A Hudson Valley Writer on the Ancient Custom of Christmas

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on December 23, 2014 in Folklore, History |


Viewers of the Fox Television temporary hit series Sleepy Hollow follow a story very loosely based on one of America’s first hits in the world of literary fiction, penned by the Hudson valley writer Washington Irving.  The TV show is set in the Tarrytown, New York area (dismissing by default Kinderhook, New York’s claim to be the setting of Irving’s story).  It even has a character named “Frank Irving”, giving a nod to the 19th century originator of this fantasy.  The TV show requires enormous suspension of disbelief; mine is always ruined by the Spanish moss draped trees of the show’s shooting locations (and not exactly renewed by the long aerial shots of the lower Hudson estuary shown during scene changes).

Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is from an 1820 book named The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.  The Sketchbook is a collection of Irving’s stories put together as a marketing strategy meant to undermine the pirating and unauthorized publishing of his individually released stories in England.  It also contains a group of stories reporting on a fictionalized Christmas vacation spent in a remote English manor called Bracebridge Hall.  Bracebridge Hall is the just the kind of place where ancient Christmas customs (fast-disappearing in a modernizing world) might be expected to survive, or even flourish under the guiding hand of an aged lord of the manor and the eager participation of the younger generations (I count two younger generations and various age-cohorts of children populating the Christmas festivities).

My sense is that Irving (born in 1783, at the end of the American Revolution) was keenly aware of the passing of yesterday’s world and the arrival of a new one.  The on-going social tension of this process seems evident in the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” where a school-teaching ethnic English newcomer, Ichabod Crane, tries to settle into a rural New York Dutch community, only to be challenged by a bully with a long, local bloodline.  Irving gives us another take on out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new through “Rip Van Winkle” (also in The Sketchbook), which lets the reader feel how startling it would be to fall asleep in a quiet, Hudson valley corner of the British Empire and awaken 20 years later in the undreamed of American republic.  With regard to the Bracebridge Hall Christmas stories, it seem that in a world that had literature and writers but no ethnography, Irving presciently assumes the 19th century ethnographer’s task of rescuing ancient traditions before they could disappear.

This is, however, fiction, neither methodical ethnography nor disciplined folklore.  It is what Irving created instead, and admittedly, it is a synthesis of some sort, as if all the reported customs were practiced in the same time and place ca. 1815-1820.  In the words of Irving’s alter ego, Geoffrey Crayon:

“At the time of the first publication of this paper the picture of an old fashioned Christmas in the country was pronounced by some as out of date.  The author had afterward the opportunity of witnessing almost all the customs above described, existing in unexpected vigor in the skirts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire…”

Irving devoted 5 chapters of The Sketchbook to old English Christmas customs, many of which are still referred to today although not necessarily practiced.  The chapter titled “Christmas” is an introduction, and acquaints us with a concept lost today, which is that Christmas, standing close by the winter solstice, is especially tinged with supernatural power.  We learn that the all-night crowing of the rooster announced “the sacred festival” while keeping away the power of evil.  Irving punctuates these stories with English poetry of an earlier age.  The following unattributed verses reporting the beneficial effect of the cock’s crow emphasize the point:

“The nights are wholesome—no planets strike,
No fairy takes, no witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.”

Gracious, meaning full of grace, like “Hail Mary, full of grace”.  In the second chapter, “Stagecoach” the growing sense of Christmas cheer is conveyed through a coach ride with young companions anxious to get home for a 6 week vacation from school, their joyful departure as they reach their destination, and the narrator’s stay at a comforting inn before continuing his own journey.  The inn’s servants and landlady bustle, guests warm themselves before the fire, hams and other delicacies hang in the kitchen.  In this chapter we are blessed with another burst of verse, describing

“A handsome hostess, merry host,
A pot of ale now and a toast,
Tobacco and a good coal fire,
Are things this season doth require.”

Line drawing of pets sitting by a fire

Yule Log. “Old Christmas” from the Sketch Book of Washington Irving Illustrator: R. Caldecott

In the third chapter, “Christmas Eve”, the narrator arrives at Bracebridge Hall under the moonlight, to the barking of dogs.  He enters a world in which the old English customs are not only celebrated, but enforced by old Mr. Bracebridge (often referred to as “the squire”).  The squire is tolerant enough to allow the introduction of tea and toast to the traditional meat and beer-heavy breakfast (in the next chapter) but not enough to allow singing in French (in this one).  On Christmas Eve the yule log (referred to as the “Yule clog”) blazed; this is a custom discussed in some detail.  The north of England was the Yule log’s stronghold as customs changed or died out.  The yule fire was the scene of “drinking, singing, and telling of tales”.  But it could be attended by bad luck if the fire went out during the night, or if a barefoot or squinty-eyed guests arrived.

After the Christmas Eve supper there was singing and dancing.  The “Troubador” dissuaded from singing in French offered a song attributed to the 16th-17th century English poet Herrick.  It also deals with the familiar Christmas-time theme of warding off spirits and supernatural beings (the first line appears to be a compliment, don’t let it put you off):

“Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee,
The shooting stars attend thee,
And the elves also,
Whose little eyes glow,
Like the sparks of fire, befriend thee.

No Will o’ the Wisp mislight thee,
Nor snake nor slow-worm bite thee,
But on, on the way,
Not making a stay
Since ghost there is none to affright thee.”

After a few more semi-scary verses, the singer delivers his heart-felt message:  “Then, Julia, let me woo thee”.  And the woman named Julia did everything but notice.

The fourth chapter, “Christmas Day” finds the author awaking to the sound of joyful children on a sunny morning.  He attended a religious service where old Mr. Bracebridge exalted the heart with the singing of a carol the old man adapted from a Herrick poem:

“Tis thou that crownst my glittering hearth
With guiltless mirth,
And giv’st me Wassaile bowles to drink
Spiced to the brink…”

For the purpose of the song, these are the words spoken for this occasion by a tenant farmer and Christmas guest to his landlord and host, as celebrated in verse by the landlord and host.  The landlord, Mr. Bracebridge, followed the old injunction to feast his neighbors:  “At Christmas be merry and thankful withal, and feast thy poor neighbors, the great and the small.”  After church, the hall was opened to the neighbors for Christmas festivities, with beer, food, and games.

The fifth and last of these chapters is titled “The Christmas Feast”.  Opening verses provide vivid imagery “Lo, now is come our joyful feast!  Let every man be jolly, Each room with yvie leaves is drest, And every post with holly”.  They also evoke the Christmas spirit:

Without the door let sorrow lie,
And if, for cold, it hap to die,
Wee’le bury ‘t in a Christmas pye,
And evermore be merry.”

A wassail bowl being brought to the table

The Squire’s Toast. “Old Christmas” from the Sketch Book of Washington Irving
Illustrator: R. Caldecott

The traditional delicacies of the Christmas feast include a boar’s head and peacock (although in this story peacock is not served as the year had been hard on the peacocks).  Serving the boar’s head, replete with its own Christmas carol, is an old custom the squire had preserved at home (it reminded him fondly of his college days).  Wassail was served as well.  We learn that wassail could be made from ale instead of wine; that it might be spiced with a variety of things including nutmeg, ginger, sugar, toast, and roasted crabs; and at one time it was served in a bowl passed between the drinkers, although by the writer’s era it was drunk from individual cups.

After dinner a considerable period of drinking and story-telling ensued, perhaps to the extent of infringing upon wakefulness and sobriety.  Not to worry, though:  the manor house was about to explode with mirth and romping, as one particular adult, gone into character as the Lord of Misrule, led a ragged tag-like game for children clothed in customs designed from the garments of the manor family’s ancestors, dragged out of storage for the occasion.

