Mining for Meaning in a New England Historical Preserve

By: Jason Ervin

The Upshot

This summer, I am working as an Archaeological Technician at the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.  The work entails doing survey across the unit ahead of a number of management projects.  It’s a plum job, I think.  It closes the gap a little between myself and a GS-9 permanent position.  The location is pretty fantastic.  The Whites are a network of forested, highland ridges in northern Appalachia.  They have a face with a view, and an intriguing history.  In addition to survey,  I’m doing background research, and writing reports too, things they like to ask about on job applications.  And, I get to learn about a new place.  What I like about a field job is one of the things I like about Archaeology generally.  You get to get your hands dirty.  What a great way to immerse yourself in the real culture of a place: to beat the hills with the soles of your feet, and train your eyes to see the fading marks of history.  And yet, as I say this, a little dialog plays in my head.  What will I find out there?  Only what you take with you.  Let me relate a little of what I’ve found.


The Team

Sarah, the Forest Archaeologist, is my supervisor, and specializes in historic buildings.  There’s Jonathan, Heritage Program Manager, who’s always stopping by to ask how it’s going, what we’re up to, and to tell us first this, then that, about Archaeology on the White. Eric is my fellow seasonal. He builds boats for a hobby (like real sea- and lake-going wooden boats, from scratch).  He’ll also build you a wooden paddle board, if you’re willing to make it worth his while.  Eric is locating and documenting sites in the Pemigewassett Wilderness.  His work often calls for him to spend several days on end in the field, camping out (which he sees as a plus).

The Forest Service is a really open place.  Even the Forest Supervisor is right down the hall, with his door open.  And, you won’t walk past his deputy’s (Claire) office without being greeted.   From top to bottom, you can interact with every person at just about any time they’re around.


The Job

My biggest project is a very large timber sale.  I’m to locate known sites in the area, update and flesh out their records, find and document new sites, and flag out a buffer around all of the sites so loggers know where they shouldn’t go.  I’m also entering the site information into the newly launched, online Forest Service resource database.

I have several smaller projects.  There is a TSI (Timber Stand Improvement): a very localized cutting designed to improve the health of the stand by decreasing the population (tree population, I mean) and eliminating diseased trees that could spread illness to the others.  I’m also covering several trail relocations/rejuvenations.

A particularly noteworthy trail is the Crawford Path: a route to the top of Mount Washington, touted as the oldest continuously used footpath in the country (native footpaths excepted). Crawford Path’s 200 year anniversary will be celebrated in 2019, and REI has granted a large sum of money to the Forest to help commemorate the occasion. They plan to use the money to carry out much-needed maintenance (and some interpretation, which I’m taking a hand in).

My assigned question: how is all this going to impact the “historic character” of the Crawford Path.  My answer, I think, is decently archaeological.  The trail, I decide, is well conceived of as a uniquely long record of trail building, maintenance and use practices that have and continue to proceed from and in turn, influence the role that trails play in American life and culture.  I cannot say at the moment where and how this record is physically manifested along the Crawford Path, but I think that’s a useful question to be asking.

One of the great things about this job is the different kinds of sites that I get to work with.  In addition to the Crawford Path, I am looking at the historic Warren-to-Woodstock road (blazed 1830’s footpath turned 1890’s carriage road), the crash site of a B-18 Bomber (1942), and an old cemetery (j.t.f.d  Jason temporarily forgot the date).  These last two are considered Priority Heritage Assets (PHA’s), a concept you met in a previous blog post. All of these pose their own unique puzzles when you’re trying to work out what their value is, and how they might be (or are being) impacted.


The History

The sites I deal with are almost exclusively historic, and they fall (with the exception of those mentioned above) into two broad categories (so far).  There are 19th century farmsteads, and there are old logging camps.  People moved into the mountains in the early 1800’s, and started moving out around the time of the Civil War.   That’s when the loggers came in.  Today, the forest service controls logging to not only generate economic energy, but to create, over time, healthy and sustainable forests.  They are stewards of the public lands.  A noble calling, my neighbor, Jane, says.  Noble indeed.  The old loggers didn’t know anything about healthy and sustainable forests.  The big dogs were there to get rich, and the little guy was there to make a living.  In a few short decades, uninformed logging practices produced epic floods and wildfires that were an environmental and economic catastrophe.  In stepped Congress and the U.S. Forest Service, to which the land has since been entrusted.   Thus, in a nutshell, I relate the history of the White Mountains.


