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Archaeological gathering hears of tally of uncovered remains

The inaugural meeting of the Rhode Island Archaeological Society hears how a Native American construction worker for years kept notes on possible Indian graves.



Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- For years, Nancy Brown-Garcia's father carried around a small book filled with secrets.

Sometimes while excavating a site for a new road or the foundation of a building, her father and his coworkers in the construction business would uncover skeletal remains.

Max Brown, a Native American, often suspected the discoveries were Indian graves.

But rather than stop to investigate, the construction companies would often look the other way, ignoring the finds. Any delay would have been time-consuming, and ultimately expensive.

"The order of the day was pave it over," said Brown's daughter, who spoke Saturday at a symposium on the state's archaeological history.

The sites may have been paved over, but they were not forgotten, at least not by Brown. He secretly recorded details of the remains in a small, tattered black book he kept in his shirt pocket.

The book has entries marking "thousands" of sites of possible Indian remains, Brown-Garcia said. Her father, now 77, lives in Warwick and has kept the book from his 50 years in construction a secret for all these years. She said her father promised to give her the book upon his death.

Brown-Garcia was perhaps the most riveting speaker at the first convening of the Rhode Island Archaeological Society, a new group organized by Tobias Lederberg, a Providence attorney.

Lederberg, who has had an interest in archaeology since grade school and who studied the subject at Harvard, said there was an archaeology group in Massachusetts, but no serious group in Rhode Island. He got together a couple of local archaeologists and they decided to form the society. The annual dues are $10.

Saturday, about a half-dozen archaeologists spoke to about 30 people at the inaugural meeting.

People have not always been careful about archaeological finds. Charlotte C.W. Taylor, the assistant state archaeologist, said that some amateur collectors would only keep artifacts, such as arrowheads, if they were perfectly intact.

"A lot of information we would collect today has been lost," she said.

In 1915, a Brown professor dumped 92 truckloads worth of a natural history collection into the Seekonk River, according to Brown Prof. William S. Simmons. The professor, who was chairman of the biology department, apparently felt the collection didn't belong there, Simmons said. What was lost was not cataloged, Simmons said. Presumably it included stuffed animals, fossils, shells and other items, he said.

Not all archaeological projects involve looking back hundreds and thousands of years. Pierre Moron, a professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College, has been involved in excavating the former site of the State Home and School, a state-run orphanage that closed in 1979. Three buildings that were once part of the school are still standing on the campus of Rhode Island College. The college has begun collecting oral histories of people who once lived in the home.

But archaeology in Rhode Island is most often associated with finding Native American artifacts.

The Narragansett Indian tribe has long been upset by archaeological efforts. Brown-Garcia said she grew up believing that archaeologists were people to stay away from.

Today, she is a deputy tribal historic preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe based in Wyoming, R.I.

"My job is to make sure people don't go and dig up bones of my ancestors," she said. "What is most important is that I protect the ancients."

There was no such job back in the 1950s, when her father worked for private construction companies, operating cranes that prepared land for various projects.

At first, her father would call attention to archaeological finds. But companies didn't want to hear of it because of the expensive delays those discoveries brought. He ended up being blackballed in his own union, she said, and he had trouble finding work. While he was running for a union office in 1960, Max Brown's house was blown up, Brown-Garcia said. No one was injured.

He became fearful for his life, and he stopped speaking up about burial sites his construction crews uncovered.

Things have gotten better, Brown-Garcia said. Several laws have been passed to help protect Indian burial grounds, including the federal Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which gives Indians the right to stop excavation of sites that have been found to contain Indian remains.

Brown-Garcia's appearance before the archaeologists was itself an unusual event.

"I hope this is a new beginning for all of us," she said.

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