The Wapanucket Hoard

Middleborough, MA

The collection of lithics and artifacts on the shelf above the Coffin Stream Assemblage comes from the Wapanucket Village and Crematory in Middleborough, Massachusetts along the shores of Assawompsett Lake.  John Davis, an archaeologist affiliated with the Massachusetts Archaeological Society recovered these over a period of 30 years, ending in the late 1960s.  These tools represent only a tiny fraction of a much larger collection documented in the publication Wapanucket: An Archaeological Report, located near the exhibit for your perusal.

Though these artifacts are from Massachusetts, this collection has significance for the ongoing documentation of Native American communities living in Maine prior to EuroAmerican settlement for two reasons:

  1. Both communities utilized red ochre for part of their ceremonial and funerary ceremonies.  Red ochre has been discovered in Maine maritime Archaic burial grounds in numerous locations just east of the Penobscot River (see Moorhead).
  2. Burial sites in both states were desecrated.
The Wapanucket site is spread over hundreds of acres and includes dozens of dwelling sites and numerous crematory pits, all of which contain red paint (red ochre) residue.  The series of crematory pits at Wapanucket constitute the largest known Native American crematory in North America and were the sacred burial grounds for the Wampanoag Nation of southwestern Massachusetts for a period of as long as 6,000 years.  As recently as the early 20th century, surviving Wampanoags returned to their sacred site to memorialize their forebears.

In Maine, there are a series central and eastern central burial sites (not crematories) containing characteristic deep sea fishing related artifacts and red ochre.  They document a community that flourished in Maine for a brief period of about four hundred years (see Bourque).  The use of red ochre in their burials and the presence of specialized fishing equipment differentiated this community from preceding Native American settlers and from the modern Wabanaki, whose first members appeared to have arrived in Maine 2,000 years ago, several hundred years after the so called "red paint" people disappeared.  The fact that a large population of Native Americans, also utilizing red paint in a crematorial context, lived only a few hundred miles south of the Maine maritime Archaic crematory network of burials for a period of as long as 6,000 years illustrates the sacred nature of red ochre for Native Americans from many communities, not just the Orland deep sea fishers.  The longevity and large population of the Wapanucket community, which appears to have been a ceremonial site rather than a permanent village, raises the perplexing question of its relationship with the much shorter lived Maine maritime archaic peoples.  Adding to this mystery is that the tool kits of the Wampanoags included only tools and equipment for fresh water and tidewater fishing, with no evidence of the deep sea fishing activities that characterized the Maine community.

The second more controversial similarity between these two red ochre using Native American communities is that both had their burial grounds desecrated by EuroAmerican archaeologists and pot hunters who had no qualms about violating the sacred space of Native American crematories and burial sites.  These desecrations illustrate the illusion that EuroAmericans could come to an understanding of the Native American communities that preceded them by archaeological exploration and confiscation of buried or lost artifacts.

REWRITE: That no one should violate these sacred burial sites is now conceded by most professional archaeologists.  That non-Native Americans cannot understand the spiritual values nor enter into and consecrate these sacred spaces is at least to admit that there is a Native American spiritual reality beyond the grasp of EuroAmerican rationalism and materialism.  Insensitivity to the sacred nature of Native American burial sites and the long tradition and ethnic cleansing of these communities is expressed by EuroAmerican's naming, not Native American's naming, the brief period of Maine maritime archaic settlement the "Moorehead phase" in memory of the archaeologist who desecrated every known "red paint" grave site in eastern Maine.  This insensitivity, first clearing the land and then modern history texts of the Native American communities of the past (e.g. the Wawenocs - see Norumbega Reconsidered) is further illustrated by the contemporary quest to "understand" and to acknowledge the vibrant and culturally complex Native American communities of the past.  Is this quest one whereby, in narcissistic mythologizing of Native American spiritual values, EuroAmericans seek to "take the candy" from this past without acknowledging their role in the decimation of these communities?  Will the educational effort to educate Maine children about the Native American communities of the past as a result of LD 291 include a candid assessment of the impact of EuroAmericans on those communities?  Will it include an acknowledgment that within 100 years of contact, 95% of all north and south Native American communities disappeared?  Or that as recently as the 1740s the bounty on Native Americans in Maine (for one scalp, any age) was 400 English pounds, the equivalent of +/- $12,000 in 2004 dollars?  And will this educational effort include the acknowledgment that ultimately, we cannot "take the candy" -- enter fully into the sacred space of the Native American communities that preceded EuroAmerican settlement or which survive today?

Click here to see a listing of the artifacts in the Wapanucket Hoard exhibit.