Prehistory and Predicaments

Prehistory is another matter.  Prehistoric sites are a real challenge, because limited time, staffing and resources make sub-surface sampling on a large scale basically impossible.  The probable nature of mountain settlement adds to the difficulty.  It is hypothesized (partially on the basis of historically documented native groups) that activities in the mountains were seasonal, dispersed, and temporary, and thus left a much lighter footprint.

There is, however, a prehistoric presence on the Forest.  The White has a Paleoindian rock shelter.  And, there have been some light scatterings of flakes found at upland ponds.  For now, Sarah has asked me to keep an eye open for places that show good potential for prehistoric sites.  It may be necessary to come in later, and do some subsurface sampling at those places.  We’ve really just now started talking about this issue, so I’m still working out in my head the best way to do this.

We will actually be doing some digging very soon.  In the first week of August, the entire Heritage team will be in the field together.  The forest is going to sell some land.  That’s an undertaking, with impacts.  We’re going to establish a subsurface sampling grid over the area.  We’re taking all of the “Para’s” we can get together as well.  Para’s, or Paraprofessionals, are Forest Service employees who have had sufficient training to do archaeological work under the supervision of a professional archaeologist.  If they get sufficient training, they can do survey on their own.


“Public” Archaeology

As every Archaeologist knows, the question of how to engage the public about Archaeology can be a little weird.  As stewards of cultural resources on public lands, Forest Service Archaeologists manage places and things of cultural and historical value ostensibly on behalf of the public.  These things belong to the public.  It’s their history.  And yet, we cannot reveal to people where these things are located.  We don’t even tell other forest service personnel where sites are.  The resource is too valuable and too vulnerable.   The answer I guess is pretty obvious.  Actively engage in a serious dialog with the public about the value of the archaeological record.  That’s dialog (as in two-way communication).  And, actually, there’s plenty of people out there who’s classification of archaeological material goes beyond ‘cool’, ‘bank’ and ‘trash’.

Informally, I’ve had a few opportunities to talk with people about archaeology while in New Hampshire.  One day, I was talking to a fellow FS employee.

“That stuff [artifacts] is worth money”, he says.  “I mean, that’s the value isn’t it”.

“Well, if it’s …”

“Well, if it’s old,” he finishes my sentence. ” Like 50 years or something.”

“Well, whether it’s very old or not as old, what we really want to know is if it’s interpretable.  Can we learn something from it?  That’s what we’re really interested in.”

Seems he got in trouble once for setting a tool down on a metal bucket.

Later I’m talking to my neighbor.  He mentions the ruins of an old water powered mill that he knows about.  I know it too.  Sarah took us there our first week.  In fact, it’s part of an archaeological district: an entire 19th-century town, that was abandoned and remains intact.  There are the foundations of houses, a school, a church.  There’s a cemetery, and the mill.  Whether or not I trust my neighbor about the mill is irrelevant.  He knows where it is.  He has a friend with land abutting the area.  He can go there now, if he wants.

Another time, I talk to a man who is running a backhoe.  A road I was using had been totally washed away by a colossal rain storm. The residents tell me the brook lept over its banks, and the road temporarily became a new brook. The man is repairing the road so that people can get out.  He asks me if I know “Peeling”.  That was the name of the town of Woodstock (where I’m living) until the late 1800’s.  It’s commonly used to refer to an abandoned part of the town.  I know it, I tell him.  I was just there.  “I have land up there”, he says.  “We’ve got some cellar holes.”  He’s curious to learn more about it. Unfortunately, I don’t know much.  There’s so much to learn about, and so little time.  I realize that I’m not practiced talking to the public.  I spend most of my days walking through the woods talking to myself and feeling old (as in 19 century old!).

