Dig this: Archeology Day at Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Bill Moody's collection of spear and arrow heads. — Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

Martha’s Vineyard sports its flourish of geology on its shirtsleeve, with a silver thread of archaeology artfully woven into the fabric.

This Island is noted for its creation as a little land mass formed at the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, with its stunning clay cliffs exhibiting sediment from 100 million years before that, making us somewhat more remarkable for our cliffs, rocks, and overall geology than our sandy beaches.

Last Saturday morning, forces combined to create a superb marriage of legitimate history and kicking-about-the-Island rocks and fossils, when folks brought their local finds to Archaeology Day at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown, for presentation to a small but monument-worthy forum of local experts.

It was a morning of assorted investigations but the highpoint was the music, a first ever in recorded history, most likely — a duet of two lithophones.

Amateur archaeologist extraordinaire Bill Moody collected the pair of portable lithophones and thought they might be pestles for grinding grain. They in no way suggested music: each was stone and roughly a yard long, lightly tapered in such a way as to resemble random early grinders. They visually suggested more “thud” than tunes. This is more or less what Bill thought until he showed them to Duncan Caldwell, Vineyard authority and general expert on “things,” who declared that the long, tubular stones were musical instruments.

Litho translates to “stone,” with the “phon,” (as in “phonics”) suffix meaning musical sound, and these naturally occurring single unit xylophones are easily carried — unlike the vast and subterranean Great Stalacpipe Organ of descending calcium deposits at Luray Caverns in Virginia. This convenient size alone makes Bill’s lithophones scarce, but being of this continent only adds to the mystery.

These most basic instruments are generally found anyplace but the U.S. — with my favorite version being the shuluun tsargel of southern Mongolia. Mr. Moody’s are not just from the U.S., but from New England — one collected in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts and the other in New Hampshire.

On Saturday these two affable aficionados, Mssrs. Moody and Caldwell, stretched the cylinders across their knees and had at them with kindling-sized logs and played the two remarkable rock rolling pins to the delight of the gathered. Next came the forum of folks bringing their treasure to the historians, Fred Hotchkiss, Jim Richardson, Dick Burt, in addition to Duncan Caldwell and Bill Moody.

Martha and Marcia MacGillivray of Vineyard Haven brought in a pretty little stone which looked, to the untrained eye, like a fossil or maybe an etching of a dragonfly or even a little plant. The markings seemed like a petit palm tree to me, but Mr. Hotchkiss, aka  “Fossil Fred,” who has his doctorate in Evolutionary Biology, declared the find a “porphory,” a rock naturally tumbled by weather, as opposed to that of human hands.

Another similar term was tossed about when a stone appeared from the Katama area which looked to be tooled, was decided to be a ventifact — a stone which sat on top of glaciers to be shaped by erosion.

Teacher Robin Smith of Chilmark brought in what Mr. Hotchkiss described as:  “a very nice tooth,” and it was a popular choice as an extremely sturdy and solid dentate, even with traces of a root system.

She said that her grandmother, Gladys Flanders, who would now be 105, found it on the cliffs 70 or 80 years ago. Robin said she has always admired the piece and at first thought it was a tusk until the wise heads went together on Saturday, examined it and came back with the verdict that it was probably a tooth from a walrus or a killer whale. Robin said she was pleased to learn the truth about her family jewel.

Doug Goldsmith, also of Chilmark, bought in a rare spear point, dated to more than 10,000 years old. He explained that, while it looks like an arrowhead, it is a far more obscure spear head, thus dated to before the advent of arrows.

There were arrowheads, especially the Bill Moody’s magnificent display. There always will be arrowheads at such events, but Tom Bena, of Chilmark, had sufficient artifacts to open a roadside museum in Arkansas. Tom, founder and creative director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, nearly stole the show with fabulous sharks’ teeth, bones, fossils and a box of other finds. A neophyte to the field, making him the ultimate amateur archaeologist, he amassed his pieces from the south shore’s erosive unveilings just in this past year.

All the experts billed and cooed around the excited, tall, and marketing-educated film entrepreneur and his diggings. His were authentic and spectacular, but that was not true across the board. Supposed stone tools and weapons were shown, teeth and arrowheads were in abundance but none there will likely ever forget the Woodstock in stone, the dueling lithophones.

The Field of Brains

—James B. Richardson III, Ph.D. Curator Emeritus of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, is a direct descendant of the William Lawton, who had the first wooden Campground cottage. His areas of concentration include the impact that natural catastrophes — such as volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, and drought — have on emerging cultures.

More specifically, he observes and records human adaptations to changing environments and resources in coastal environments, such as sea level and storm driven societal effects, particularly on the west coast of South America and Martha’s Vineyard.

Jim, an essential Islander, but also an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan, has written extensively on Pre-Columbian contact between the Central Andes of South America, Polynesia, the Galapagos Islands and western Mexico, an area also addressed by anthropologist and author Sam Low of Hart Haven.

— Frederick H. C. Hotchkiss, PhD., of Vineyard Haven, director of the Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute, based in that town. Fred was born on the Island, went off to M.I.T., then to the Navy, and very discreet underwater research before attaining his doctorate at Yale, with a dissertation entitled: Studies on Paleozoic Ophiuroids and the Ancestry of the Asterozoa.

After working in varied technical and historic fields and enjoying wide publications in journals of paleontology, natural history, zoology and  biology, he returned to the Vineyard and ongoing research.

— Duncan Caldwell, who, besides being a fellow of the Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute, is a stunningly varied, versatile, and accomplished man, living between the Vineyard and Paris, France, as an artist, writer, scientist, and tireless researcher and explorer. In his own words: “My passions range from my family, writing, painting, photography and prehistory to the designing of integrated complexes of gardens and buildings.”

He has more than 100 art caves under his discovery belt, uncovered in his two-decade voyage between France and the Sahara, perhaps the most memorable being the exceptional Neolithic engravings in Buthiers, Seine-et-Marne, France. His most recent works are to appear in RES – Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology & Art Museum, Harvard University.

— Bill Moody, a self-described amateur archaeologist and, according to Fred Hotchkiss, “a fantastic collector of Native American artifacts and with the integrity of a world-class historian and authority on horseshoe crabs.”  He has magnificent arrowheads and any man with two lithophones is okay with me.

— Richard “Dick” Burt of West Tisbury, board member of the Local Historical Commission, a statesman emeritus and general informational font, with a concentration on arrowheads, was there with a good sense of hands-on reality. He said of one curious find: “That’s the kind of thing Tom [Thomas Hart Benton, April 15, 1889 – January 19, 1975] Benton and his friends were making in the 1930s.”

He said that my own interesting little sculpture was most likely from that era and was art as opposed to antiquity, ending my thoughts of finding my own Rosetta Stone.

It’s all Greek …

The names of pretty much everything to do with being smart are derived from the Greeks, thus Greek in origin.

And it’s not as complicated as it might seem, since a lot of English is also looped in with the Greeks. For instance, geology is essentially the study rocks and dirt. The “geo” means “earth,” as in “geography,” and the “ology” part, as in “logic,” means learning or study results.

Similarly, archaeology the the study of ancient human involvement with the turns of the earth. “Archae,” as in “archaic” and the “ology” business again, bring us to archaeology. The field arose to introduce a history incorporating philosophy — “philo,” or “love of,” with “sophi,” areas of “wisdom” or “knowledge,” combined with theory, for “thinking,” as in “theology,” following the period of Antiquarianism, as in “antiques,” which homed in on hard evidence of historic events, ideally excluding any perceived assumptions.