What did Washington Irving intend his readers to believe about this?  He tells us by saying “…these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion, and that this was, perhaps, the only family in England in which the whole of them was still punctiliously observed.”

And for the satisfaction of readers who don’t think history is very important, what was the point of telling this Christmas story?  For the pleasure of reading it, the author asserts, in case it will “in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow”.  The point is to make the reader “more in good humor.”  And so these stories come recommended.  Merry Christmas!

Tags: , , , ,


An Inside View of an Archaeological Project: The Adam Shafer Site in Cobleskill, Schoharie County, New York

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on December 9, 2014 in Archaeology |


Early 19th-century multi-chambered slip ware found at the Adam Shafer site

Early 19th-century multi-chambered slip ware found at the Adam Shafer site

In 2011, construction planning of a new agricultural and environmental resources center at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cobleskill required that a Phase 1 archaeological survey be performed before construction could be permitted.  Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. performed this survey, finding evidence that part of the site had been used by Native Americans during prehistoric times.  Jon Vidulich directed this work in the field.  Curtin Archaeological also found that Adam Shafer (the descendant of early 18th century Palatine German settlers) built a farm house in 1816 on the same terrace overlooking Cobleskill Creek that the Indians had used in a much more remote period.  Artifacts from the Shafer farmhouse (including a feature composed of shell) were found in addition to prehistoric Indian artifacts.

Subsequently, Curtin Archaeological performed a Phase 2 archaeological site examination in order to evaluate the archaeological importance of the site.  I directed this work (if direction actually is needed for a team of co-workers that consisted of Dr. Andrew Farry, Jon Vidulich, and Sarah Vidulich).  The results of the Phase 2 investigation indicated that the multi-component, prehistoric-historic period archaeological site was a significant site eligible for inclusion in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Archaeologists working

Phase 2 fieldwork:  Sarah Vidulich, Jon Vidulich, and Andrew Farry working in the Shafer midden east of the old farmhouse’s cellar hole.

The finding that the archaeological site was considered significant in this way was based on the value of the archaeological data:  the site could provide information important to the study of history and prehistory.  In 2012 Curtin Archaeological conducted more fieldwork as part of the process needed to reduce the adverse impact of construction upon the archaeological site; in other words, to mitigate the impact construction would have upon this site as a source of important archaeological data.  I co-directed the 2012 fieldwork with Dr. Andrew Farry.

Phase 3 excavations

Phase 3 excavations in front of the Shafer site front yard.

During 2013 and 2014, we have been studying the information we recovered directly from this site.  We have also done some other things to help interpret the archaeological data.  For example, Kerry Nelson and I have examined primary data from historic documents to better understand the Shafers, their ancestry, and continuity and change in a certain traditional practice:  the naming of children in each successive generation of Shafers.  What we found was a reliable tradition, until there was a radical departure.

We have also been reading literature on the early 18th century German migration to New York State, as well as the nature of cultural change 100 years later, when the old guard of American revolutionaries gave way to the first generation born into the early republic.  This new generation was forming the first truly American national identity.

This chert artifact from the Shafer site has a graver tip (upper edge) and scraper edge (lower edge).

This chert artifact from the Shafer site has a graver spur (upper edge) and scraper edge (lower edge).

Also, focusing on the intriguing collection of chipped stone (chert) artifacts recovered from the prehistoric component, Meadow Coldon and I have examined other stone artifact collections from Cobleskill, as well as the comparative chert collection in the anthropology office of the New York State Museum.  We consulted with New York State Museum geologist Dr. Charles Ver Straeten, whose specialty is the Devonian-age cherts of New York State (the same cherts we needed to know about).  Dr. Ver Straeten kindly acquainted us with an even larger comparative collection of cherts such as Esopus and several Onondaga and Helderberg varieties.  This dove-tailed well with the field trip he led to Devonian chert exposures in November (and consequently, Meadow and I have added making our own comparative collection and obtaining chert for experimental use to the research program).

chert outcrop

An Onondaga chert outcrop near Catskill, New York we have visited for the comparative collection.  The chert is the dark stone embedded in lighter limestone.

As part of this process, we also began a careful study of the life-group exhibits of the New York State Museum for inspiration concerning how to connect ancient stone artifacts with the people of the ancient past.  This is an interesting exercise in which we can consider what is being shown in the exhibits, and mindful of what we are learning, we can imagine other scenarios (not exhibited).  In this way we carefully use existing knowledge to stimulate thought experiments that broaden our perspective.  We are considering additional visits, perhaps with new questions, in conjunction with other projects.

I offer this post and a few that will follow on the Adam Shafer site over the next several months in order to provide a greater degree of access to an actual archaeological research project than may be available otherwise (at least much of the time).  These posts will provide behind-the-scenes looks at the nuts-and-bolts work that leads to more refined reports of archaeological research.


When It’s Not about Turkey and Football: Review of The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving by Larry Spotted Crow Mann

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on November 26, 2014 in Book Reviews |


Neempau:  “Well that’s fine, Sis, but why don’t you at least tell your kids the truth?  They don’t know anything about the true history of our people.”

Keenah:  “Tell them what, Neempau?  What truth?  That the white people have tried to exterminate us since they got off the boat?  How they almost killed us off with their diseases, slavery and laws saying that we’re not even human? Huh?  Then what?  Have them drop out of school and march on Washington to take our country back?”

Neempau:  “Yes, that would be a good start.”

Keenah:  “Oh Neempau, just what are you really trying to do big Brother?  You really think after a few centuries of Thanksgiving you’re going to change it? The world is not like you think it is.”

Whoa!   What is this conflict over Thanksgiving about?

Holiday-stress experts say not to discuss politics or religion when family gathers for Thanksgiving, but that’s not the way it is for Neempau, a Nipmuc Indian from the Worcester, Massachusetts area.  And after a decade away from home, he’s bringing a rather extreme message to his sister’s holiday celebration:  He wants to get rid of Thanksgiving.  And he wants Keenah and her family–  husband George, daughter Silvia, and son Robert to help.  And furthermore, he’s enlisting his willing, go-with-the-flow, pot-smoking wannabe actor cousin Wavy.  Wavy doesn’t think they’ll get rid of this feel-good national holiday, but is willing to drive Neempau around to circulate petitions.  How will a couple of thousand names on petitions get Thanksgiving repealed?  Maybe it won’t, but maybe they can at least get the Nipmucs to stop celebrating it!

As many note outside of the context of this book, Thanksgiving and other holidays can be stressful.  People may come together who rarely see each other, and even in close families there may be personality conflicts and sibling rivalries.  Perhaps someone drinks too much; people may say things they shouldn’t.  Conversations may drift into politics and religion, and unless everyone already thinks the same thing, there may be sharp points of disagreement.  But there is the chance for consciousness-raising.  I’m not necessarily talking about my family or yours, but you know what I mean.  When Neempau enters Keenah’s home for Thanksgiving, there is definitely some holiday related stress.  And the idea of the holiday itself is the pot in which contention boils, although other issues of Neempau’s, long bubbling, rise fast to the surface whenever the hot topic of Thanksgiving cools down.

MourningRoadCoverThe Mourning Road to Thanksgiving is about a particular vexation for American Indians, a vexation that impinges upon New England Indians in a very special, historic way.  Thanksgiving for many Native Americans may be a symbol of the conflict and deleterious effect upon their ancestors, culture and land that began with the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.  Keenah, whose parents were Indian activists of the 1970s, put it succinctly in the passage above:  “they almost killed us off with their diseases, slavery, and laws.”  For New England Indians, the tragedy unfolded as the English colonists’ power grew.  The Pequot massacre of 1637 is an awful memory (the English and some Indian allies destroyed the Pequots in a particularly brutal attack, and sold many survivors into slavery).  King Phillip’s War of the 1670s is another bad memory.  This was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought on American soil, and the Nipmucs were one of the largest, most powerful tribes fighting the English.  The Nipmucs provided great military strategy and many warriors in this conflict, and they suffered greatly at its end.

