig of 1967 led by William Simmons uncovered seven cremation burials and 58 Narragansett Indian graves, as well as many artifacts. While the remains were given back to the Indians to be reburied, the relics remain on display in the Jamestown library. PHOTO BY JEFF MCDONOUGH William Simmons, chairman of anthropology at Brown University, recently spoke at the Jamestown Philomenian Library about the archaeological dig that took place on Conanicut Island in 1967.

Simmons led a team – which included four men from Jamestown – that excavated the site over the course of two summers. Uncovered during the dig were seven cremation burials and 58 Narragansett graves. Although the excavation of a sacred Native American site would be unlawful today, there was no objection voiced by the Narragansett at the time. The skeletal remains that were unveiled during the dig went to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. The library houses artifacts that were found.

“That was the end of an era,” Simmons said.

The excavation came about when officials at the Jamestown school wanted to expand the playground area. Because of previous excavations, it was widely known that there was a burial ground in the area. School officials called on Simmons to find the exact location of the site. He succeeded.

Simmons graduated from Brown in 1960 with as degree in human biology. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard seven years later. Simmons returned to Brown in 1998 after more than 30 years teaching at the University of California at Berkeley.

It was only when Simmons moved on to Berkeley – a campus that was embroiled in struggles over civil rights at the time – that he began to wonder if perhaps the excavation of the burial ground had been improper.

Simmons’ concern led him to contact the minister at a Narragansett church in Charlestown.

“I told him that we had done this excavation,” Simmons said. “He said he knew about it and that the Narragansett never really liked it when people did such things.”

Simmons said the tribe didn’t feel there was much they could do about it, so they didn’t complain.

Based on that discussion, Simmons contacted Katherine and Sidney Wright of Jamestown, who had sponsored the dig. He asked them how they would feel about returning the skeletal remains to the tribe. The Wrights agreed with the idea, the town supported it, and Harvard gave the bones back.

“I don’t think anything like that had happened before,” Simmons said. “This was kind of a first.”

The minister and his congregation came to Jamestown and reburied the skeletons in an enclosure that was built by Narragansett masons. The wall still stands in the schoolyard. The new graves were created in an 18th century style that included headstones and foot stones, but no markings. The ceremony was conducted by not only the minister, but also by the contemporary Narragansett medicine man.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to descendants and affiliated Indian tribes.

“When that went into law, it became illegal to excavate, even for a contractor or builder to excavate, Native American archaeological deposits until the tribes themselves had consulted on it,” Simmons said. “But this dig happened before that. We just voluntarily agreed to give the stuff back.”

While the skeletons were returned, the library still houses many artifacts that were uncovered in 1967. Despite the fact that the relics rightfully belong to the Narragansett by law, Simmons suspects that they will remain in the library’s collection. Simmons believes that the tribe has chosen to keep them under the protection of the library so they could be exhibited.

“I think that’s with the tribe’s approval,” Simmons said. “I can’t imagine that it’s not.”

According to Simmons, the artifacts in the library are from two historic levels. The cemetery that was uncovered is believed to be from the mid 1600s. Most of the graves from that time had English trade goods, including iron objects like hoes and knives. There were also Indian objects like shell beads and traditional pottery.

Simmons said that objects from another era were discovered nearby almost by accident. Those were the seven nearly 3,000-year-old cremation burials. The remains were carbon dated and the artifacts that were buried with them are also part of the library’s collection, including a rare soapstone bowl.

“It is really an amazingly beautiful, spectacular object,” Simmons said.

Simmons is the author of a book on the subject titled “Cautanowwit’s House: An Indian Burial Ground on the Island of Conanicut in Narragansett Bay.” It was published in 1971. The book can be found in the library along with other books on the subject that Simmons donated for inclusion with the exhibit.

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