Dig this: Historian goes deep into the archaeology of Cape Cod – Cape Cod Times

You’re walking along a windswept Cape Cod beach after a storm. Suddenly, you see something old and strange poking out of a dune that was ripped open by high seas. There’s only one thing to do: call an archaeologist!
That always-possible rush of discovery is a delightful perk of living on ever-changing Cape Cod. “The whole setting is reset every day,” said Cape Cod National Seashore historian Bill Burke. “People are always contacting me with shipwreck piece photos.”
Burke will be helming a program called “The Archaeology of the Cape Cod National Seashore” at 7 p.m. on Jan. 26 at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster. It’s presented by the Cape Cod Chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society.
There’s plenty of cool stuff to talk about. “I’m going to tell a lot of stories about everything I’ve seen here,” said Burke, who has worked at the Seashore for nearly 30 years and arguably has the most interesting job on Cape Cod. He’s snorkeled on shipwrecks off Truro, seen the re-emergence of the British warship HMS Somerset III (wrecked in 1778) from its sandy grave in Provincetown and watched scientists use kites to take aerial photos of the Samuel Smith Tavern Site on Great Island in Wellfleet.
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Sometimes the Cape’s changeable landscape means the archaeology machine has to be cranked up in a hurry. That was the case in November 1990 with the discovery of the Carns Site at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, which began when a ranger noticed something spilling out from the sand. Things got going quickly, according to a Seashore report:
“Two factors were responsible for converting an exploratory investigation into a full-scale data recovery. First was the active, ongoing threat to the site from erosion. During the course of the project, several severe storms did scour the area, removing a significant percentage of the site. The second factor was a belief that the Carns site contained cultural components of great antiquity.”
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Those Native American artifacts “date primarily from the end of the Early Woodland Period through the Middle Woodland Period, or approximately 2,100 to 1,100 years ago,” according to the report. Quite a reward for a walk on the beach!
For a historian like Burke, archaeological artifacts are like “pieces of a 1,000-piece puzzle,” he said. Other pieces might be memories, accounts or documents of what transpired in days of yore. “The longer you go back in time, the fewer the pieces,” said Burke.
Hence, the significance of the Nauset Archaeological District in Eastham, where the presence and layout of Native American settlements was documented by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1605 in his famous map of the area, an unusually valuable piece of the historic puzzle.
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Burke said the Seashore currently has around 350,000 to 400,000 artifacts in its collection. Some are surfaced to the public at the museum at the Salt Pond Visitor Center. “To me, it’s all about the story of people,” said Burke. “We’re trying to fill the story in, and it can be very exciting.”
And that excitement can be shared by regular folks who like to roam around the Cape Cod National Seashore. The first rule is not to remove any artifacts: it’s against the law. If you think you’ve discovered something interesting, get in touch with Burke at the Salt Pond Visitor Center. Oh, and go see his program on Jan. 26. You’ll hear great stories and you might just turn into an amateur Indiana Jones!

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