The book title no doubt refers to the National Day of Mourning declared by Native American activists as an alternative to the Thanksgiving celebration.  As the archaeologists James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz relate in The Times of Their Lives:  “In 1970, Thanksgiving was declared a National Day of Mourning by Native Americans, and Plymouth was chosen as the location where it would be observed.”  Sometimes attendance has exceeded 5,000.  The drumming, singing and others aspects of the occasion overshadow other events in Plymouth, the community most symbolic of Thanksgiving.  The late James Deetz worked at Plymouth Plantation at the beginning of this annual event, and was equally an expert in New England and Virginia archaeology.  Noting that early European-Native relations were better and alliances stronger and more beneficial in New England than Virginia, the Deetzes suggest that Jamestown might have been a better place to stage the National Day of Mourning, except for the strength of the story of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.  Recently, a story has circulated that is a seemingly accurate revision of history.  It says that Indians were not really invited to the first Thanksgiving, but arrived because the Pilgrims were celebrating by firing guns.  Chief Massasoit and warriors of the Pokanoket tribe arrived quickly bearing arms because they had formed an alliance with the Pilgrims who they thought were under attack.  Learning the truth, they killed some deer and joined the feast.  This story is better documented than the story we learn in school, and to me a bit more interesting.  It is also interesting to explore when history is history and when it is myth.  In this case the Pilgrim myth, as the Deetzes describe it.

Aware of all this (the Pequot War, King Phillip’s War, the National Day of Mourning, and the questionable first Thanksgiving), the would-be iconoclast Neempau has reached the point where he finds it necessary to stop Thanksgiving (which in his eyes is disrespectful, awful, and based on ignorance).  He travels to the greater Worcester, Massachusetts area to launch his attack on this worst of holidays (except possibly for Columbus Day).  The story of Neempau’s crusade against Thanksgiving is poignant, touching, and sad at times, such as when he suffers as a boy at the hands of his teacher for refusing to put on a paper Indian headdress during his classroom’s Thanksgiving play.  It is also funny (I won’t give much away here), and to me, Neempau is a Scrooge-like figure in a tale that sometimes veers toward a Thanksgiving version of A Christmas Carol.  What I mean by this is that Neempau is an opinionated, misanthropic character who is unkind to many people he meets; people who, like numerous minor characters in A Christmas Carol remain true to their own more friendly characters and in touch with the holiday season.

The issues of race and racism run through this story, from an early encounter between Neempau and a drunk African-American man on a bus (which I thought unfortunately presented the African-American character in a stereotyped way with questionable use of dialect).  Through Neempau, Larry Mann raises the readers’ consciousness about anti-Indian racism and the problem of the rest of America knowing Indians through stereotypes and inaccurate history.  We also find that Neempau becomes particularly hostile to some whites who are interested in or trying to be involved in Indian culture and ceremonies.  The issue of non-Indians seeking Indians as objects of study is addressed, again through Neempau’s sensitized eyes.  Neempau himself has issues with Native acculturation that are blurred with circumstances of varying skin color and physical appearance among Indians.  This sort of internal race issue is something that non-Indians might not anticipate or otherwise contemplate.  More expectably, the issue of anti-Indian racism is also part of this story, and arises with a frightening tingle when Neempau, Wavy, and George (on an outing calculated to help them bond after Neempau’s long absence) encounter some racist, violent white men with a definite vengeful streak.

It seems to me that across America, non-Indians who live in or adjacent to Indian communities are more aware of anti-Indian racism than are non-Indians who live elsewhere, to whom this issue may be unknown or rarely considered.  There are many tribes of American Indians with different histories, experiences, outlooks, and voices.  Given this, even a concept of Indian-ness is problematic.  It is important that a book such as The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving can bring up ideas such as:   there are many Indian nations; that racism is a problem for Indians as well as others; and that for each of us, as we become aware of such issues and understanding develops, we (particularly non-Indians) are better able to consider the circumstances of Native America, and of tribes like the Nipmucs and people like Neempau and Keenah.  A book like this helps us to enter those discussions of politics (or religion) better able to consider the various sides of issues than to try to prove our point.

Rather far along in this novel, Neempau, Keenah, George, Silvia, and Robert attend the Nipmuc Sunrise Ceremonial, an annual ritual that coincides with Thanksgiving (i.e., non-Indian Thanksgiving).  The medicine man Martin Attuck, Sr.–  Wavy’s father–  also known as Healing Otter officiates at the ceremony.  As Neempau is waiting in line for spiritual cleansing and blessing from Healing Otter, he is angered by the presence of non-Indians helping with the ceremony.  He is as set in his lack of acceptance and kindness as Scrooge ever was.  But he is greeted with affection by Healing Otter, who soon gives thanks to the Creator in a morning prayer in the Nipmuc way.

Then Healing Otter told a story with a lesson, and the lesson was “Sometimes, my people, the hardest thing to do is to say we are wrong or made a mistake.”  Without giving anything away, I leave this review with a thought for consideration.  Is this a bit of foreshadowing?  Is there a circumstance yet to come in which Neempau, as converted to a new outlook as Ebenezer Scrooge, will bring a greater love into his heart?

The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving (195 pages) was published by Word Branch Publishing, Marble, North Carolina in 2014.

Further reading:

Some other books that touch on the historical context of Thanksgiving or on the spirituality, history, and culture of New England tribes include:

Deetz, James and Patricia Scott Deetz
2000   The Times of Their Lives:  Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony.  W. H. Freeman and Company, New York.

Philbrick, Nathaniel
2006   Mayflower.  Penguin Books, New York.

Russell, Howard S.
1980   Indian New England Before the Mayflower. University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hamphshire.

Simmons, William S.
1986   Spirit of the New England Tribes:  Indian History and Folklore.  University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hamphshire.


Understanding Chert in the Mid-Hudson Valley: A Note on a Recent Workshop and Field Trip

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on November 17, 2014 in Archaeology |



Tables of chert on display at the NYSM

Tables of chert on display at the NYSM

On November 1, 2014 a group of archaeologists and geologists participated in a workshop on chert at the New York State Museum, and then left in a caravan of cars, trucks and vans for a field trip to chert-bearing sites located in Greene and Ulster Counties.  This is the second of a projected annual series of field trips in eastern New York that promises to provide archaeological and geological colleagues with a firmer basis and common language for discussing chert.  Chert is one of the most fundamental materials used in ancient Native American technology in this region.  These programs are produced through the collaboration of New York State Museum geologist Charles Ver Straeten, New York State Museum archaeologists Jonathan Lothrop and Christina Rieth, and Binghamton University Public Archaeology Facility archaeologist Laurie Miroff.

At the Esopus exposures near Catskill, Chuck Ver Straeten (left), and Nate Hamilton

At the Esopus exposures near Catskill, Chuck Ver Straeten (left), and Nate Hamilton

The morning program featured table-top displays of chert from eastern New York and northern New England, as well as presentations on the Munsungun Lake and Mount Jasper quarry locations in Maine and New Hampshire.  The presentations were made by University of Southern Maine geologist Stephen Pollock with significant additional information and discussion by University of Southern Maine archaeologist Nathan Hamilton, Chuck Ver Straeten, and geology/geoarchaeology consultant Philip LaPorta.

The afternoon portion of the program was designed and led by Chuck Ver Straeten.  It led to locations near the Village of Catskill in Greene County and the City of Kingston in Ulster County where a combination of different exposures provided the opportunity to see Helderberg, Esopus, and Onondaga chert-bearing rock formations in place.  Chuck Ver Straeten provided the guide to stratigraphic order and the origin of these formations and their cherts.  Chuck also inspired the participants with a sense of what still needs to be learned with regard to these eastern New York Devonian cherts.