You don’t have to talk to people to know that they make it out to these sites.  It’s not unusual to find modern day trash on a 19th century farmstead, especially if it’s in the more accessible areas.  Leaving one such site to head back toward the truck, I don’t make it maybe 50 meters before a mounted deer stand looms in my face.  The public knows about these places.

Would you recognize the face of a “looter”?  One day, Eric tells me that a Forest Service trail-head volunteer caught someone carrying material from a logging camp out of the wilderness.  Eric happened to be on hand.  “Did you call the LEO (Law Enforcement Officer)”, I ask.  “Well, she was twelve.”  He decided this had more the flavor of a teaching moment than an ARPA violation.  I agreed.  Eric took the stuff back.

And then there’s the Forest Service concept of “multiple use”.  The historic road for which I’ll soon be conducting a 5-year monitoring assessment is also being used, for much of its route, as a snowmobile trail.  It’s a cultural resource, and it’s a recreational resource.  The inherent contradiction in those two uses has to be somehow resolved.


The Conclusion

In brief then, since being in New Hampshire, I’ve found a beautiful area, full of history, and full of people who live, work and play in among the marks of that history.  The National Forest really is an archaeological and historical preserve.  And one that, perhaps more than any other, presents an opportunity to work out the role that archeological material has to play in our lives.  That’s because the concept of multiple use forces the issue.  With that, I’ll conclude the formal part of our program.  But feel free to wander at will about our interpretative photo trail (below) at your leisure.  Thanks for reading!

The Self-Guided Tour

Where the Research Happens


Before I go into an area to survey, I check these big books of USGS topo maps.  On them is marked every known site.  And, on plastic overlays, every survey on record is demarcated.  That way, you have an idea going in what’s there, and some notion of what areas have already been covered.  Details on every site and survey (some more detailed than others) can be found in the file drawers.  There is an online database as well.  The Forest Service is making a nationwide transition to a new resource database that articulates with GIS.  Much of the information in the drawers is on that database (ported over from it’s predecessor).  But the digital records are incomplete.  Helping to flesh those out are one of mine and Eric’s responsibilities.  Of course, I’ve got my own GIS map going that has a lot of this information as well.

Apple Grove at a 19th-Century Farmstead Site


This grove of apple trees surrounds what is left of a home place dating at least as far back as the 1860’s.  We know that because an early atlas indicates a structure at this spot.  Forest biologists maintain a number of such groves for wildlife.  This one has not been maintained, as maybe you can tell (though there is talk of revitalizing it).  In fact, it’s so grown up here that you could trip over the barn foundations nearby and not realize what you had found.  Jonathan tells me that the CCC were also in the business of planting apples groves.  That’s a hemlock on the left, a Beech on the right, and a young Maple sapling growing in the center.  The chimerical curves of the apple trunks, along with their relatively delicate leaves and flaky bark, help them to stand out.

Ervin’s First Find


This isn’t the best photo of a cellar hole (actually, photographing them takes a little more thought than snapping a vacation picture).  But, I was totally going to include this cellar hole, because it’s the first one I located that wasn’t in our records.  It isn’t situated next to any road either.  At least, no road is shown on any map (historic or otherwise), and no road is readily discernible on the ground.  That’s a little unusual for farmsteads.  They are almost always along roads.  That’s how most of them have been found.  This one, however, I found thanks to the brand new LiDAR coverage that the forest had just made available.  The area is just too big for one person working alone to cover in its entirety, and still stop and map and flag and do research and reporting, and attend meetings and do public outreach, etc.  (all of the other cool and valuable experiences included in this job).  The forest is not quite fully LiDAR covered.  Eric can’t use it, because the wilderness has no coverage.  Just where his coverage starts, LiDAR stops.  I guess I should stop turning to him and exclaiming, “Guess what I just found on LiDAR!”  Don’t say that word.  What word?  I cannot say!  How can I not say the word, if you won’t tell me what it is …

Getting the coverage is a little tricky, says Andy (the Forest soil scientist, whose efforts are largely responsible for the LiDAR coverage).  It’s obtained from low altitude overhead flights.  But, you have to do it when there are no leaves AND there is no snow.   In New Hampshire, that can leave a short time window.

