State archaeologist tends to the artifacts of Connecticut’s past

By Judy Benson

Crouched beside one of the many stone walls that crisscross Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown, Brian Jones held one end of a rope threaded into a single-wheeled contraption that resembled a high-tech scooter attached to a computer screen.
While Debbie Surabian, soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, tracked grainy images of what lies underground on a computer screen hanging around her neck, her assistant, Megan McClellan, drove the machine slowly over the lumpy ground.
“The goal here is to locate some unmarked burial sites, and move forward with preservation and possibly removal,” Jones said last week. “There are a lot of these little farm cemeteries throughout our state forests, and the public is very interested in cemeteries. They need to be protected and cared for. People have a lot of attachment to these places.”
Since becoming state archaeologist in 2014, Jones has become familiar with many sites like this around the state, often after local officials contact him with concerns about a particular site in need of protection, as was the case in Voluntown.
Probing remote landscapes with ground-penetrating radar equipment to confirm the existence of graves has been one of the unexpected and more frequent activities of the field work responsibilities of this one-person state office.
“I grew up as an archaeologist as a stone tool specialist,” said Jones, 52, who succeeded Nick Bellantoni in the position after Bellantoni retired. “And it never occurred to me that someone would ask an archaeologist about a cemetery. But in the public's mind, if it's in the ground, it's archaeology."
A reciprocal agreement between his office and the NRCS makes the radar equipment, along with Surabian and McClellan's technical skills, available for cemetery projects. In turn, he investigates NRCS-funded agricultural projects to check for potential damage to archaeological resources before the digging starts.
Jones, of Glastonbury, came to the position after working as a private contract archaeologist in Massachusetts and also working with archaeologist Kevin McBride, director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. The $84,000-per-year post calls for Jones to apply his expertise, hands and feet to a variety of situations.
Included among his duties are doing field research and advising towns on sites threatened by road, gas line and building projects; preserving and organizing artifact collections in his office at the University of Connecticut; teaching volunteer and school groups about archaeology; and answering the daily phone calls and emails from the public about finds in their backyards and local forests. Public outreach, he said, is one of his favorite parts of the job.
“Every day I get pictures of rocks and boulders and sometimes nice projectile points people find gardening, and I let them know how old it is,” he said. “Sometimes when people find something they think is neat, like an old mill site that’s not threatened, they expect me to get excited and come out and start digging. But I tell them there’s no need to run out there with a shovel. The best thing is to leave it in place. And I don’t have room for more artifacts.”
On Monday morning, Jones supervised four volunteers including his mother, Julie Jones, all from the Friends of the State Archaeologist group and armed with toothbrushes and an appreciation for the significance of tiny shards of pottery, pipe and bone. They were spending their morning at his office, cleaning and cataloguing artifacts found last summer in Windsor. The cellar at the 1600s homestead of John Mason, the English Army major who led the massacre of the Pequots in Mystic, had been excavated as part of a field school for volunteers that Jones ran, and yielded a trove of glass, ceramic and metal fragments.
“Obviously, I need their help,” he said of the volunteers. Each was concentrating on the meticulous task of poring through the contents of small brown paper bags filled with shards from the excavation, identifying and labeling them, often consulting Jones for confirmation.
“One of my priorities for the next five years will be getting our collections appropriately organized and housed in one place, where they’ll have more research value. There are master's theses and Ph.D. theses that could be written about some of this stuff.”
Some of the collection is displayed on the Storrs campus at the Connecticut Museum of Natural History (both the state archaeology office and the museum are part of the UConn College of Liberal Arts and Sciences). But a lot of artifacts are tucked away in cabinets and drawers or — in the case of a dugout canoe from Alaska that came from the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport — sitting on the top shelf of the archaeology library in his office.
Instead of being eager to excavate new sites, he said, he advocates documenting a site location and leaving things in place as much as possible, a surer method of preservation than the often destructive processes of traditional archaeology.
“We have too much stuff already,” he said. “There are 5,000 to 8,000 listed archaeological sites in the state, mostly where farmers found artifacts while plowing.”
As a boy growing up in Glastonbury, Jones spent a lot of time in the woods “looking for salamanders and snakes and worms.” Visits to his great uncle Warren Holland in Iowa, a “huge artifact collector,” gave a different focus to his explorations that led him into archaeology.
“He collected a lot of arrowheads and spear points, and I was intrigued about all he could tell from those artifacts about how people lived,” he said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College, he spent a few years traveling in Southeast Asia before advancing his academic credentials in Germany, where he specialized in Stone Age Europe.
He laughs and shakes his head when asked whether the “Indiana Jones” movies of the 1980s influenced his career choice. He doesn’t consider the Harrison Ford character a model — his scientific methods were sloppy, to say the least — though he does credit the movies with helping to reignite the public’s interest in the field.

In Connecticut, he said, the most significant recent archaeological finds his office has been involved in include an 8,000-year-old projectile point found at the Mansfield Dam, and a 1600s home site in Andover unearthed during a road project.
“This was a cross-passage house, an old-fashioned English-style house type never seen before in Connecticut,” Jones said.
In South Glastonbury, Jones identified the location of a 17th-century plantation and worked with the town historical society to recover clay pipe stems, glass bottle fragments, window glass and earthenware.
“To me,” he said, “this is one of the most important recent discoveries in the state, because we know very little about … early colonial life in Connecticut.”
Jones has recently visited the Gungywamp site in Groton, soon to become a state park, and, he hopes, an archaeological preserve. Because of competing ideas about the origins of some of the stone structures there, ranging from those describing it as a Native American ceremonial site to those speculating that they’re the work of 6th-century Irish monks, it will be important to protect the site and mark it with signs that describe the various interpretations, Jones said.
“Gungywamp is an important case,” he said. “I tend to be fair and open to people with different possible explanations. I’m not going to pretend that scientists have all the answers or that I have all the answers. I just want to make sure the site is preserved. The debate about it is now part of its history.”