Jon Lothrop selecting chert samples at the Helderberg exposures near Kingston

Jon Lothrop selecting chert samples at the Helderberg exposures near Kingston

This program was immensely useful to the participants, not to mention a lot of fun on a crisp November day when the late afternoon rain was very light, and yielded little in the way of stinging sleet.  Rarely does a group of adults become so engaged in the pleasure of a Saturday outing, except perhaps at an amusement park (but bedrock exposures have a way of becoming amusement parks for geologists and archaeologists).

The Helderberg sequence near Kingston, from the bottom Kalkberg, New Scotland, Alsen, Port Ewen

The Helderberg sequence near Kingston, from the bottom Kalkberg, New Scotland, Alsen, Port Ewen

Speaking as just one archaeologist, I want to give at least a hint of why I find the subject of chert sources fascinating (and why I will continue to have fun with it long after the field trip).  Eastern New York State is rich in chert sources, including the Ordovician Normanskill chert as well as the subjects of November 1’s field trip, the Devonian cherts of the Helderberg, Esopus and Onondaga formations.  Often a relatively short trip of a mile or two (quite less in certain places) will provide access to several, or perhaps all of the chert varieties contained in these rocks.

Kalkberg chert in bedrock near Kingston

Kalkberg chert in bedrock near Kingston

At the same time, however, it is not unusual for archaeologists in this region to find evidence of archaeological sites or ancient activity locations dominated by the occurrence of one chert type in preference to others.  And these preferences often differ at adjoining sites.  As an archaeologist, I need to ask why this happens, because access as a function of distance doesn’t seem to apply in these cases.  I need to consider whether this is a matter of ancient knowledge (i.e., were only limited sources of chert known to the inhabitants of the site?); habitual practices adopted by the site’s inhabitants; or larger traditions of practice that provided a broader and more enduring set of rules that largely excluded some chert varieties from selection for tool stone.  The quality of the stone may be a factor, but if so, it must operate in a complex way, because although archaeologists may feel that these stones vary in quality, a wide range of stone types was used, at least over the long period of eastern New York prehistory.

Alsen (Helderberg) chert exposed near Kingston

Alsen (Helderberg) chert exposed near Kingston

I may have more to say about this in future blog posts as my colleagues Kerry Nelson, Meadow Coldon and I examine the strength of evidence for the spatial differentiation of the use of stones such as Esopus and Onodaga chert at the site we are studying in Cobleskill, New York; and Normanskill and Kalkberg or other Helderberg cherts at a series of sites in Coxsackie, New York.  A similar or different sense of ancient Native American choices in stone selection may emerge from work we have been doing in the Town of Malta, Saratoga County, New York.  We shall see.

The thought I want to leave with was stated succinctly by Chuck Ver Straeten at the end of the field trip.  What geologists and archaeologists are doing with the chert workshops and field trips is useful.  We are still finding out how useful, but the chert workshops are already enhancing our ability to communicate and envision future research that depends on better understandings of chert.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Archaeological Memoir: Sharing Our Histories on Social Media

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on November 13, 2014 in Archaeology |


Archaeologists working

From left: Ed Curtin, Bill Andrefsky, and Jaime Hernandez excavating in the Finger Lakes region, 1980

Arguably, archaeology is one of the youngest sciences, and one that has expanded enormously since the 1970s.  It seems imperative to me that archaeologists document their profession, especially involving their own careers, and be aware of the important role of social media in doing so.

As I reflect on articles I have posted, I realize that I have been doing this on occasion (typically when events suggest the topic).  A death, an anniversary, the turn of the seasons can bring up memories and related stories.  Three memoir-type blogs that immediately come to mind include one on an early 1980s meeting with Lewis R. Binford (written to commemorate his passing), a note on several months’ apprenticeship under the great Robert E. Funk, and my somewhat late realization that I had a forty year career in archaeology behind me.

I would like to consider some general aspects of this kind of history-telling.  These posts need to be truthful and should avoid subjects where good memory or documentation is lacking.  Also, the point is not simply to write things that make us feel good about ourselves (for example, how we persevered to great success, or triumphed over adversity).  And we should not write memoirs in order to structure the way we will be viewed in the future (such as with affection and appreciation!).  Finally, when shared on social media these writings should be short.

I think that the goal in this kind of communication is to capture senses of time and place within our professional lives while relating these to matters of greater archaeological importance in some meaningful way.  For example, these memoir-blogs may provide historic context for important ideas or discoveries, or describe a relationship between things that happened in the past and some aspect of the state of archaeology today.

I think that the three articles I just mentioned seek this goal and provide some examples of what I am talking about.  The post on my conversation with Binford contains two points that transcend the events described.  The first is that archaeologists and other scientists (even if they become the most influential speakers in their professions) most often study very mundane subjects of empirical research.  At a certain time, Binford’s empirical research involved studying the formal variation of Lamoka and Dustin type projectile points.  He described this in An Archaeological Perspective (1972:329), and it seems to me that he constructed his general program for projectile point analysis (Binford 1963), from this Lamoka-Dustin point research.  This likely informed his perspective on artifact classification more broadly as well.  It is perhaps the case that the failure to discover sub-types among these projectile point samples took Binford in other significant directions with respect to the meaning of material culture.

Attention to the small or mundane aspects of material variation is important.  These kinds of studies inform archaeologists fundamentally, and thought flows significantly thereafter from small to large subjects and back again.  It is interesting to note with regard to systematics in biology and paleontology that Stephen Jay Gould’s frequent subject of empirical research did not involve dinosaurs, horses or hominids, but land snails from Bermuda and the Caribbean (for example, Gould 1977:253-282).

The other point that arose in remembering a discussion about Lamoka points with Lew Binford is related to the fact that that we had just listened to several papers on the important subjects of mobility and lithic technology in hunter-gatherer adaptations.  Numerous archaeologists in the session had built their research around Binford’s concepts and findings (indeed, you could call this area his teachings).  It seems to me that Binford’s comment (and here I paraphrase) that “none of them got it right” reflects something that John Nemaric mentioned in his comment on that post.  According to John, Binford believed that “understanding was a long and difficult process.”  I think that a lesson here is that the method of understanding many of us look for evolves.  It is a moving target.  We actually don’t “get it right” the first time; sometimes not even in the early iterations (although we may get it right enough to earn Ph. D.s).  We should eschew a turn-key mentality that would provide a way to operate that is not critically examined and redone as an essential dimension of its existence.  Without putting words in their mouths (except for John’s quote), I thank John Nemaric and Rosalind Hunter-Anderson for comments that significantly broadened the context of what I was talking about in that post.

The article I wrote about studying the Archaic under Bob Funk’s direction does bring me warm feelings.  First, like many people, I liked Bob.  Moreover, at the time of this apprenticeship (walking to the museum on a frequent basis), I felt warmed by the magnificent quality of the sunlight in October, when it reaches us at low angles but is still present enough to move me to reverie.  This is an essay about experiential learning and enjoying the kindness of a mentor and his colleagues.  But it also relates to the present-day status of studies of the Archaic period.  It asks questions of ongoing importance.  For example, do we know enough about the Archaic to reject significant, alternative interpretations of data that arise from new analyses?  Do we know enough to maintain the common, evolutionist perspective that the Archaic is the platform upon which the Woodland developed?  I ask this as I accept that Bob’s unusual inference concerning a Late Archaic longhouse at the Mattice No. 2 site is a good one (even if subsequent research eventually shows that it is unlikely).

