Narragansett Town on Salt Pond

Narragansett Town on Salt Pond

By HHA Member Theresa Prescott

For over 20 years, Public Archaeology Lab’s Jay Waller has been piecing together the lives and activities of Native Americans before European contact. My husband (Rick Prescott) and I recently took a course entitled “Rhode Island’s Cultural Landscape” with Mr. Waller at URI’s Osher Lifelong Learning Center. We learned a number of things about Native American history in Rhode Island and archaeological methods, but the most striking was the finding of a Narragansett “otan” (town) on Salt Pond in Narragansett, dating from 1300 to 1400 AD.

Called Archaeological Site RI 110, the town rests on the upper portion of Salt Pond just south of Commodore Perry Highway and could be the most significant pre-European contact Native American discovery on the east coast, providing evidence of maize cultivation and of long-term occupation before European contact.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, PAL (The Public Archaeology Lab in Pawtucket) was retained to go out and research the site (it is just behind the Stop and Shop in Narragansett). The site provided evidence of daily activity and extended human occupation, including such features as storage pits, refuse pits, human burials, a dog burial and evidence of at least 20 dwellings. Artifacts included points and bone needles. (Note that a feature is a type of material remains that cannot be removed from a site, such as roasting pits, fire hearths, house floors or post molds. An artifact is any object made, modified or used by people).

Mr. Waller and the other PAL archaeologists had discovered the largest and best preserved Native American settlement on the east coast, a focal point for trade and significant food production for the Narragansetts. Charred animal and fish bones were dug up alongside shell middens, demonstrating hunting and cooking at the site, as well as evidence of berries and other plants.

RI 110 is at an ideal location at the head of the pond, near a fresh water source, other ponds and rivers, and is very close to the coast itself. Available resources include: fruits, nuts, birds, mammals, marine mammals and fish, reptiles, and shellfish, all located within a five minute walk. What was most significant to the archaeologists was clear evidence of varied and numerous structures, and the significant usage of maize, or corn.

Until the discovery of RI 110, many archaeologists did not believe that maize played a significant role in Native American life, believing that maize cultivation developed just after European contact. However, 78 kernels of corn were found in the first week of digging at RI 110, providing proof that corn was a significant part of the Narragansett diet. More kernels weren’t found because the Narragansetts ground and pulverized their corn, making it unsuitable for preservation. Maize cultivation has been found all along coastal sites in our area, including Ninigret Pond.

Evidence of nearly 20 dwellings were found at RI 110, making it the most concentrated collection of permanent structures at a Native American site on the east coast. The town encompassed a wide range of structures, from round and rectangular to oval in shape, ranging in size, mostly in the 10-20 square meter range. Evidence at the site suggests that it was occupied from between two and four years. The Narragansett Tribe has stated that the tribal interpretation is that the site is an ancient medicine compound of the Turtle clan.

According to the history of the Narragansett in the area, the name “Narragansett” means ‘people of the small point,’ which may have referred to Point Judith. When Roger Williams asked further about their name on his journey throughout Rhode Island, the Narragansetts brought him to Sugarloaf Hill in Wakefield, and pointed to a passage where there was a Native American settlement in Point Judith Pond they called “Nanihigonset”. Point Judith Pond is the place where the Narragansett believe they started and developed as a people.