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THE AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST ONLINE

A Search for and Recovery of "Toss Pieces" at the Vail Habitation Site. Oxford County, Maine

Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
North Andover, Massachusetts
American Society for Amateur Archaeology

Investigators of Palaeo-American habitation sites should not neglect to excavate the "barren" margins of artifact concentrations (loci).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalDuring 1980 in the course of excavating Locus H — a tent-site on the southern margin of the Vail fluted point Palaeo-American site, northwestern highland Maine — a fluted point preform was discovered lying well outside the main artifact concentration. This specimen (V. 5677) had been abandoned during manufacture because of a plunging channel flake that carried away its tip. It is illustrated in the corpus of bifaces from the Vail site (Gramly 2009: 81).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe preform lay several meters west of Locus H and was unaccompanied by any other stone artifact. It came to light upon my shovel blade while cutting narrow ditches to lead away rainwater, which had accumulated after a heavy shower.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe recovery of the fluted point was a welcome surprise although I was chided by field crew members for being a careless digger who did not use proper technique. To some degree, this teasing was justified, for we excavators had assumed this sector to be barren of remains and believed that the edge of the habitation locus had been reached. Meter squares aligned in a row on that bearing yielded no artifacts — not even a flake.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhy then was such a large, significant object lying there? Were there others? The possibility that we might be overlooking Palaeo-American artifacts was disquieting. We were pressed for time then, and I was unable to expand our excavations into the presumed "barren" sector of Locus H. Doubts about the thoroughness of the job we had done nagged me for years. Eventually I arrived at an hypothesis that all the ancient tent-sites at Vail, not just Locus H, may have had a "back yard" where large refuse was thrown. Worthless, exhausted and broken stone tools might have been tossed among this litter. If I had discovered one of these "toss pieces" at Locus H, surely other specimens awaited discovery "behind" the principal, repeatedly occupied, dwelling loci at Vail. These loci (A, B, C, D, E and F — see Figure 1) offered the best prospects; by contrast Loci G and H, which had been occupied for only a single season, would have few toss pieces.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalFinally, twenty-three years later, at a time of relatively low water at Aziscohos Lake, it was possible to access Loci A, B, and D and to explore presumed barren sectors to their "rear." The rear areas faced away from the ancient river that once flowed past the encampment. Areas close to the ancient river channel, I felt, had been needed for processing carcasses of the many hundreds of caribou that were killed every season (Gramly 2010).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalA crew of seasoned excavators — all senior Members of the American Society for Amateur Archaeology — was convened at the Vail site during late October, 2003 (see Figure 2). Because the season was well advanced with the threat of snow at any moment, work began immediately upon our arrival at the site. We hoped to test my working hypothesis about toss pieces by stripping off eroded sands that had been generated by waves and ice and excavating intact forest soils that were preserved beneath.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalA triangular area "behind" Locus B was staked out first, and the eroded sands or lag deposits were removed with trowels and sieved. The area measured 36 square meters and connected grid points S23W52, S23W46, and S35W52. Much of the area proved to have an intact forest podzol with A and B zones that had developed since the Palaeo-American occupation; humus even survived in a few places.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe sieved lag deposits yielded hundreds of small flakes that had been washed about by lake waters as well as a few larger objects — among them fragmentary fluted points. Later in the laboratory of the Maine State Museum, to my delight, I fitted these point fragments to catalogued specimens that had been collected during the 1970s and 1980s.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe original podzol was investigated next. It sloped away {downward} slightly from the center of Locus B. The soil was troweled carefully and passed through a 6 mm (1/4-inch) mesh. No flakes were encountered, and evidently no tool-making or maintenance had taken place there, nor could it be argued that "sweepings" from elsewhere within the locus had been discarded at this spot.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAfter one day's labor we were rewarded with the discovery of an oval pit feature that was bracketed by grid points S23.75W48.40, S23.30W49.25, S25.65W40.20 and S24.70W48.25. This obviously man-made pit was designated Feature 3 (see Figure 3). Its measurements were 1.7 m by 1.1 m with a maximum depth of 20 cm. Its sides were steep, and it had a flat bottom. Against the western edge we were gratified to recover the base of a fluted point made of extremely weathered argillite (V.13183). Amazing to relate, this fragment later was fitted to a tip-section that had been collected by Francis Vail, Jr. during the 1970s. This complete fluted point, missing only an ear, appears to have been reworked as a knife and discarded after breakage.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalProcessing of the feature fill yielded a small series of chert flakes and tool fragments plus angular waste of felsite. The discovery of the pit and its contents was a bonus that we hardly expected. Judging by its shape, size and scanty contents, Feature 3 was likely used to cache perishables and may have been employed by the occupants of Locus B during the nine or ten years that they visited the Vail site. Feature 2, which is associated with Locus A, may have functioned similarly. We realized that other cache pits must lie behind Loci D, E, and F. The cache for Locus C, on the other hand, was later found approximately 15 m to the rear of this tent-site (Gramly 2010: 107, 125). It had been constructed of large boulders and had lain open and exposed to the elements until the construction of the Aziscohos Lake dam.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThree toss pieces were found behind Locus B. Compared to the average size of flaked stone artifacts in the Vail assemblage, they are large, are handy missiles, and might be dangerous to bare feet. The largest is a quadrilateral scraper (V. 13186) with converging scraper edges that form two broad points (Figure 4). It exhibits a low luster from prolonged usage and appears to be Normanskill chert from an outcrop within the Hudson River valley, New York State. Nearly equal in size but thicker and, therefore, heavier is a felsite flake tool (V.13185) shown in Figure 5. Likewise, it exhibits converging edges and two broad points (one is damaged). Much less unifacial trimming was required to give this tool its overall form. The third artifact (V. 13187) — the smallest of the lot — is a denticulate with a dulled or backed edge (Figure 6). It, too, is greenish-gray and tan Normanskill chert.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe recovery of these three artifacts, which likely would have been overlooked had our standard procedures for investigating the Vail Palaeo-American encampment been followed, supported the hypothesis about the existence of toss pieces.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalInspired by our success, we cleared another triangular area behind Locus B making the total area of our excavation 72 square meters and giving it a rectangular shape (6 m X 12 m). As luck would have it, additional toss pieces were not encountered.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSince the level of the lake had begun to rise, we turned directly to Locus D, which of the three loci — A, B, and D — is the lowest in elevation. There was no time to lose, and a rectangular block measuring 6 X 10 meters and bracketed by grid-points S38W58, S38W52, S48W52, and S48W58, was laid out, and the excavation of forest podzol commenced. No toss pieces were discovered; however, the block that was available to us because of rising lake level was not centrally located behind the locus and well positioned for discoveries. I believe that toss pieces and another pit feature may await future excavators of Locus D.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOur final operation of the 2003 excavation was to stake out a 5 m X 10 m block to the rear (grid east) of Locus A. In part it encompassed excavations that were made in 1980 and 1982 (see Figure 1). The lag deposits here yielded a few artifacts, but the underlying forest podzol had been severely impacted by erosion. Neither toss pieces nor any ancient features were found. Our intention to expand excavations in the direction of Feature 2 was foiled by heavy snow and blustery weather on October 21st, which brought this season's fieldwork to a halt.