I will not elaborate on these questions here.  Remember, posts need to be short and mine tend to grow overly long.  However, I can recommend reading The Eastern Archaic, Historicized by Ken Sassaman (2010) to explore these ideas broadly within the context of eastern woodlands archaeology.

The thankfully short post on my early career at first glance appears to be pretty self-centered, and of the sort that earlier in this essay I suggested needs a connection specifically meaningful to other people.  Here is the connection:  The substance of this article is that it is extremely important to involve an academic approach in the conduct of CRM archaeology.  What I did in those old days at SUNY Binghamton still strongly influences my perspective on doing archaeology in a CRM context.  Academic training and academic forums are essential.  We need more of both.  Moreover, we CRMers need to work to keep the romance alive with academic archaeology.  It is important to continually find the middle ground where significant, substantive research can be conducted while meeting the expedient requirements of CRM.  The great challenge not addressed in that post is that we need to convey this more broadly to everyone involved in the CRM process.  In this regard–  and starting inside and working outward–  it is important for those of us who wear executive, entrepreneur, or manager hats to be present to implement, evaluate, and process the academic side of the equation when the fieldwork is being conducted; and to bring the results to everyone’s attention.

In bringing these results to everyone’s attention, there is an important role for social media, both in immediate statements from the field, and later through communicating information broadly in the short time-frames available through blogging, Facebook posts, and tweets.  For some of these posts, the memoir form and first person narrative make our statements more real, more historical, and more interesting.

References Cited

Binford, Lewis R.
1963   A Proposed Attribute List for the Description and Classification of Projectile Points.  In Miscellaneous Studies in Typology and Classification, edited by Anta M. White, Lewis R. Binford, and Mark L. Papworth, pp. 193-221.  Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, The University of Michigan, No.19.  Ann Arbor.

1972   An Archaeological Perspective.  Seminar Press, New York.

Gould, Stephen Jay
1977   Ontogeny and Phylogeny.  Belknap Press, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sassaman, Kenneth E.
2010   The Eastern Archaic, Historicized.  AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.


The Vampire Skeleton: A Scary Seneca Iroquois Story

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on October 29, 2014 in Folklore |


In western culture the passing of October into November has long been regarded as a spooky time.  Insufficiently tempered with the Christian commemoration of saints, Halloween was thought of as a time when a door opens between this world and the one where ghosts and malevolent spirits linger.  In the ancient Irish calendar, November 1 was the first day of winter, and in historic times Europeans found the winter a good time to tell ghost stories.  For the historic Iroquois people of upstate New York, this late fall-early winter period was a time for harvesting deer from the forest, and then retreating to the longhouse for warmth, food, family, friendship, and story-telling.

spooky tree

Photo credit: Ed Curtin

A long time ago, when the world was a very different place, the Iroquois of the Seneca tribe lived in great clearings that they made in the forests south of Lake Ontario.  Their longhouses were clustered in villages protected by strong stockades built to keep out any evil that might emerge from the woods.  In the summer the sun smiled upon the fields of corn, beans and squash that the women grew in the clearing between the stockade wall and the forest’s edge.  In the fall people told the story of the hunters who pursued the great bear in the sky, and how when the hunters killed the sky bear, his blood flowing to earth, colored the leaves of the trees red.  As winter came on, people ventured into the forest to hunt deer for food, hides, and the bones they made into tools when the snow was deep and people stayed by the fires in the longhouses.

But going into the forest to hunt was dangerous.  Bears and panthers lived in the woods, and when meeting a man or woman in the forest, it was difficult to know whether this was a human being or an evil spirit in a person’s form.  Despite this, people went into the forest to hunt every fall when it got cold and the snow threatened to fall.  A few people even lived in lodges in the woods.  However, one problem with people who lived in the woods was that the world was beset by evil caused by witches and wizards, even cannibals.  Dwellings in the woods were good places for them to work their dark acts without detection.

For example, the great Hiawatha, who later helped the Peacemaker convey the word of the Great Peace of the Longhouse, once was a horrid, ill-kempt cannibal who lived alone in a lodge in the woods.  Finding him there, the Peacemaker climbed the roof and peered through the smoke-hole.  At that moment, Hiawatha put a pot of water on the hearth to cook a meal.  Looking into the pot, Hiawatha saw the Peacemaker’s reflection in the water and thought it was his own.  It was the image of a good man with a rational mind:  a man who could think straight, listen well, communicate, and find agreement with others.  Thinking this was how he now was, Hiawatha was converted from his evil ways and became the Peacemaker’s companion and spokesman.  But that is a different story.

One year late in the fall, when the leaves were mostly down, a man and woman put their young daughter into her cradleboard and packing food and blankets, went into the woods to hunt.  They journeyed to the hunting ground where a friendly, helpful old man lived, hosting hunters and other visitors.  However, there was a problem at the old man’s lodge because some of the visitors disappeared or mysteriously died.  Nonetheless, it was a warm, welcoming place to stay in this hunting ground.  And so the couple and child went there.

The snow fell early during their trip, and the swirling wind piled it up.  The couple and child arrived at the old man’s lodge at night after struggling through drifts in the moonlight.  The husband called for the old man, but there was no answer.  Entering the lodge, they left the door open so the moon would light the interior.  Their eyes became accustomed to the dim light and then they noticed a platform against the opposite wall.  It had a long bark box on it.  Crossing the floor and peering into the bark box, they found the old man.  He apparently had built the box to crawl into and die.  Now he reposed like a man sleeping, but he had turned into a frightening skeleton!

The man and woman were cold and hungry, and decided to build a fire in the lodge, eat, and sleep before leaving in the morning.  After supper the fire died low while the man and woman slept on two sides of the fire place.  The baby cuddled with her mother.  In this haunted atmosphere the woman dreamed of ghosts, wizards, and witches.  Waking from her troubled sleep, the woman thought she heard a sound, like an owl crunching a mouse.  She looked around.  The firelight was low, but she could see a figure crouched near her husband.  It was the old man’s skeleton chewing her husband’s neck and face!

The woman was terrified, but quickly planned her escape.  Pretending to speak to her husband she said “Our daughter is thirsty.  I will take her down to the stream and get her a little drink.”  And she gathered the girl in a blanket and quickly went out the door.

Now the woman fled through the woods, holding the little girl close.  Soon she heard a loud howl from the lodge.  The vampire skeleton cried “The woman has deceived me!” and she could hear its running feet stomping through the snow and cracking dead wood.

The vampire skeleton yelled “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” and the woman could hear it getting closer.  She wrapped the blanket on a broken tree trunk so that it looked like a person.  This slowed the vampire skeleton down.  It ripped through the blanket.  It tore the blanket to pieces, looking for blood.  It looked for the woman’s body, but didn’t find it.  Then the woman heard the vampire skeleton yell “The woman has deceived me!” followed by the sound of the monster crashing through the woods.

The vampire skeleton shouted “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo” and closed the distance.  The woman was terrified but still fought to escape.  She tore off her robe and hung it to look like a person.  And then she ran on as fast as she could.  Again, the vampire skeleton stopped, tore up the garment looking for blood, searched for the bodies, and cried “The woman has deceived me!”  She heard it call “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” and break branches as it ran through the woods.

The woman and daughter were almost caught, but dawn lightened the sky and the woman saw that there was a village stockade straight ahead.  She burst into the clearing calling loudly for help.  The men of the village came out of the stockade with their clubs, saved the woman and baby, wrapped them in warm blankets, and told them that they were brave.  The vampire skeleton, blood on its teeth, glowered from the forest’s edge with burning-red eye sockets.  Then it turned and left, following its bony footprints through the snow.

