Digging in the Fishbowl

UNH Professor Meghan Howey is leading an ongoing archaeological dig on campus, located next to Congreve Hall, in relation to the Oyster River Massacre. Her research program, funded by Hayes Chair “The James H. Hayes and Clare Short Hayes Chair in the Humanities Solicitation for expressions of interest,” offers full community engagement for students and volunteers, who have the opportunity to earn certificates as they do more fieldwork and lab work. Howey also hires students with previous field experience, who can earn compensation to work as field supervisors. This is a rare opportunity for archaeological undergrads to gain leadership experience.

Megan Howey and her team (former student Craig Brown, volunteer archaeologist Dick Lunt and historian Diane Fiske) have been working on the region’s history and archaeology for a long time. They have completed two full field seasons surveying and excavating early colonial sites with a focus on Oyster River in the early colonial period, like the Garrison sites that lined the river in the 1600s. In 1694, the Oyster River region was a frontier for global geopolitics: the French vs. the British during King William’s War. The French had strong alliances with the Abenaki peoples – the indigenous peoples of the region – and the British had signed what seemed to be a highly partisan treaty (Treaty of Pemaquid) with the indigenous communities. On July 18, roughly 250 Abenaki peoples, under the command of French soldier Claude-Sébastien de Villieu, attacked British settlements on either side of Oyster River, killing or capturing nearly 100 settlers and destroying numerous Garrison houses and dwellings. This attack is known as the Oyster River Massacre, also known as the Raid on Oyster River. But there is more to the massacre then what has been outlined in historical contexts. Howey argues that this story of hostility between indigenous and British settlers is far too simplistic. “There were complicated relations between people that did not always follow a simple script of fighting…it was more dynamic than we can capture with history alone – the material record tells a far more nuanced and interesting story,” she said.

In an interview with UNH’s Center for the Humanities, Howey credits one of her longstanding research interests as an archaeologist as “the materialization of the dialectical relationship between people and their landscapes – how individuals inhabit landscape and it inhabits them.” In the same interview, she relays that her research is focused on working with natural scientists to interpret ecosystem conditions (within context of human population influence) to improve public understanding of anthropogenic change in current time. She elaborates, “We must also be asking what social, economic, and ideological processes led to our current state of dominant, potentially catastrophic, impact on the earth.”

But archaeologists like Howey are running into a persistent problem. Several of the earliest sites are vulnerable to sea-level rise, meaning there is a possibility of losing a significant portion of history. Earlier this year, Howey told Jason Moon of NHPR that land is “quite literally washing away, and it’s gone, whatever the artifacts were with it – they’ve been, over the years, just washed away.” Howey combined sea-level rise projections from climate scientists with the various historic sites along the Seacoast to find that as many as 1 in 7 of the (known) historic sites are at risk. She faces an “archaeological race against time.”

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