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Archaeology: Field Notes

To promote public interest and awareness of local archaeology, the R.I. Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission is posting short articles that spotlight recent studies and research advances from around the state. For more information, contact Timothy Ives.

FIELD NOTE 4: Archaeology at the ca. 1750 Dr. Reuben Mason House in Chepachet Village, Glocester (click here for a pdf)

Ross K. Harper Ph.D.
Archaeological and Historical Services, Inc. (AHS)

A 1 ½-mile stretch of Putnam Pike (U.S. Route 44) in the Chepachet Village Historic District is undergoing extensive reconstruction and repairs. Before roadwork work began, Archaeological and Historical Services, Inc. (AHS) conducted intensive archaeological testing and historical background research to determine if the construction would impact any important cultural resources along Putnam Pike, which was historically known as “The Great Country Road.” In the 18th century Chepachet developed into an important economic and transportation hub of northwestern Rhode Island. Although the local economy was based on agriculture, by the early 19th century there were a variety of water-powered mills, a tannery, a hat factory, and a number of stores. There were also two taverns, two churches, a bank and a Masonic Hall.

To care for its growing population, the town of Glocester needed a physician, and in 1774 Dr. Reuben Mason moved to Chepachet and purchased a two-and-a-half story center-chimney house which had been built about 25 years prior. During the Revolutionary War Dr. Mason served as an army surgeon in the Rhode Island militia, and then returned to Chepachet where he resumed his medical practice until his death in 1799. During the short-lived Dorr’s Rebellion in 1841-1842, the Reuben Mason House served as a field hospital, as it was strategically located near the Dorrite fortifications built atop nearby Acote Hill (now a cemetery). Fortunately, the armed conflict, which was fueled by a demand for greater equality in voting rights, dissipated before the field hospital was needed. Today, the Reuben Mason House is owned by the Glocester Heritage Society, which is restoring the house. When restoration is completed the house will be used for a variety of public education programs, including a Dorr’s Rebellion museum.

AHS’s archaeological testing at the Reuben Mason House was limited to a long and narrow stretch in the front yard that will be impacted by road repair and sidewalk construction (Figure 1). Although small in scale, the excavations revealed important new information on the house and the lifeways of its occupants. A total of 2,256 artifacts was recovered during the Phase I and II testing, including a diversity of early imported ceramics from England, France, Germany and China. Also discovered were a fragment of a decorated brass knee buckle, brass and pewter buttons and a 1722 British Hibernia halfpenny or “copper.” Other items include a red clay marble, and fragments of white clay or “kaolin” tobacco pipes, slate writing boards, and a European flint strike-a-light, a fire-making tool that was struck against a piece of steel to create sparks (Figure 2). One Native American tool was also found, a small quartz biface or edged tool, used for cutting and scraping.

The excavations uncovered two buried post holes from an early to mid-19th-century fence line that once stretched across the yard (Figure 3). The remains of an old stone-lined well were also found; it had been filled and demolished by road construction sometime in the 20th-century. Below the ground surface archaeologists found a number of distinct soil layers. One layer was made up of soil that had been shoveled into the yard when the cellar hole was dug out ca. 1750. It mostly contained construction debris such as broken window glass, bits of red brick and hand-wrought nails. A complete hoe was also found in this level. The hoe was likely lost when a worker was spreading the loose soil around the yard during the house construction. Below that was a layer of dark black topsoil: the ground surface when the house was built. This layer contained an abundance of wood charcoal. Old Yankee builders typically prepared a house lot for construction by first burning off all the dead trees and brush.

Today the Town of Glocester maintains much of its cultural and historic character in its historic buildings, stone features, and landscapes.


Figure 1: Archaeologists from AHS, Inc. working at the ca. 1750 Reuben Mason House in Chepachet Village. To the left is Putnam Pike (U.S. Route. 44), historically known as “The Great Country Road.” In 1794 the stretch between Chepachet Bridge and the Connecticut State Line became the first corporate turnpike in New England. The toll charged for a wagon, cart or ox-sled was 12 ½ cents.


Figure 2: Top row from left to right: red clay marble and a kaolin tobacco pipe stem fragment, bottom row: a small Native American quartz biface fragment (a small cutting and scraping tool), a slate writing board fragment, and European flint strike-a-light fragment (used to spark fire).


Figure 3: Photograph of a bisected early to mid-19th century fencepost feature found in front of the Reuben Mason House. The soils include A) the post mold (the wood long rotted away, leaving a light brown stain in the soil), B) the post hole (the hole that was dug out to set the post), C) a deeply buried, black and charcoal rich topsoil. This was the ground surface when the house was constructed in ca. 1750. D) Soil was shoveled out of the cellar hole and spread around the yard by the house builders.


FIELD NOTE 3: Tropical Storm Sandy and Rhode Island Archaeology: The Crescent Beach Site (click here for a pdf)

Joseph N. Waller, Jr.
The Public Archaeology Laboratory Inc. (PAL)

crescent beach
Archaeologists recover Native American artifacts from the Crescent Beach Site on Block Island.

Tropical Storm Sandy impacted the New Shoreham coastline on October 29, 2012. The storm exposed a portion of a previously unknown Native American archaeological site, known as the Crescent Beach Site, beneath Corn Neck Road south of the Block Island town beach. Corn Neck Road is a state road and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation retained PAL to conduct archaeological recovery of Native American artifacts exposed by the storm prior to the repair of the roadway. Archaeologists working with tribal representatives from the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office excavated the entire exposed surface mapping in the location of all the artifacts with a total station. Hundreds of Native American artifacts including quartz and quartzite waste debris generated by chipped-stone tool manufacture, a few roughly shaped or incomplete stone tools, a quartz arrow point, and Native American clay pot sherds were recovered from the exposed land surface. Analysis of the archaeological data is currently ongoing, although preliminary interpretations are that the Crescent Beach Site was a location where the indigenous Block Islanders camped, made stone tools, and cooked or processed foods. Clay pot sherds and the triangular arrow point from the site suggest that the Crescent Beach Site was occupied during the Woodland Period between roughly 1600 and 500 years ago.  

