To the untrained eye, the hefty palm-sized stone might simply go unnoticed in a field or a forest, the notches in the side random and the tapered edge seemingly worn down from years of exposure to man and the elements.
But to the expert eye of archaeologist Gail R. Golec, the notches tell the story of how the stone was tied to a handle to make an ancient tool, the chiseled edge carved by hands thousands of years ago.
Several of these “groundstone tools,” as Golec refers to them, such as a net sinker and an ax head, were discovered in Walpole in 2008, when artifacts were found beneath the soil at a private location. The site was fully excavated from 2014-15, revealing fire pits and objects such as chips of stone from more tools.
For Native Americans, the Walpole and Bellows Falls area was a navigation route, appealing in its natural landscapes beside the Connecticut River and Fall Mountain. Tribal populations were drawn to the falls of the river, says Golec, returning year after year, and in time burials took place there, marking the area as culturally important. Historical records have indicated the area to have been traveled by the larger Western Abenaki and the smaller Sokoki tribes.
An Alstead native, the identity of a population formed by place and culture is a central theme of Golec’s life.
“My whole family is from the area of North Walpole and Bellows Falls,” she said, “and I grew up close to both sides of my family. There was lots of storytelling about the old days and I was always interested in history. I was a PBS nerd as a kid. I remember watching a show about the history of Pompeii and I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
Golec, 38, pursued her penchant for the past, earning her anthropology degree in 1999 from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., where she also trained in forensic anthropology and zooarchaeology. After graduating, she spent a year working for the New York State Museum in its anthropology lab. This job stemmed from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, a federal law requiring all museums that receive federal funding to return Native American skeletal remains to their tribes of origin. Golec cataloged, photographed and documented the official return of skeletal elements for archives.
Her time in New York complete, she worked on a job-by-job basis as a field archaeologist, traveling to different excavation sites in New England, before returning to Walpole and joining Monadnock Archaeological Consulting LLC of Stoddard.
Company owner Robert Goodby said Golec was one of the first people he hired when he opened his business in 2004. The two had worked together previously for another company.
“She’s a skilled field archaeologist,” Goodby said. “She can take on complicated sites and she’s had a lot of great field experience. She’s also fun to work with. She’s down to earth and has a wicked sense of humor.”
Golec was one of the main project archaeologists in 2009 and 2010 at the excavation site of the new Keene Middle School when artifacts were found during its construction on Maple Avenue. Prior to construction, the school district first had to do an archaeological review of the site required by the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees permits for construction near wetlands. She was central to the dig, Goodby said, noting that it was the “site of a lifetime.” During the summer of 2010, the team worked seven days a week for seven weeks straight to keep the construction on schedule.
It was a block excavation done in meter units, using tight control that enabled the archaeologists to pinpoint the depth and age of the artifacts they found. What was found was a cluster of four ovals, believed to be individual tents of Native Americans, the short-term living quarters for a small group of hunter-gatherers following a herd of caribou. The team was able to make maps of these four different homes from the end of the Ice Age 12,500 years ago and study the activities of the hunters by examining what had been left behind.
Monadnock Archaeological Consulting has finished its report of the excavation, according to Goodby, and the artifacts are now in Concord in the custody of the State Historic Preservation Office, where they’re available for study.
When she moved back home to the Monadnock Region, Golec connected with an old schoolmate, Ben Northcott, whom she had never really known that well during their years together at Fall Mountain Regional High School, and the two eventually married.
Northcott and his brother are the owners of Fuzzy Brothers LLC, a local excavating and gravel-crushing business named after the brothers’ propensity for facial hair. The humorous coincidence of their similar chosen professions is not lost on Golec.
“I’m excavation with a little ‘e,’ ” she joked, “and he’s excavation with a big ‘E.’ ”
On their free days, the couple spend time hiking with their two dogs, Rita and Floyd, keeping an eye out for what some might find morbid — animal skeletons. Golec collects them. She says her collection is up to somewhere from 30 to 40 skeletons at this point. Some are roadkill or specimens given to her by friends aware of her bone-preserving hobby.
“They’re mostly small animals,” she said. “But we did find a moose once out in the woods behind our house.”
Mostly in pieces, she keeps the skeletons in containers and totes in a closet in the couple’s home — and yes, a moose skeleton does fit in a large tote.
“In addition to being a great archaeologist, she’s a great zooarchaeologist,” Goodby said. “She can identify small fragments of bone and recognize which animal they come from. This helps us identify what people were eating. She is also good at analyzing human skeletons.”
An associate professor of anthropology at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, Goodby says Golec teaches a two-hour lab in his Human Origins course so his students can learn to identify the sex and age of skeletons.
When not picking up animal bones, Golec and Northcott can be found taking long country drives, searching out the locations of old secluded cemeteries.
“Wherever there is a cemetery, there used to be a village associated with it,” Golec says, explaining her fascination. “It makes me wonder what happened to them. A cemetery represents the history of a family. ... Cemeteries tell a story about the progression of life.”
Family stories are near and dear to Golec’s heart. She has traced her own genealogy back to the turn of the century, when her ancestors emigrated from Ireland and Poland. A longtime member of The Walpole Players, Golec wrote and directed a play for the local theater group’s Walpole Old Home Days performance in 2014. “A Long Weekend in New Hampshire” is a series of story lines about small-town living.
“It goes back to the stories I heard growing up in the area,” she said. “There are fewer storytellers than there were in my grandmother’s era, and I wanted to preserve the stories and write them down, especially the ones from North Walpole.”
North Walpole, Golec describes, is more closely associated with Bellows Falls than it is with Walpole, and she wanted to document the stories of its residents. As part of her research, she spent time listening to the stories of elderly resident Natalie Nelson, now deceased.
“I enjoy the oral history that comes from talking with older people,” Golec said. “It’s so much fun and I hope to be able to continue to tell their stories in a creative way in the future, maybe through radio.”
From 2012 to 2014, she wrote, directed and acted in a three-episode TV pilot called “Upstaged” for FACT TV, a community TV station in Bellows Falls. The show was about a man from New York City, a failed Broadway producer, who moves to a small town in New Hampshire, hoping to turn it into an artists’ colony and trying to win over the town’s hesitant locals.
The script was based on a play she had written, and Jake and Alex Stradling, two brothers from Bellows Falls, produced, filmed and edited the pilot. There was a very limited budget; locations were donated by local businesses and actors were all volunteers, many from The Walpole Players. There were showings of the pilot at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
“We called in a lot of favors,” Golec said. “Things played out as good as or better than they did in my head. It looked polished and the editing was great. We learned a lot. It was fun to showcase locations in the different communities.”
On hiatus from her stage and screen ventures for the time being, Golec has been knee-deep in a research project studying the early Colonial era of 1700-1750 leading up to the French and Indian War.
“It’s a fascinating time period to research,” Golec said. “It seems like a lot has been written about the Pilgrims and the American Revolution, but there’s less about the in-between years that set the stage for the American Revolution.”
Now in the writing stage of producing the academic papers on her research, she has been putting off the daunting task, admittedly procrastinating this step of the process. With cold weather imminent, she envisions herself stuck in the house, with a dog (or two) and a cat (or two) warming her feet while she writes the winter away.
“I’ve been doing this for years, and I never get tired of finding stuff. It’s exhilarating to be the first person who has touched these objects for thousands of years,” Golec said. “It’s just cool. I like preserving the details and to be witness to it all is awe-inspiring.”