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On the Job

This archeologist’s job is about stories, not stuff

“It’s important that we recognize and embrace this history and protect it, which doesn’t necessarily mean digging it up,” Berkland said.Matthew J. Lee/ Globe staff/File 2006

Ellen Berkland really digs her job. As state archeologist for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, she has endless opportunities for discovery, with half a million acres with a 12,000-year history of “peopling” under her watch. The DCR system includes parks, forests, beaches, skating rinks, swimming pools, golf courses, and ski venues, but under these lands lies unexplored history. “Archeology is associated with a treasure-seeking mentality, and sure it’s cool and romantic, but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about the stories and not the stuff,” said Berkland, 57. She’s tasked with protecting possibly significant properties; whether it’s a proposed fence, tree planting, or power line, if there’s a culturally significant find underneath, a red flag goes up. “I have found a Native American hearth from a thousand years ago 2 inches below the surface,” said Berkland, who added that previous land use helped expose the artifact. She spoke about searching for clues to the past from the Cape to the Berkshires.

“Massachusetts doesn’t have cliff dwellings or tangible burial mounds that other places around the country have. The people who lived here didn’t leave much of a footprint. It’s almost an invisible record. It’s important that we recognize and embrace this history and protect it, which doesn’t necessarily mean digging it up.


“The first people tended to settle near large glacial lakes, then rivers and streams became highways for these people. Dighton Rock, held in a museum at Dighton Rock State Park near Fall River, is one landmark in our collection. It’s one of the oldest pieces of Native American art work, dating back thousands of years. 3-D images of the rock are currently being examined by petroglyph (rock-art) experts as we create an accurate chronology of the rock through time.

“Other findings are unexpected, like a sacred ritual site located at Caddy Memorial Park in Quincy. Staff were instructed to look for red soil, burned bones, or stone tools, but the site was only found when a playground slide was about to be installed. As archeologists, we conduct research and investigate the history of a piece of land, but until we ‘ground-truth’ — actually dig and excavate — we often don’t know what’s below ground.


“I have been passionate about the past forever; my grandparents both lived to be 100. They told me about electricity first coming into their home or the women’s first vote. Now my favorite part of the job is being out in the field as well as sharing the stories generated from the archeological record with the public.

“My least favorite part? I’m not too keen on running into a bear in the middle of the woods. This happened when I was leading a crew through a very high cornfield in Holyoke; we came upon a bear and her cubs. Needless to say, we turned around and ran for our lives. I now carry a can of bear repellant spray, courtesy of DCR.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy.atoji@gmail.com.