Exploring Ancient Submerged Native American Cultural Sites


The University of Rhode Island research vessel Endeavor will depart Sunday, June 5 for a four-day expedition to study submerged Native American cultural sites in Rhode Island Sound.

John W. King, a professor of marine geology at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, will lead the trip, which is part of a five-year $2 million project to identify underwater ancient sites on the Outer Continental Shelf.

The study is a team effort involving GSO, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office, and the state Coastal Resources Management Council.

The goal is to develop “best practice’’ national protocols for identifying and protecting ancient Native American cultural sites preserved on the ocean floor. Known as “drowned sites,’’ these areas were submerged by rising sea levels caused by melting ice sheets over the last 23,000 years. Scientists—and tribal oral historians—believe Native Americans lived there when the area was dry land.

The team’s findings will help the federal government, tribal communities and states carefully evaluate offshore wind-energy projects on the continental shelf, and their impact on cultural sites. The study is in its fourth year.

“The cruise has two goals. First, we’re developing survey methods for identifying and avoiding or mitigating damage to these ancient sites,’’ says King. “Second, we’re trying to train tribal historic preservation officers in our scientific methods, while also learning about tribal interpretations of features observed on submerged landscapes.’’

Besides King, others participating on the trip are: David Robinson, a marine archaeologist at GSO; Brian Jordan, a program officer at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; Doug Harris, of the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office; GSO students and staff members; and representatives of tribes in the Northeast, including the Nipmucs, Wampanoags and Micmacs.

The ship will be equipped with telepresence technology so researchers on the vessel will be able to communicate via satellite with scientists at URI’s Inner Space Center on the Narragansett Bay Campus. Tribal members will also be present at the center during the telecasts.

“This is a unique opportunity for scientists, tribes and federal and state officials to work together on this important issue,’’ says King. “If successful, we will significantly improve the process to evaluate off-shore development projects, including those involving wind energy.’’

Researchers will first conduct surveys of sediments below the sea floor to pinpoint potential sites for sampling. Once identified, they will take 20-foot long core samples to find out what’s in the sediment.

“The sediment can confirm if the environment back then was marine or dry land,’’ says King. “The core can also tell us if humans were in the area. If we detect certain kinds of pollen, for example, that would indicate humans probably cleared the land to live.’’

The public can view the expedition’s activities by visiting Inner Space Center.

Since its christening in 1976, the Endeavor has embarked on more than 500 scientific cruises, ranging from the waters off Block Island to the Galapagos Islands in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. King’s cruise is sponsored by the Rhode Island Endeavor Program and the Northeastern Regional Ocean Council.

Photo of Endeavor by Nora Lewis

Media Contact: Elizabeth Rau, 401-874-4894