Science and scientists on Martha’s Vineyard: Dick Burt

A lifelong passion for archeology.

Island scientist Dick Burt. Photo Courtesy of Richard Burt

Retired Stanford professor and West Tisbury resident Paul Levine will contribute this regular column devoted to scientific research taking place today, along with profiles of the Island’s scientists and their work, and facts of scientific note on the Island.

Although Dick Burt of West Tisbury claims that he is an avocational archeologist, he, perhaps more than anyone else, knows about where and what prehistoric and historic artifacts lie below the surface of the Island.

Dick’s Island roots go back to the Mayhews of the 17th century, and to three generations of Burts beginning with Erford, who arrived on the Vineyard from Taunton in the 1800s. Dick’s father, Percy was the superintendent of Seven Gates Farm until he retired in 1968.

My interview with Dick revolved around what it was like to grow up on the Vineyard in the 1940s and ’50s, and how his childhood experiences led to his becoming so well versed in the Island’s archeology.


Dick fondly recalls growing up in the 1950s in the sparsely populated up-Island area (there were only three students in his first grade in the West Tisbury School). It was a time when it was possible to roam freely in the fields and the woods, and to fish and hunt. The entire up-Island was his backyard.

Dick’s lifelong interest in the archeology of the Vineyard began when he was a young boy living on Arrowhead Farm at Indian Hill, where from 1939 to 1945 his father had an active vegetable farm. It was while working on the farm and in the fields that he’d find arrowheads, and during his ramblings he often discovered other prehistoric archeological artifacts that aroused his curiosity and his penchant to collect.

For several years in the late ’40s after moving from Arrowhead Farm, the Burt family lived at Seven Gates Farm, where it was possible for Dick to hike unencumbered by private property restrictions from Seven Gates to Menemsha. It was during one of those forays that Dick and a friend made an exciting find. It was not a prehistoric artifact, but a 12-foot skiff that had apparently broken from its mooring and washed onshore. There was no response to their advertisement, so the boys kept the skiff at Town Cove on Tisbury Great Pond and used it for fishing and shellfishing.

It may be hard for some city people to imagine days filled with the adventures that Dick experienced. There is a Tom Sawyer feel to his recollections. They were important years, because they provided the basis for his firsthand knowledge of the Island.

The war years

The years of World War II brought a military presence to the Island that was last seen during the Revolutionary War when, in September of 1778, the British Major General Charles Grey and his troops invaded the Island. It was under his command they ‘confiscated’ thousands of sheep and several hundred oxen to provide food for British troops.

The second military presence on the Island occurred during WW II, with a mock invasion of the Island by U.S. Army troops, with the U.S. Navy establishing an airbase on the site where the Martha’s Vineyard Airport now stands, and a U.S. Army camp on Peaked Hill.

Suddenly the Island was transformed from its quiet rural character to a military base, and one can imagine the excitement among the young boys, mostly oblivious to the consequences of war. Dick talked about seeing military vehicles on the roads, gun emplacements, a radar tower, and coordinated Army and Navy mock invasions of Europe off the coast.

Soldiers in Jeeps and other Army vehicles traveled the Island roads, and there was the sound of Navy planes taking off and landing at the airport. And then there was the bombing practice, and practice with dive bombers over Tisbury Great Pond.

But the excitement of the war was countered by knowing older Vineyard boys going off to war, blackouts, bomb shelters and 24-hour surveillance for German submarines lurking off the coast and the landing on the shore of German saboteurs. (For more about the war on the Vineyard, see “Martha’s Vineyard in World War II” by Thomas Dresser.)

Becoming an archeologist

After the war, Dick went to the Tisbury High School. His history teacher was

  1. Gale Huntington, best known for his knowledge and collection of sea chanties, and also for his archeological explorations of the Island. Under Huntington’s tutelage, Dick moved from curiosity to serious collecting, and learned the skill of identifying and dating the Island’s prehistoric artifacts. Today his collection of several thousand prehistoric artifacts goes back some 7,000 years and is a significant contribution to the documentation of the Island’s prehistory.

When I asked him for an example of his most notable find, he said, “What defines notable? It is usually the cumulative result of collecting and research over time rather than individual finds that result in notable discoveries of any significance.” These are words that every scientist should keep in mind.


Native American arrowheads can be found throughout the Island if you know where to hunt. Being alert to what is beneath your feet and having patience are essential. They may be found in plowed or disturbed fields, pond shores, and creek beds. Construction sites and sites of ancient human habitation may reveal other artifacts as well. But to go beyond what is on the surface requires a different approach.

It begins with looking for sites that were likely to support or give evidence of human occupation, along with information gained from old records and maps, and not least, turning to people who have an intimate knowledge of the land and have been exploring and surveying the land long before the arrival of “professionals.”

Dick has a nose for likely sites, so much so that back in the 1960s he played a role in William A. Ritchie’s exploration of the Island that resulted in his book, “The Archeology of Martha’s Vineyard.” Published in 1969, it remains the standard work for anyone who wants to become acquainted with the Island’s prehistory.

Dick was asked by Ritchie to help carry out surveys for likely Island multicomponent sites to dig test holes which, if they revealed evidence of human occupation, were excavated for evaluation. Six sites form the basis for Ritchie’s description of the Island’s archeology.

The work continues

Today Dick’s research focuses on the historic archeology of the Island, exploring the Island for settlements that go back to the 17th century of Thomas Mayhew Jr. and his ancestors. He has worked on many Island research projects with James Richardson III of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and others.

More recently he has collaborated on several projects in collaboration with Jim Tuck, emeritus professor of archeology from Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, now a resident of Vineyard Haven. They explore the Island searching for early Colonial sites, where they look for depressions in the ground where a house might have stood, or possibly where there was a cellar.

They identify ceramic artifacts, old tools, any objects that have withstood the test of time, all of which go to date a house, a barn, or other structures. In some cases the remnants of window frames have persisted, and on occasion, dates have been carved in fragments of the lead of leaded windowpanes.

Each archeological site or object discovered tells a story of the Island’s past and gives a sense of the adventure and satisfaction of going back to both prehistoric and historic times.

So, to paraphrase the late Vernon Laux: If there’s something to be found, keep your eyes to the ground.