One Square Mile Johnston: Glimpses Of The Ancient World

Feb 15, 2017

On the National Register of Historic Places, the Ochee Spring Quarry in Johnston preserves a record of soapstone bowl-making dating back at least 3,000 years.

One of the quirks of life in Rhode Island is that we give directions based on landmarks where things used to be. For example, you might say “Take a left there, where the Almacs used to be.” (For those who don’t remember, Almacs was once the largest grocery store chain in Rhode Island, before falling to the competition and closing in the mid-90s.)

As our series One Square Mile: Johnston continues, RIPR’s Chuck Hinman visits a place where a lot of things used to be, and where the one thing that was there first, endures the longest.  

Here in Johnston, a parking lot just off Hartford Avenue, near Killingly Street, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Well, not the parking lot, exactly, but what lies just beyond its northern edge, behind a chain link fence.

It’s a roughly rectangular patch of exposed stone, maybe 30 by 15 feet, bounded on all sides by fence, and surrounded by the parking lot, by an auto body shop, and by the off-ramp from Route 6 East. On the list of Historic Places, this is called The Ochee Spring Quarry, described as a remnant of the aboriginal soapstone industry. 

I was taken here by a local man, Arthur Iannelli, a member of the Johnston Historical Society with a longtime interest in Ochee Spring. Pointing to a shape cut into the stone’s surface, Iannelli says it's a bowl, started some 3,000 years ago and left unfinished.

"There’s a lot of them in here. What they would do, they’d make that mound, then they would undercut it, chip it and pop it. And then, they had to work the outside first, smooth it off. Then they would take the inside out, by abrasive round stones, and they’d make the bowl."

Johnston's Al Iannelli, in the quarry
Credit Chuck Hinman

Soapstone, or steatite, is a relatively soft stone that can be easily shaped using simple tools. Archaeologists and historians who’ve examined this site say it was worked by the indigenous people here several thousand years ago, to make a variety of soapstone bowls.

"The really interesting thing about this place is that it is an industry that has remained there un-impacted for several thousand years, and you can go there and see the entire stage of the process of what these people were doing," said Jay Waller, a senior archaeologist at the Public Archaeology Lab in Pawtucket.

But who were these people? Waller says that remains a mostly unanswered question. He believes there is little evidence that they were the ancestors of the Native Americans who lived in the area when the colonists came.

"The material culture, the artifacts and the way these people lived is so different than what we see the Narragansetts do that it’s really hard to tie it," Waller explained. "That’s not to say that they weren’t, it’s just how these people lived was quite different from what we saw in the contact period and the period immediately preceding European contact."

One avenue of investigation into the lives of the people who worked this quarry involves chemical analysis, something Waller says is in its infancy. 

"You can actually fingerprint the stone based on different proportions of trace elements," explained Waller's colleague Duncan Ritchie. "So you can develop a signature or a fingerprint of a soapstone from a particular source, and then you can take archaeological specimens, fragments of soapstone bowls from archaeological sites, and subject them to the same trace element analysis."

This process, says Ritchie, allows researchers to match a source sample with an artifact from an archaeological site and infer how it might have been traded or distributed.     

For many years, it seems the Ochee Spring Quarry went unnoticed, buried over time under the earth. It was rediscovered in 1878, according to the National Register of Historic Places. The landowner at the time, Horatio Angell, uncovered the quarry during construction projects on his farm.

When it was uncovered, the site contained hundreds of cartloads of pre-historic debris and tools, along with soapstone bowls in various stages of production. Private collectors, representatives of major universities and an inquisitive public descended on the quarry, taking away many artifacts, undocumented. But some ended up at the Peabody Museum at Harvard and at the Rhode Island Historical Society. 

Also on the site of the quarry, by a nearby spring, Angell started the Ochee Spring Water Co. in the 1880’s. The company produced mineral water and flavored sodas from a building that housed offices, the bottling works and a third-floor dance hall. The complex was destroyed in a spectacular fire sometime in the 1920’s or early 1930’s.

Another vanished landmark from this site was an octagonal house, built in the mid-to-late 1800’s as part of a nationwide architectural fad. It was demolished in the 1960’s.          

The listing of Ochee Spring on the National Register of Historic Places came in 1978. It does not guarantee preservation of the site, which sits on private land. But Jay Waller, from the Public Archaeology Lab, says there is more to study here and at other similar sites.

"There is stuff that can be learned," said Waller. "We’re always trying to trace migration patterns of these people: Where did they come from? Where did they move from?"

And where did they go? That’s the biggest question that seems to hang in the air, as you stand at the Ochee Spring Quarry today, looking at what they left behind.