After hearing the woman’s story, the chief said that people were wrong about the helpful old man in the forest lodge.  He had been an evil wizard, and dying, had become the vampire skeleton.  This was a great threat that they needed to end.  The chief instructed the men to dance in order to keep evil away, so they danced from morning until dusk.  When night fell they gathered their clubs and followed the winding, moonlit forest path to the house of the vampire skeleton.

They entered the lodge and found the vampire skeleton asleep in the bark box.  They lit a fire in the hearth.  Then the chief addressed the vampire skeleton formally:  “We have come to discuss with you the problem that evil is overcoming good in this world.  We need to act to restore the proper balance.”  Then some of the men closed the box with a great sheet of bark and tied it shut.

The men piled firewood around the bark box and set it afire.  They stood outside the lodge while the fire blazed, soon enflaming the entire structure.  The fire and smoke grew higher.  The men could hear the vampire skeleton crash the box to the floor and shout in excitement “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!”, “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!”  The flames roared and towered.

After a while, the lodge began to collapse as the fire died down.  The men felt joy that they had stopped the threat of the vampire skeleton.  Then, as the timbers and bark of the lodge parted with a loud whoosh!, a great owl flew out and disappeared into the woods.

Forever after this the Seneca refused to put the dead in boxes above ground, but buried them in the earth to keep them from rising and bothering the living.

This is a Seneca story that has been told and retold.  No doubt details have changed with the telling (as they have with this telling).  In the old days it would be a good thing to draw this tale out, prolonging story-time in front of the fire on a winter’s night.  The tellings of the story I read before recounting it are listed in the references below:

Sources for The Vampire Skeleton:

Bruchac, Joseph
1985   Iroquois Stories:  Heroes and Heroines, Monsters and Magic.  The Crossing Press, Trumansburg, New York.

Hewitt, J. N. B. and Jeremiah Curtin
1918   Seneca Myths, Fiction and Folktales.  Annual Report 32, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington.

Parker, Arthur C.
1923   Seneca Myths and Folk Tales.  Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo, New York.

Wallace, Anthony F. C.
1969   The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca.  Vintage Books, New York.

For more on the hunt of the Sky Bear (a tale told in the stars of the Big Dipper), see “Iroquois Star Lore:  What Does It Mean?”  In At the Font of the Marvelous by Anthony Wonderley (2009, Syracuse University Press).

For more on the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, see The White Roots of Peace by Paul A. W. Wallace (1946, University of Pennsylvania Press).

Tags: , , , , ,


Review of Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on October 21, 2014 in Archaeology, Book Reviews |



Lives in Ruins book coverGetting ready for a short Adirondack vacation, I packed the usual:  more books than I could possibly read in 2 or 3 days.  What does an archaeologist bring on vacation to read?  Dusty old tomes containing hidden gems embedded in dull recitations of fact?  No.  I packed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins, and Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Thinking I had room for one more, I noticed the book HarperCollins had sent me with a request to consider reviewing it.  There was a good chance I would, since it covers many aspects of the community I reside in, the community of archaeologists.  The book is Lives in Ruins:  Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson (2014).  Earlier this year, Bill Sandy (whose work is featured in the book) informed my little network of New York State archaeologists about its imminent publication.  So this was a book I already wanted to read.  It went into the suitcase, which was now a little heavy, and made me tilt to the right as I walked.

Later, sitting in our camp next to a mug of coffee, I opened The Art of Drowning (the thumb of my right hand popping it open from the back).  The first poem I saw was “Nightclub”, where America’s former poet laureate says:

“Yes there is this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves to the edge of the stage,
and hands the instrument down to me,
and nods that I should play.”

Elevated but distracted, I put aside The Art of Drowning and noticed the book I had been focused on recently, In the Garden of Beasts.  This story’s waltzing pace swirls the reader around Berlin in 1933, trailing the lives of a father and daughter, American ambassador and ingénue, exposed (somewhat blindly due to their own biases and ignorance) to the thinly-masked brutality of the first year of Nazi rule.  I was engrossed in this book (as I had been in Larson’s other works, The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck).  But I wanted to know more about Lives in Ruins.  I opened this book and my eyes raced across the pages, unable to stop consuming its unfolding story.  It was love at first sight.  “Wanna dance?” she said.  “Let’s go clubbing.”  And I did.  I took off with Lives in Ruins, imagining a stage where a large man played a saxophone that hung from his neck like a golden fish.

I found that Lives in Ruins has no single or uncomplicated personality.  This book covers many aspects of the lives that archaeologists lead, and it follows a wide diversity of individual archaeologists.  To her credit, Johnson intentionally created an even balance in chronicling the lives of female and male archaeologists.  This is a necessary approach to presenting the lives of archaeologists, bringing to the fore the experiences and contributions of women in a field that has long been male-dominated, and which often lends strong male images to popular culture (including news-reporting as well as entertainment).

Johnson has divided Lives in Ruins into four sections.  The first, called “Boot Camp”, deals with a part of the diversity of who archaeologists are, where they work, and what they do.  Resonating with the section title, the first chapter in this section describes an archaeological field school on St. Eustatius, a Caribbean island.  Here we meet archaeologists Grant and Joanna Gilmore (husband and wife, American and English), who study the historical archaeology of an important New World port city.  The next chapter deals with human origins, experimental archaeology, and the nature of inference, tempered through the experience of SUNY Stony Brook archaeologist John Shea.  From here we move on to meet Patrick McGovern, who studies the traces of the contents of ancient vessels, and moving beyond archaeology, uses his research results to recreate ancient beer.  Beer looms large in the archaeological experience, and visiting a conference featuring McGovern, we witness a tasting of the product.  In the next chapter, “Pig Dragons”, Johnson introduces us to Sarah Milledge Nelson, a significant authority on Chinese archaeology (pig dragons refers to Chinese jade pendants with pig heads).  A senior figure in American archaeology, Nelson has been interested women as leaders in the ancient far East.  She also brings the past to the public through writing archaeological novels.

In the chapter titled “My Life in Ruins”, Johnson discusses the bleak fact that archaeologists frequently are underpaid and may suffer through long periods of unemployment.  Here she revisits the Gilmores and we learn of their hard times endured due to the uncertain nature of archaeological funding and the shortage of jobs.  The chapter titled “Road Trip through Time” takes us to South Dakota.  Seen through the eyes of another couple, Rose Estep Fosha and Mike Fosha, it emphasizes a subject many archaeologists can identify with:  dedication to their chosen field and its cultural resources despite hardship and disappointment.  The final chapter in this section, “Underwater Mysteries,” delivers its promise to bring us into the life of an underwater archaeologist, Kathy Abbass, who works in Newport, Rhode Island researching sunken Revolutionary War ships (following the lead that one of them may be Captain James Cook’s legendary Endeavor).  Johnson also mentions Abbass’s assistance with the investigation of the famous radeau, a naval craft found in Lake George, New York.  Context not being far from substance, we are confronted with the fact that Abbass’s work is largely unsupported, and performed on the most frayed of shoe strings.  It is not clear to me from this chapter why this work appears to be so undervalued by the State of Rhode Island.  Comments anyone?

The next section (titled The Classics, consisting of two chapters) features classical archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly, who excavates on the small island of Yeronisos, off the coast of Cyprus.  The focus of the work is the excavation of a site believed connected to Egypt in the time of Cleopatra.  These chapters follow Connelly around New York City as well as in the field with her excavation team.  Due focus is given to the exacting approach to stratigraphic order and artifact recovery that provides Johnson with a second field school experience.  These chapters illustrate some aspects of an archaeologist’s sense of responsibility to a local community and environment.  They also portray Connelly’s sometime role bridging the archaeological discipline and its popular depiction.