The Meaning of Toss Pieces
Amateur Archaeologist JournalDisposing of larger, sharp objects, which might cause injury, within a "toss zone" at hunter-gatherer camps has been discussed in detail by Lewis R. Binford (1983: 144-194). The identification of toss zones, dooryard dumps, bed areas, hearths and other features is critical for determining the pattern of Palaeo-American encampments and ultimately the number of people who occupied a camp.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalWe have established the existence of a toss zone at Vail site Locus B, and it may be assumed that all eight tent-sites at the encampment had them. While their existence is hardly a surprise, the fact that pit features used for caching may also be discovered within toss zones is fresh information.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalBecause of the rigors of the climate 12,700 years ago at the Vail site, presumably its ancient occupants spent a great deal of time inside tents or immediately outside their entrances where animal carcases could be processed. As a rule, it seems that hazardous and noisome refuse would have been deposited within the least trafficked areas of the camp. Spaces behind or to the rear of tents and away from entrances would have been good places for discarding articles. Storage pits, which likely were visited very seldom by tent occupants, could have been sited there, too. In such a position they were well away from work areas but still within short walking distance. Also, these pits were within sight of neighboring tents and could be safeguarded.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalKnowing that modern hunter-gatherers routinely structure their camps and reserve specific areas for refuse disposal, suggests that no isolated artifact at an archaeological site was unintentionally or randomly deposited. Every artifact, such as the fluted point that came to light during my 1980 trenching of Vail site Locus H, has the potential to reveal something about the patterning of an encampment if we but take the time to interpret it. The art of the archaeologist lies in paying attention to these small details and wringing from them information about ancient human behavior.

References Cited


Binford, Lewis R.

1983Amateur Archaeologist Journal
In Pursuit of the Past: Decoding the Archaeological Record. Thames and Hudson. New York.

Gramly, Richard Michael (editor)

2009Amateur Archaeologist Journal
Palaeo-Americans and Palaeo-Environment at the Vail Site, Maine. Persimmon Press. North Andover, Massachusetts.

Gramly, Richard Michael

2010Amateur Archaeologist Journal
The Vail habitation and kill site: Implications for Palaeo- American behavior and band size. Ohio Archaeologist 60(3): 4-17.

Captions and Figures


Figure 1. Map of the Vail Palaeo-American site showing areas of 2003 excavations (reddened) at Loci A, B and D. Note also Locus H within the southern sector of the encampment.

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Figure 2. Participants in the 2003 Vail site excavations shown well bundled against the late October weather of highland Maine.

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Figure 3. ASAA Lifetime Member, Robert Knight, stands by the freshly excavated Feature 3 — a shallow storage pit — at Locus B, Vail site.

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Figure 4. Quadrilateral scraper made of Normanskill chert (V. 13186) — a toss piece from Locus B, Vail site. Greatest dimension = 76 mm.

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Figure 5. Quadrilateral scraper made of felsite — likely rhyolitic in chemical composition — from Locus B (V.13185). Greatest dimension = 74 mm.

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Figure 6. Backed denticulate of Normanskill chert (V.13187), Locus B, Vail site. Length = 59 mm.

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