WELLFLEET — Driving northbound on Bound Brook Island Road in Wellfleet last week, travelers were greeted with a peculiar sight: a number of workers in reflective vests sifting through buckets of sand in what appeared to be the driveway of Bound Brook Farm.
These workers weren’t panning for gold — they were looking for something potentially much more valuable.
The Cape Cod National Seashore conducted an archaeological dig on a small parcel of land abutting the road, as part of the final stages of a rare land swap between the Seashore and a private landowner. Although the team did not find any significant artifacts, this episode reveals how the National Park Service approaches land acquisition. It also sheds light on the Outer Cape’s archaeological history.
Lisa Brown, the owner of Bound Brook Farm, owns a few hundred square feet of land on the western side of Bound Brook Island Road, a plot that will eventually be flooded as part of the Herring River Tidal Restoration Project. Meanwhile, the Seashore owns a slightly smaller plot just across the street, on what would appear to be Brown’s driveway. So, the two parties initiated a swap just over two years ago. That process is still ongoing — held up, in part, by the need to undertake a full archaeological survey of the land.
“Before we do a land exchange, we have to make sure we’re not giving away land with natural or cultural resources that are exceptional,” said Park Planner Lauren McKean. Archaeologists who visited the site last winter decided further investigation was needed.
After a detailed survey on Oct. 28, contractors from Public Archaeology Labs, based in Pawtucket, R.I., found no objects of historical or cultural significance on the Seashore land. This means that, after the findings have been submitted to the Mass. Historical Commission, if the land exchange is approved by state and federal authorities, Brown and the Seashore will be able to swap the two parcels.
Though the archeologists didn’t find anything of note, they very well could have. The Outer Cape is rich in Native and early American history, which means there are hundreds of archaeological sites in the area, many of them still undiscovered.
“We have around 230 known archeology sites from Provincetown down to Eastham on National Seashore land,” said Park Historian Bill Burke, and, he added, “that’s just scratching the surface.”
The site of last week’s dig was in a zone particularly well situated to hold archaeological resources.
“There are certain parts of the Cape that are considered more sensitive for archaeology, meaning there’s a high likelihood that there are sites,” said Burke. “That sensitivity is driven by what you and I would want if we had to go out and start a village site today.” The Herring River, he pointed out, would have been an important food source for Native American people.
Despite the Outer Cape’s archeological richness, there aren’t teams of surveyors scouring every square mile. That’s for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Park Service cannot infringe on private property.
Then, too, archaeology, is by its nature destructive. “The philosophy of archaeology in the Park Service is that we’re not out to find everything,” said Burke. “We’re out to protect what we have.”