The third section is titled Archaeology and War and provides a vehicle to tell us about something that we might expect:  archaeologists excavate human remains; and what we perhaps don’t expect or may not have been aware of:  archaeological methods are employed in forensic crime scene investigations, and archaeologists work with the U. S. Department of Defense to assist avoidance of significant monuments and archaeological sites during battle (Archaeologists working in New York State take note that this section features the work of Bill Sandy and Laurie Rush, and visits the Fishkill Supply Depot site and Fort Drum).  This section is strongly themed with preservation and cultural resource management, but also features forensic applications that are aptly called forensic archaeology.  We meet the following archaeologists in order of appearance:  Bill Sandy, a CRM archaeologist who has become dedicated to the cause of not further disturbing the burials of Revolutionary War soldiers believed buried at the Fishkill Depot site; Erin Coward, who worked in the recovery of human remains from the 9/11/01 attack on the twin towers in New York City; Kimberlee Moran, a New Jersey instructor of forensic archaeology with a somewhat weird but practical “body farm” in the Pine Barrens; and Laurie Rush, who works out of New York’s Fort Drum.  Rush’s program has been instrumental in reducing the U. S. military’s destruction of archaeological sites in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan (Rush is known for developing playing cards as tools to teach about archaeological sites and artifacts, and has received national media attention for this).

The final section titled “Heritage” contains just one chapter, “Buckets of Archaeologists”.  As implied by the chapter title, we meet a number of archaeologists briefly here (more than you can shake a trowel at), as they leave a conference on cultural heritage and preservation in Cuzco, Peru and journey to the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu.  However, this chapter is notable for archaeologists we don’t meet here (but who Johnson tried to involve in her story).  These are the Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Solis and the American archaeologists Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer.  In this chapter on heritage, the discussion ranges from the significance, preservation and management of sites deemed extremely important, to issues such as loving these sites too much (by causing their deterioration through development for tourism), to allegations of misappropriating heritage and research results.  This last issue is addressed by reviewing the controversy involving Solis, Haas, and Creamer, in which the claim appears to be that Haas and Creamer unduly took credit for Solis’ research, and capitalized on it by continuing work at similar locations nearby.  Solis discovered the site of Caral, determined by radiocarbon dating to be the oldest city in the Americas (and at about 4600 years old, rivaling ancient Egypt in the same era).  Johnson notes that these kinds of battles erupt due to archaeologists’ large egos, and I am sure many of my colleagues have also made this observation (or failed to as they blundered righteously onward).

What can be said by way of synthesis and extrapolation?  I offer a few observations.  Lives in Ruins at times finds archaeologists in conversation at conferences or other professional gatherings, where disagreements may occur, but where the latest is report by dedicated scholars, and then, eventually, beer is consumed and differences may be tolerated and even respected.  Archaeologists, we find are interested in how knowledge is formed–  where it comes from–  and so we learn about experiments in the replication of stone tools, observations made in the butchering and consumption of sheep, and the chemical analysis of ancient residues leading to the re-creation of various beers and beer-like alcoholic beverages (with subsequent marketing by an astute microbrewery:  read the book to find out who).  My colleagues, it seems, like to hear about this, and then go drink beer together.  I guess we just cannot get enough…archaeology.

Popular culture is a recurrent theme in this book, where we encounter Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear (and her creator, Jean Auel); Indiana Jones (along with waffley archaeologist would-be detractors); and the racist, ancient astronaut theories of Chariots of the Gods.  My comments are along these lines.  First (but not necessarily in order of importance), archaeologists need to continue to debunk Chariots of the Gods and other, similar insults to human intelligence.  Second, archaeologists need to embrace Indy and realize (as Joan Connelly advocates in Lives in Ruins), if Indiana Jones (who “lived” in the 1930s) was alive today, he would be a preservationist and an antiquities-trade fighter.  And a perfect mix of manly and sensitive, I should add.  Third, archaeology can be dry, but Jean Auel has taken our subject matter, made it exciting, and made a lot of money making it exciting.  One point not to miss is that archaeology got Jean Auel excited.  I remember being at a Society for American Archaeology meeting and hearing Ms. Auel tell us this and urge us to thrill the public more with what we find and what we think.  Did we listen?  To what extent can we learn a lesson from Jean Auel and make the past exciting to masses of people?  Perhaps we can even use fiction more fully as a tool for teaching about the past.  You know, like Sarah Milledge Nelson; or, perhaps as deftly fictionalized vignettes integrated with our analyses in popular reports of our work.

A third theme is caring for the material traces of the past, and this is exhibited often in this book.  It is shown, for example, in terms of the care in excavation and recording for which Connelly’s teaching is said to be exemplary; with the concern that Rose Estep Forsha has shown for the preservation of historic Chinese cultural sites in Deadwood, South Dakota; with the devotion that Bill Sandy has shown to document, honor, and protect the graves of America’s Revolutionary War dead (threatened by the development of private property) at the Fishkill Depot site; and in the innovative thinking and programs that Laurie Rush has brought into the military’s cultural resource management and war planning efforts.  In Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey’s character says “if you want to study them you have to save them”; where cultural resources are concerned, this spirit infuses archaeology.  Johnson shows us this.

My last comment on the book’s themes is important for the continuing reinvention and increasing professionalization of archaeology.  In Lives in Ruins we learn of the careers of a number of female archaeologists, and of a variety of hardships and challenges women have experienced, including gender discrimination, the vicissitudes of dual careers with husband-archaeologists, and the lack of financial support so severe that to pursue her calling, a woman may need to live in poverty or close to it.  The idea of a woman doing at least some of her archaeology as a volunteer or with no financial support closely follows this narrative and emerges in various places.  To me, the archaeological profession must address some significant issues.  First, working from the inside out, what can the archaeological profession do to improve the careers of women in cultural resource management, or in the fringe area in which cultural heritage is accomplished without sufficient financial support?  Second, we must work to make the opportunities available to young women who are beginning careers in archaeology as abundant and as good as the opportunities afforded to young men.  In this, mentorship is important to help nurture the normal expectation of a truly great career.

As exhilarating as these ideas are, I was tired by the end of the book and I set it on a table and rubbed my eyes.  Then I became aware of another presence in the room.  It was In the Garden of Beasts.  “Wanna waltz?”  she asked.

Jon Kabat-Zinn says that Karma means “the sum total of the person’s direction in life and the tenor of the things that occur around that person” (in relation, of course, to antecedent conditions, whose additive nature affords this version of Karma the potential for change).  Lives in Ruins is about archaeology’s Karma.  It will change yours if you read it.

Lives in Ruins will be released November 11, 2014.

Tags: , , ,


Reconstructing Frontenac Island’s History

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on September 24, 2014 in Archaeology |


Because history gives meaning to places, I have looked closely at reconstructing the history of Frontenac Island.  This appears to be a very long and eventful history.  Recognition of a long history stretches out the perspective of Frontenac Island in the sense that historic processes such as forming communities and mediating diverse traditions may be seen as recurrent rather than as a singular culmination of events.

Sequences of Events  

Like several other Archaic sites (such as those at Brewerton), early visits to Frontenac Island came during the Early Archaic period, 8,000-10,000 radiocarbon (9,000-11,500 calendar) years ago.  Human burial at Frontenac began more than 6,000 years ago, possibly with the grave (Burial 47) of a woman accompanied by the shell of a remarkably distinctive turtle, the wood turtle (Clemmys insculpta) whose upper shell appears (to some eyes) to be sculpted (it has a lot of “topographic” detail).  This woman’s grave was below a hearth radiocarbon dated to 4930+/-260 Before Present (BP) (about 6,000 calendar years ago), or approximately 4000 BC.  I wonder whether the wood turtle’s distinctive shell provided a mythical reference to rocky islands such as Frontenac, or whether unusual aspects of its behavior, such as swimming under the ice in winter, or stomping the ground surface while hunting worms (Kaufman 1989) might have distinguished it meaningfully from other turtles.

