Avon Historical Society to present talk featuring oldest Paleo-Indian site in Connecticut

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Steve Smith, Hartford Courant
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The Avon Historical Society is set to present the second installment in its series of talks, titled “Unearthing History: The Discovery of a 12,500 Year Old Paleo-Indian Site along the Farmington River in Avon, CT” on April 8.

The talk will be presented by Howard Wright, Renbrook School Science Department Head, who will take the audience on a photographic journey of the landscape along Route 44 caused after Pangea over 300 million years ago.

“I’ll be focusing on the site, and then looking at the seven different different kinds of rock layers in the Connecticut Valley,” he said. “From the base of Avon Mountain, all the way over to Bishop’s Corner, in a span of about 4 miles, you get a look at all 7 layers.”

Dr. David Leslie, Archaeology and Historical Services, is the lead on the discovery and research of the site, which was found in 2019, when crews were surveying the area in preparation for a new bridge that crosses the River on Old Farms Road, just off of Route 10.

Leslie said the 211 square meter site, in which 15,000 artifacts were found, is significant, because it provides the oldest evidence of people in Connecticut, and one of the oldest in the northeast (two in northern New England are older, and one in Pennsylvania). Most of the artifacts are stone tools, including spear points, scrapers and gravers, used in creating clothing out of animal hides. Also found were 28 architectural features, which are essentially defined as artifacts that are not portable, such as fire pits or parts of crude buildings.

“The features that we found are incredibly rare, for a lot of time periods, but moreso for the Paleo-Indian time period, which is the earliest occupation by humans,” Leslie said, adding that only about 10-15 features have been found in the entire Northeast.

Most of the soil in the state is about three feet deep. Beneath that is glacial soil, which predates humanity and would preclude finding any evidence of human life. Brian Jones, lead archaeologist for the project, noticed that the soils there are quite deep, when the area was first being surveyed, starting in 2012.

“What Brian noticed was that soils were very deep. He only got as far as five or six feet, but based on what he had found, our company decided that deeper investigations should be done,” Leslie said. “In 2019, we went back out to look deeper. We found, even in our first shovel test pit, some stone artifacts that were indicative of human activity in the area. Our next shovel test revealed 89 artifacts. On the first day, we knew we had something.”

The site has been completely excavated and the testing of the artifacts is ongoing in off-site laboratories.

The reason the artifacts were so deep was because of centuries of successive flooding of the Farmington River. While most rivers in the northeast run north-to-south and have changed their courses wildly in the past 12,000 years, the shape of the Farmington River is unusual, in that it has a long stretch that runs north (from western Farmington to an eastern part of Granby). It was also stuck in its current position about 16,000 years ago.

The reason for that, Wright said, is that as the glaciers were leaving the area, terrain blocked the Farmington River from flowing further southeast.

“So, it had to find its way to the Connecticut River, and it had to beat back north through Avon, Farmington and Simbury to the Tariffville Gorge,” Wright said, adding that the northern flow is broader and has fewer boulders, because it flows slower there and couldn’t carry large rocks.

“It can only carry sediment - sand and silt,” he said. “That’s what happened over the thousands of years people were there. All the stuff they were doing was buried.”

Leslie said that carbon dating is revealing that the site was used at several different times withing the Paleo-Indian period.

“The wealth of data that we have from the charred remains of the features provides us ways to chronologically assess the dates of when the site was occupied,” Leslie said.

Also significant is that the site identifies the type of location in which other sites might be found.

“It’s an important site, because it allows archaeologists the chance to learn about the first peoples that lived here in Connecticut,” Leslie said, adding that archaeologists are understanding that they might have to look deeper at other sites in CT, and across the northeast, and perhaps everywhere.

“Understanding how the river is stuck in its current position helps us understand where to look for where Paleo-Indian sites might be,” he said. “Other sites like this probably exist and are waiting to be found.”

“I bet there’s other stuff all along the Farmington River,” Wright said. “I guess we just have to go digging.”

The Avon Historical Society’s series of talks, presented in conjunction with the Avon Free Public Library and the Avon Senior Center, covers a wide range of topics, including the geology of the Farmington River Valley, and a presentation in May from Dr. Kenneth Fader, founder of the Farmington River Archaeological Project, who will talk about several sites in the area on which he has worked.

The next talk in the series will take place at 7 p.m. on April 8. For more information, visit www.avonlibrary.info.