Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology on Smuttynose Island

Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology on Smuttynose Island

 

a handful of assorted shoals

May 28 - November 17, 2014

Discover 6,000 years of hidden history in this new exhibit from the Portsmouth Historical Society on the New Hampshire coast.

The Isles of Shoals is a cluster of rocky islands in the Gulf of Maine, about 10 miles east of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But while they are small and relatively isolated, they are rich in human and natural history. Explore the Isles of Shoals in this new exhibit from the Portsmouth Historical Society and Shoals Marine Laboratory.

The Isles of Shoals have been inhabited by humans off and on for at least 6,000 years. On Smuttynose Island, Native Americans hunted for food thousands of years ago. In the dawning days of the American colonies, hundreds of European fishermen salted and dried the superabundant codfish on the rocks. Men stopped for a drink at the old tavern back when the isles were an important staging point for New England trade. And the hearty fishing families of the 1700s who lived on the island were eventually displaced in the 1800s by Boston tourists who stayed in new luxury hotels. Yet all of this history has crumbled away, leaving only buried clues of the Isles' fascinating past.

Today, the islands are home to only a few people year-round. But during the summer, their population swells. Starr Island hosts religious conferences, and on Appledore Island is Shoals Marine Laboratory, a renowned teaching and research station jointly operated by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. The islands are also home to thousands of sea birds, seals, and a multitude of other marine life.

In just four years of an ongoing dig at the Isles of Shoals, archeologist Nathan Hamilton and his students have unearthed more than 250,000 artifacts. These bones, stones, and fragments of human occupation tell volumes about the people who have tried to make their living on these rocks.

For more about how archaeology can be used in evolutionary ecology, see Watching Evolution Happen: Using archaeology as a link to the past in evolutonary ecology by Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley. (PDF)

Under the Isles of Shoals was produced by Discover Portsmouth, with special assistance from Shoals Marine Laboratory.

         

 


Prof. Nathan Hamilton and student archaeologists

Prof. Nathan Hamilton and student archaeologists unearth historic artifacts at Smuttynose Island at the Isles of Shoals. Photo by J. Dennis Robinson.

Student archaeologists from the Shoals Marine Laboratory

Student archaeologists from the Shoals Marine Laboratory under Prof. Nathan Hamilton gather around an important 'dig' on Smuttynose Island. Courtesy of Portsmouth Marine Society.

Student holds up a clay pipe fragment

A smiling archaeology student holds up a clay pipe fragment depicting a human face. Courtesy of Portsmouth Marine Society. Photo by Nate Hamilton.

Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley photographs a jar filled with shells

Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley, Cornell Senior Research Associate at the Shoals Marine Lab, photographs a jar filled with shells at the Vaughn Memorial & Thaxter Museum, Star Island, Isles of Shoals, NH. Dr. Seeley researches the evolution of periwinkle snails (Littorina) along the rocky coast of New England. Shells in this jar were collected in the late 19th century at the Isles of Shoals. The jar was found in a house attic in eastern Maine and returned to Star Island, and to the museum, in the late 20th century. Shells in the jar match the shells excavated from Smuttynose Island by the Isles of Shoals Archaeology Project, but are in much better condition (vibrant shell color, perfect structure) than shells belonging to the same species excavated from soil in the front yard of the Haley House. Examination of the jarred shells allows 1) a finer analysis of shell shape, structure and color than is possible using shells which have been buried for 125+ years; and 2) for a test of the hypothesis that all shells from the Isles of Shoals look a certain way, whether they were buried in the soil, or preserved in a jar. This famous jar, and its beautiful yellow shells, is part of the new exhibit “Under the Isles of Shoals” at the Museum of the Earth through November 17.

Closeup view of some of the shells

Closeup view of some of the shells in the Star Island jar.

A live periwinkle shell

A live periwinkle shell on Appledore Island, showing a scar that it received from a predatory crab.