Shedding light on history

Shedding light on history

Axel and Olivia Leahy, grandchildren of North Smithfield Heritage Association President Richard Keene, help New England Antiquities Research Association Treasurer Dyane Plunkett clear off stones during a recent research trip. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)
Archaeological testing could crack the mystery of North Smithfield’s stone walls

NORTH SMITHFIELD – When Tom Mrva first acquired 48 acres off Rocky Hill Road 17 years ago, he had no idea his land might contain hints to the area’s earliest settlers.

It wasn’t until he put it up for sale recently that he started having conversations with the North Smithfield Heritage Association about the meandering walls and rock formations that crisscross his property. According to the NSHA, the parcel contains the highest concentration of stone features they’ve identified so far in North Smithfield, features that may date back thousands of years.

“I’ve been using the land for 17 years. This stuff was right under my nose, I just never really knew about it,” Mrva said.

Beginning last year, the NSHA Research Team, led by resident Larry Smith, has been mapping stone walls and other features in the hopes of piecing together the history of the town’s landscape. The project, which started in Smith’s own backyard, has since expanded to include various sites across North Smithfield.

The walls themselves are a subject of debate among historians and enthusiasts. While some believe most of New England’s stone walls can be attributed to European settlers, others, including Smith, point to subtle differences in the structures and believe that many are the work of pre-colonial Native Americans or even earlier residents. The question carries weight for groups like the NSHA, whose efforts at historic preservation often depend on the unique nature and significance of the history they uncover.

Thanks to a new partnership, the group is hoping to get some answers on exactly how far back they can trace these sites. Last Thursday, Sept. 10, the NSHA hosted researchers from the University of Washington and Stony Brook University who visited as part of a project coordinated by the New England Antiquities Research Association.

NEARA, as it’s better known, recently invested $20,000 into conducting testing to determine the age of various stone features around the Northeast. Using a method called Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating, they hoped to determine when the structures were built, and, by extension, who built them. When they arrived at the driveway of Mrva’s Rocky Hill Road property Thursday morning, the team was in the midst of a nine-day research trip around New England and New York.

“If we get dates on these stone structures and let’s say it was five, six thousand years old, that tells us it’s not a European settlement,” explained Harvey Buford, a Hopkinton resident and NEARA president.

To conduct their research, the group turned to James Feathers, a University of Washington professor who Buford described as the “pre-eminent luminescence-dating archaeologist in the country.” Sitting in the open hatchback of one of the group’s vehicles as they prepared to head to the site, Feathers explained the science behind the technique.

“You can think of it kind of as a rechargeable battery,” he said.

Some minerals, such as quartz and feldspar, absorb natural radioactivity from their surroundings. When these minerals are exposed to heat or light, they lose that radioactivity, dispersing it in what’s called “luminescence.” By uncovering minerals that have been buried under structures, the researchers hoped to measure that luminescence and determine when the stones were laid.

“In a sense, we’ll be dating construction of the feature,” said Feathers.

While the technique is common across Europe and the Middle East, Feathers said it’s only been used a few times on the East Coast of the United States. The delicate process involves taking samples of rocks or sediment and bringing them back to his lab for testing. Due to the labor intensiveness of the process and the relative scarcity of labs, Feathers said it could be a year or longer before they have answers on the North Smithfield samples.

As the group headed out into the field, Feathers was joined by Marine Fruin and Vesna Kundic, researchers from Stony Brook University who also work in luminescence dating. They soon stopped at a clearing where two stone walls met at a corner piled with stones. A small chamber under the pile formed what NEARA members call a niche.

Pulling out their tools, the group began prodding to find a likely place to dig. They settled on a spot at the base of the wall and Fruin prepared to take a sample. Because a rock’s radiation is lost when it is exposed to light, samples must be collected in almost total darkness. For this, the team used a red-filtered headlamp and a tarp to ensure none of the sample went to waste.

As Fruin disappeared beneath the tarp, other group members spread out to explore the area. Nearby, a historic cemetery and the foundation of a colonial-era house indicated the many layers of history to the property. Richard Keene, president of the North Smithfield Heritage Association, said the group hopes to preserve the property, particularly now that the testing will be able to tell them if their research is on the right track.

“Typically our approach is to contact the property owner and try to convince them to preserve what’s here,” he said.

Mrva seemed on board with the idea and explained the property’s naturally swampy topography already made it an “engineering nightmare” for potential developers. Instead, he said he hopes to find a use that would allow him to preserve its historical features.

“I like the fact that it’s something that could be perceived as the Stonehenge of Rhode Island. That’s pretty exciting,” he said.

Half an hour later, Fruin emerged from beneath the tarp with a small, duct tape-wrapped package in hand. The sample, along with others from around the Northeast, will now make its way to Washington, where researchers will carefully determine its properties. If their theories are correct, the package could hold the key to unlocking a crucial piece of North Smithfield’s history.

“If people could educate themselves more what to look for, they’d be amazed what they can find,” said Mrva.

From left, James Feathers, Vesna Kundic and Marine Fruin, all researchers in the field of luminescence dating, examine the rocks at the base of a stone wall off Rocky Hill Road.
This stone wall is one of several the North Smithfield Heritage Association and New England Antiquities Research Association hope to test to determine its origins.