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Archaeology in Branford

by Neil Asher Silberman 

Countless generations of our community’s ancestors left behind them their own kinds of unmistakable archeological evidence. People were living, working, and raising families here when pharaohs ruled Egypt, when Roman emperors led their legions across Europe, and when the Great Wall of China was being built. In fact, recent archaeological digs in Branford have revealed that the last 350 years, which we are proudly commemorating, represent barely six percent of Branford’s total human history.

Archaeology is certainly not new to Branford. Local collectors and history buffs have regularly found ancient arrowheads, potsherds, and stone tools. These relics found their way into private collections or were donated to Blackstone library. A much more systematic, scientific approach to studying Branford’s prehistoric people began in 1920’s when a professional archaeologist named Claude Coffin excavated an ancient campsite near Double Beach. In 1935, the founding of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut, in which a number of Branford residents were charter members, ushered in an era of even greater contact between archaeologists and interested amateurs.

Through the 1940’s, archaeologists from Yale’s Peabody Museum frequently dug at sites throughout Branford and found our town a convenient and interesting research site. Before long these scholars constructed a continuous framework for the town’s history that stretched back to at least 2500B.C. Archaeologists working in Branford began to understand how  the interaction of southern New England’s ancient inhabitants, with the natural resources and with the yearly rhythm of the seasons, gave rise to a distinctive way of life.

In Pine Orchard, Hotchkiss Grove and Juniper Point, there is plentiful archaeological evidence that ancient family groups would congregate close to the shoreline every summer. Taking advantage of the Sound’s bounty, they would return to the same spots every year for generations, as indicated by the huge “middens” or ancient dump piles of clamshells found on Indian Neck, at Trap Rock, and out on Governor’s Island. In autumn and winter, they would establish hunting camps in the swamps and inland forests to gather deer and other game animals, as seen in the ancient sites excavated near Lake Saltonstall, Supply Pond, and at a spot now occupied by the 8th hole of the golf course of the Pine Orchard Country Club.

Through the centuries, Branford’s people refined their way of life and eventually adopted more complex systems of ritual and trade. A Late Woodland Period site excavated near Pine Orchard in 1942 by Alexis Praus of the Peabody Museum offered a glimpse at life in Branford during the European Middle Ages. Skilled craftsmanship and sophisticated traditions of pottery making and stonework can be seen in potsherd and arrowheads. The finds from a larger village excavated near Knollwood Drive suggest that by the time of their first contact with Europeans, the people of Branford had widened their trade contacts westwards. Around 1600, came the great killing epidemics of smallpox, measles, and other diseases brought by the first European explorers. And the history of Branford was dramatically changed.

Archaeological excavations in Branford have also provided new insights on the centuries since that fateful moment of contact between Europeans and Native Americans. Many generations who have passed through Branford since 1644 have left evidence of their lives and works.

Though Branford’s ever dwindling archaeological resources are all too often bulldozed away in the name of progress, the evidence to be gained from Branford’s buried and forgotten living places can provide a way of learning about the achievements of the many people who have lived here –and who have been otherwise ignored by the often selective memory of official history books.

Last Updated: Thu, 06/20/2019 - 12:06pm