Archaeology at Smuttynose reveals fate of fisheries

Sep 19, 2008 By Krishna Ramanujan
Students in Shoals Marine Lab's Introductory Biology course help out with excavation at the Smuttynose Island site. Image: Robin Hadlock Seeley

(PhysOrg.com) -- The name Smuttynose Island may recall the infamous 1873 ax murders or even Smuttynose Craft Beer, made in Portsmouth, N.H. But the island, one of the Isles of Shoals six miles off the Maine and New Hampshire coast, boasts a rich history of North Atlantic fisheries dating back to European settlement in the early 1600s.

This summer, Smuttynose Island became the site of an archaeological dig during a one-week course through Shoals Marine Lab, a marine biology teaching and research facility housed on Smuttynose's sister island, Appledore, and run by Cornell and the University of New Hampshire. The course in island archaeology, offering field training in archaeological excavation, will be expanded next year to two weeks.

Along with pipes, thimbles, pottery, fishing gear and other artifacts that tell stories about the island's inhabitants, a biological record was created by unearthed fish bones that help answer ecological questions, such as whether overfishing may have caused the decline of cod populations in the 19th century. The findings support historical records to help document when these fisheries started to decline.

"The Isles of Shoals' importance to early America can hardly be overestimated," said Robin Hadlock Seeley, one of the class instructors and an assistant director for academic advising and senior research associate at Shoals Marine Lab. "Fishing was the base of the economy, and the global price of cod was set here."

Seeley created the course with Nathan Hamilton, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Southern Maine. The new course had three students from the University of Southern Maine, one from the University of New Hampshire, and Sherry Martin '10 from Cornell's Department of Natural Resources. The researchers and students began uncovering artifacts at depths of about two inches, with materials dating from 1630 to 1640 being found 28 inches to 31 inches deep.

Bones showed that cod and other fish species became smaller from the 16th to the 19th century as the fishing industry grew. "Fish vertebrae at the bottom of a pit were much larger than those found at the top of the pit," said Seeley. "The fish they were processing in the 17th century appear to have been huge." The researchers plan to do isotope analyses of bones to learn what fish were eating and how climatic conditions may have affected them.

Seeley uncovered a red clay pipe from the 17th century, which indicates that traders from the Chesapeake area visited Smuttynose. Also, the type of finish and glazes on shards of pottery allowed Hamilton to precisely date items and site layers. A British 1779 George III penny signified a period around the time of the American Revolution when the Isles of Shoals were cleared, and populations never resumed their prior heyday, said Hamilton. Seeley and Hamilton said the vast amount of materials excavated will provide enough data for several projects, including a study documenting the timing of introduction of an invasive snail around 130 years ago, said Seeley, who is also a malacologist (snail expert).

Provided by Cornell University

Explore further: Ancient Greek well yields rare wooden statue

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

China to send orbiter to moon and back

40 minutes ago

China will launch its latest lunar orbiter in the coming days, state media said Wednesday, in its first attempt to send a spacecraft around the moon and back to Earth.

Beijing's focus on coal lost in haze of smog

50 minutes ago

The soaring, grimy chimneys of the coal-fired power station have belched the last of their choking fumes into Beijing's air, authorities say—but experts doubt the plan will ease the capital's smog.

Apple issues security warning for iCloud

1 hour ago

Apple has posted a new security warning for users of its iCloud online storage service amid reports of a concerted effort to steal passwords and other data from people who use the popular service in China.

Review: Better cameras, less glare in iPad Air 2

1 hour ago

If I've seen you taking photos with a tablet computer, I've probably made fun of you (though maybe not to your face, depending on how big you are). I'm old school: I much prefer looking through the viewfinder ...

Recommended for you

Jerusalem stone may answer Jewish revolt questions

15 hours ago

Israeli archaeologists said Tuesday they have discovered a large stone with Latin engravings that lends credence to the theory that the reason Jews revolted against Roman rule nearly 2,000 ago was because ...

Kung fu stegosaur

16 hours ago

Stegosaurs might be portrayed as lumbering plant eaters, but they were lethal fighters when necessary, according to paleontologists who have uncovered new evidence of a casualty of stegosaurian combat. The ...

Digging for Britain's real-life war horses

19 hours ago

Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have teamed up with school children, veterans of modern conflict and other volunteers to uncover the history of Britain's real-life war horses.

User comments : 0