Historic Road with Several Farmsteads Along It


You might not be able to tell from the photo, but on the ground, this road clearly stands out.  It appears on an 1860 map.  It hasn’t been used in some time, and large sections appear to be missing.  You can’t tell from the photo, but it’s lined by stone walls on both sides.

Following a LiDAR Track with my Garmin


Once I digitize what might be a road on the LiDAR image, I can then download it to the GPS device and try to follow it.  Things can be a little off.  I don’t think the LiDAR’s the problem (it has sub-meter accuracy).  But the GPS is less precise, especially if you’re on the move (such as when you’re trying to follow a road).  Hopefully, the road (once found) is discernible enough to follow without a GPS.  But, they have a way of playing out on you, and then popping back up again.


Archaeology of a Logging Camp

I’ll sing you a song

Of saws and sardine cans,

Of can dumps and ax heads,

An old wood-burning stove.

A tipped over pail.

Throw in an empty bottle of lager.

And there you have the leavings of a New England logger.

My very first new find was what is probably an old logging camp.  What’s that?  Very good!  Yes, there is a road involved.  An old road that runs to this camp, or away from it, depending on your point of view.  It runs all over the place.  That is, it had me running all over the place.  And a hot day for running it was.

What is This?


This contraption sports a set of opposing leaf springs, such as you might find on the undercarriage of a cart.  It apparently had a frame that is missing.  I still haven’t figured what exactly it was.

Another angle


Stuff I Wish I had Photographs For

If you’ve never take a little tour of old farming equipment, do that sometime, and you’ll gain a new perspective on why people might have abandoned the family farm.  Those people worked hard.

I also found what I think is a old boiler for a small steam engine(at a different spot).  Sorry, I left the photo at work.  Just another teaser.

One day I found what seemed like half of a house foundation at the base of a fairly steep slope.  There was a pile of homemade bricks (a hearth, I think) in the middle, and taking up at least half of that. I pondered and puzzled and paced.  You know, said my dad (who seems to understand everything instantly), people sometimes built houses onto a slope.  They’d prop up the low end.  Jonathan added the next day.  Yes, I’ve seen this.  They would excavate out of the hill, and use the soil and rocks to build up the low part.  You can even do it such a way as to leave a hole for a stone-lined cellar, the whole thing being constructed in layers.  It can be easier than digging down into a flat surface.  Well, I’ll be dogged.  Don’t I feel uneducated, uncultured and incompetent.  Does this stuff have information potential?  Umm.  Yes.  Knowledge ain’t butter on a biscuit.  It’s unevenly distributed.


Watch Your Step!


Many New Hampshire farmsteaders dug shallow wells, often just a meter or two from the house.  I think I measured one at about 3 meters deep.  There is generally a perched water table that the settlers could tap into.  They would line the hole with stones to keep it from collapsing.  Many have filled in over time, but there are a number that are still pretty pristine, like this one.


The Granite State


Granite is an igneous rock that crystallizes deep in the Earth’s crust, and it’s the most common type of rock found in the Whites.  Granite is a mixture of several constituents.  The gray-appearing stuff is quartz.  Potassium feldspars are responsible for the pink.  Biotite is a kind of mica that provides the black part of the characteristic ‘salt and pepper’ appearance.  Metallic, sparkling mica is also very common in the area.


Raw Material

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Large chunks of crystalline quartz are common.  Quartz is believed to have been the most commonly used raw material for making stone tools.  Thus, a significant outcropping of quartz might signal that an area is a good place to look for prehistoric sites.


My Survey Area

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An overview of the area where the big timber sale will take place.  Most of it is beyond the line of hills.

Bald Knob

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There’s no trail going to the top of Bald Knob.  But the bushwhack is worth it.

A More Impressive Cellar Hole

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This house was substantially larger than the one pictured earlier.  That’s a hearth in the center.


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