FIELD NOTE 2: Archaeology at Block Island’s Harbor Pond Site (click here for a pdf)

Joseph N. Waller, Jr.
The Public Archaeology Laboratory Inc. (PAL)

Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island based offshore wind developer, contracted with PAL to conduct archaeological survey as a planning element of the proposed Block Island Wind Farm (BIWF) and Block Island Transmission System (BITS). The BIWF consists of five turbines with a maximum output of 30 megawatts. The BIWF is proposed to be located in coastal waters southeast of Block Island. The BITS is a bi-directional electric cable that will connect Block Island to the mainland Rhode Island electrical grid for the first time.

Archaeological survey on Block Island identified the Harbor Pond archaeological site situated between Harbor Pond and Trims Pond within the central island area. Native American artifacts including stone arrow or spear points, scraping implements, fishing weights, chipped-stone tool manufacturing debris, and clay pot sherds have been recovered from the site. Stones used to make the tools recovered from the site were primarily acquired from Block Island’s shoreline or perhaps from the island’s glacial till deposits before being transported to the site and shaped into finished artifacts. Other stones such as argillite and quartzite suggest that some the site’s occupants either periodically traveled to or traded with individuals who inhabited Rhode Island’s mainland. Charcoal recovered from a post hole and refuse pit at the site indicate that the Harbor Pond Site was occupied as early as 2000 BC and then again around 300 BC. The site is interpreted as a series of overlapping encampments that were occupied by few individuals or perhaps small families for several days to several weeks at a time. Activities undertaken at the site included stone tool manufacture, hunting of land or perhaps marine mammals, processing and consumption of shellfish, trash disposal, and camping.

diggingPAL archaeologists excavate a portion of the Harbor Pond Site on Block Island.

pointsStone projectile points from the Harbor Pond Site.

pitNative American refuse pit exposed by archaeologists at the Harbor Pond Site.



PAL field crew excavating and recording artifacts inside the Stone House foundation – area of center chimney

stonehouse well
Stone-lined well remains in courtyard area on west side of the Stone House foundation

FIELD NOTE 1: Chepachet Village Middle Privilege Archaeological Sites, Glocester, Rhode Island (click here for a pdf)

Suzanne Cherau and Erin Timms
The Public Archaeology Laboratory Inc. (PAL)

Phase II archaeological investigations in advance of the construction of a stormwater retention project identified Native American and EuroAmerican sites at the Chepachet Village Middle Privilege on the Chepachet River in Glocester, Rhode Island. The Native American site consists of a lithic assemblage of six stone tool fragments (five projectile points, one uniface) and a low density of quartz and quartzite chipping debris. The majority of these materials was recovered in fill and redeposited subsoils that are associated with the 19th-century mill site occupation. The EuroAmerican site focuses on the middle textile mill privilege first used in the late 18th century to serve a tannery and a blacksmith shop, and expanded in the early 19th century for a gristmill, distillery, sawmill, and cotton mill.  These smaller mills were eventually replaced with a large brick and stone factory operating under the name F.R. White Co. The factory’s operations expanded to include worsteds production and several large mill additions, employing over 400 workers, some of whom lived in worker housing near the factory site.  The complex was the largest industry in Chepachet Village until it was destroyed by fire in 1897.

The archaeological investigations at the mill were focused on the worker housing sector near Oil Mill Lane. This area contained several large mid-late-19th-century tenements as well as the documented location of an earlier “Stone House” built by the early mill occupants.  The excavations within and around the Stone House foundation determined that it included at least two additions as well as a stone-lined well in a small yard area adjacent to the house.  The main structure foundation appears to have been square, measuring about 30-x-30-ft, and constructed exclusively of drylaid stone with some limited mortar pointing. A center chimney base, measuring roughly 7 by 15 ft, was present in the main structure foundation. It was constructed of rough fieldstones and mortar.  A low cellar may have been present in the southern half of the house, while the northern half may only have had a small crawl space underneath the main floor.  The stone-lined well measured roughly 5 ft in external diameter, and appears to have been surrounded by a small semi-circular stone retaining wall that could have supported a fence to delineate this side yard area from the adjacent mill yard. 

The archaeological investigations also recovered over 120,000 artifacts mostly dating from the mid to late 1800s. Artifact types include a wide range of ceramics (table and tea wares), glassware, medicine bottles, metal tools, silverware, and personal items including buttons, clothing and shoe grommets and leather, pipe stems and bowls, sewing items, pendants, buckles, children’s toys, combs, gun flints, etc. along with structural debris (window glass, nails, door and window hardware, brick, mortar, slate shingles).  Food remains include butchered cow and pig bone, shellfish, and fish bones.  The recovered archaeological data is being analyzed to address site density, complexity, age, and integrity as well as site-specific research themes relating to the construction and use of domestic/tenement space and lifeways of the mill owners/workers who occupied the site in the 19th century.

chepachet woolen
Layout of the Chepachet Village Middle Privilege Woolen Mill complex including worker housing (tenements) off Oil Mill Lane, 1892 Associated Mutual Insurance Company Map.