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Tribe says artifacts discovered should be preserved

Representatives of the Wampanoag Aquinnah (Gay Head) tribe say that spiritually significant and long-maintained stone features discovered on a Kingston site planned for new sports fields are an important link to their people’s ancestral past and should be preserved.

“These are our ways of life,” Bettina Washington, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Aquinnah, based in Martha’s Vineyard, said of the “stone row” discovered in a recent exploratory dig on the town’s Hall Property. “It’s a continuing process. We have been here 10,000 years.”

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Washington spoke at a town selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, after Wampanoag representatives were invited to discuss their concerns over plans to build playing fields on the site.

After three members of the tribe spoke of the cultural and spiritual significance of the stone feature found on the portion of the town property intended for soccer fields, board chairwoman Elaine Fiore proposed holding a “roundtable” meeting with other town officials and tribal officers to discuss preservation of the feature.

A meeting of selectmen with members of the town’s recreation commission — the agency planning to build sports fields on the site — historic commission, conservation commission, and Wampanoag officials is planned for Thursday at 4 p.m. in town hall.

The “stone row” discovered last month in the town-funded dig of 1 percent of a 5-acre portion of the Hall Property is a lengthy surface of carefully fitted stones that look like cobblestones built as a marker of the place’s significance, according to the Aquinnah officials. It may be part of a more extensive arrangement than the features excavated so far.

Washington told selectmen the discovery by archeologists raised “considerable concern” for her tribe. She said similar stone piles and rows mark places of spiritual significance for the Wampanoag, who have lived throughout Plymouth County and southeastern New England for thousands of years.

‘Sacred places — they feel different. Somebody built a stone row in a very important way. The ancestors are reminding me to be very present.’ — Elizabeth James Perry, Aquinnah

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“Ultimately, only the tribe can make the determination that the feature is significant,” Washington said.

The town acquired the Hall Property four years ago for recreation and conservation purposes. The town’s recreation commission, backed by a youth sports alliance, said the town needed more land for sports fields and won financial support at Town Meeting for its plan to use part of the property for fields.

But the town also ordered an initial archeological survey of the property and followed it with two exploratory 1-percent excavations, funded through the Community Preservation Act, that have produced substantive results. Public Archeology Lab discovered an undisturbed site where human beings lived continuously for an estimated 8,000 years — “a rare intact location of Native American habitation occupied during multiple time periods,” according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission — producing thousands of artifacts and promising valuable research findings.

The archeologists’ report cited evidence of house structures dating back to a period from 3,000 to 10,000 years ago. Exploring a rare human habitation site that has not been disturbed by plowing, digging, erosion, or development gives archeologists a chance to examine changes in lifestyle and technology over long periods and gain an insight into how the evolution of human society in North America took place.

Following the report’s publication, local preservation backers argued that a “world class” archeological site in Kingston should be preserved for its cultural and research value and would prove a boon to the town. But a move to preserve the entire Hall Property — which would make sports fields impossible — failed at Town Meeting in April.

Recreation commissioner Andy Davis said then that the amount of space available for fields had dwindled to a few acres. Other youth sports backers said it would be “unfair” to deny them the fields after their plans had been approved by the town and money spent on their planning.

But Town Meeting approved funds for another exploratory dig, despite significant opposition, and that dig uncovered the stone row that led Washington and other Wampanoag officials to contact the town with their concerns over losing a “sacred entity.”

Elizabeth James Perry, a senior cultural resource monitor for the Aquinnah, said the site “seemed a very significant place” from her first visit. “Sacred places — they feel different,” she said. “Somebody built a stone row in a very important way. The ancestors are reminding me to be very present.”

Jonathan Perry, another Aquinnah cultural resources monitor, said spaces such as the stone row teach “a better understanding of our connection to all things” and “to protect things that are greater than all of us.”

In response, the Kingston selectmen said they needed to bring other town stake-holders into the discussion.

“I would like to see us get involved and have a dialogue just to see if there is any way to preserve this for them as well as for us,” Fiore said.

Kingston residents attending the selectmen’s meeting appeared sympathetic to the preservation cause, and some remained after the meeting to thank the Wampanoag representatives for coming to the meeting to express their concerns. Some said the town could find another site for the fields.

“Can we stop and reflect on what we’re doing?” resident Alan Spence said during the meeting’s public comment segment. “We have an opportunity to save something for the education of our children.”

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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