Another possibly early burial is one of the most unique found in Ritchie’s excavation.  Referred to as Burial 5, this was a group of two adult males and two infants buried below “obliquely laid limestone slabs”.  One of the adults was accompanied by 7 broad side-notched and triangular projectile points indicating a Laurentian cultural association.  The lack of Lamoka or later artifacts may indicate that this was a relatively early grave site.

The limestone slab grave covering is interesting.  Frontenac Island has a low escarpment rimmed with limestone slabs, and the nearby water’s edge has a beach composed of limestone rubble (Ritchie 1945).  Archaeologist William Fox (2004) has suggested that these remarkable landscape features were recapitulated in Middle Woodland period burial mounds some 2000 years after the last Frontenac Island burials.

Bone comb

Bone comb from Frontenac Island illustrated in Ritchie’s Archaeology of New York State (Source: 1993 New York State Archaeology Week poster).

Human burial at Frontenac Island continued for some 1200 years after the fire was extinguished above the woman who was buried with a wood turtle shell.  During this time, Lamoka artifacts eventually were added to the grave offerings (sometimes in combination with Laurentian artifacts).  Lamoka artifacts also accumulated abundantly in the midden that developed on the site (One possible interpretation of the midden is that the Frontenac Island site was a village site as well as a burial site; another is that the ritual use of the island involved living there for periods of time while holding large or lengthy feasts in association with mortuary or other rituals).

The latest burials at Frontenac Island apparently reflect the entrance of the Susquehanna tradition into the region.  This is evidenced most strongly by a group of burials in the southern part of the site that contains cremated human bone associated with burned rhyolite blades (from Pennsylvania), plus uncremated individuals buried in close proximity whose grave offerings include broad-bladed, stemmed projectile points of Genesee type (cf. Ritchie 1961:24).

Although Ritchie (1944, 1945, 1961, 1969) considered Genesee points to be part of the Laurentian cultural assemblage, they are now generally thought to post-date both Laurentian and Lamoka (cf. Funk 1993).  However, the artifacts from several of the Frontenac Island graves allow a more refined historical reconstruction.  Genesee points occur with distinctive Laurentian or Lamoka artifact types in several graves, indicating further blending of regional traditions after the Laurentian-Lamoka coalescence.  And radiocarbon dating indicates that Laurentian material culture was used at a relatively late date at Frontenac Island (about 3800 BP).  In a general way, this may support Ritchie’s claim of Lamoka-Laurentian coalescence into a single community, but the evidence also shows eventual interaction between this community and the Susquehanna tradition.

For example, elsewhere in the southern part of the site, Burials 78 and 79 refer to two adult males who were interred next to each other at the same time.  Both graves contained many offerings, but Burial 78 included a ground slate point among other items, while Burial 79 contained 2 plummets and a broad stemmed (Genesee) point.  The ground slate point and plummets are considered culturally diagnostic Laurentian artifacts.  Burial 78 was radiocarbon-dated 3850+/-80 BP (1900 BC), a date consistent with the last century or so of the Lamoka phase (but now plausibly the approximate age of Susquehanna tradition entrance into central New York).  Two other radiocarbon dates (3673+/-250 BP and 3963+/-80 BP) indicate use of the island at about the same time, arguably within the likely period of interaction between the Lamoka and Susquehanna traditions.  At the same time, the slate point and plummets from Burials 78 and 79 indicate much later than expected expressions of the Laurentian tradition.  Interestingly, two other burials, Numbers 24 and 119, contain combinations of Genesee points and distinctive Lamoka type artifacts, including Lamoka points and a beveled adze.  Frontenac Island provides some surprises for cultural historians, including the late persistence of the Laurentian tradition amid more recently introduced lithic traditions.

Monument, Myth, and Memory

Frontenac Island is a natural feature with the cultural and historical significance that intentionally constructed monuments have had in other times and places.  And Frontenac Island may actually contain intentionally constructed, small monuments, such as the limestone slabs piled over Burial 5, or the heaps of rounded pebbles sometimes found adjacent to burials.  Remembering where people were buried, and indeed, how graves were laid out, may have had a  particular significance:  for example, there are very few native-excavated pits at Frontenac Island, but the majority of those excavated found burials, and the majority that found burials found the skull and upper body.  Ritchie thought this accidental; I think of it as intentional.  Skulls or partial human remains (retrieved from somewhere) were sometimes placed in the graves of others at Frontenac Island.  These are some of the practices that appear to characterize the larger context in which the cultural diversity of neighboring groups, and perhaps conflicting interests, were mediated through common participation in mortuary rituals.

People used Frontenac Island as a place to bury the dead for a long, long time.  The buried dead may have been select members of regional communities (since the total number of Frontenac Island burials must represent a relatively small percentage of those dying over that period of time).  It may have been the nature of interaction among regional communities–  perhaps involving methods of historical remembering and genealogical reckoning, or possibly rules governing social reciprocity–  that identified who would be buried there.  Moreover, to some extent access to the island burial site may have involved achieved social status, or social identities interpreted through mythological references.

The interesting study by Fox (2004) suggests that the social memory of Frontenac Island lingered long in central New York.  Finding similarity between the construction of cobble and stone slab architectural features within the Squawkie Hill 1 and 2 Middle Woodland period burial mounds of the Genesee valley (ca. 1700-2000 BP, or AD 1-300), and the naturally occurring cobble beach and shattered limestone slabs of Frontenac Island, Fox (2004) brings up two very important things.

First, the physical and topographic imagery of Frontenac Island, and more generally, similar limestone islands at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, may form the concept of what the earth-island (world on the turtle’s back) of certain Native American creation myths should look like, particularly in central and northern New York State.

Second, the image of this type of island, and quite possibly of Frontenac Island itself, was re-created by Middle Woodland people in ritual contexts emphasizing creation, rebirth, and renewal.  In this sense, certain Middle Woodland burial mounds may have been constructed in this ideal image of the earth island.

Similarly, during the Archaic period, the natural setting of Frontenac Island may have represented this version of the earth island.  Thus, it is possible that Frontenac Island held historic significance so great that its memory (or rediscovery) shaped culturally-constructed landscapes some 2000 years later.  Artifacts from the upper midden at Frontenac Island indicate that Middle Woodland people visited Frontenac Island, but they are not known to have buried the dead there.  At the same time, however, Middle Woodland use of the island may have led quickly to the discovery of grave sites (because of shallow bedrock, the Frontenac Island graves were only about 1-2 feet below ground surface).

While Frontenac Island may show evidence of Late Archaic period  “emergent rituals of regional integration” (in the sense of Sassaman 2010:79), if Fox is right, Middle Woodland imagining of certain burial mounds as particular kinds of earth islands may indicate the latter-day history of such rituals, and a certain continued, cultural referencing of a very old creation myth:  the story of the woman who fell from the sky, who birds caught in mid-air, and who the water-creatures saved by diving to the bottom of the primordial sea, bringing up the material from which the Sky-Woman’s new world would be formed on the back of the patient and generous turtle.

This is the second in a series of posts focusing on how a more detailed historic perspective can help to reveal interactions between diverse regional populations in rich, ritual contexts. You can read the introduction to the series here and the first post here.

References cited

Fox, William
2004   Islands of Creation, Islands of Rebirth.  The Bulletin:  Journal of the New York State Archaeological Association 120:47-57.

Funk, Robert E.
1993   Archaeological Investigations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State, Volume 1.  Persimmon Press, Buffalo

Kaufman, John H.
1989   The Wood Turtle Stomp.  Natural History, August, pp.8-13.

Ritchie, William A.
1944   The Pre-Iroquoian Occupations of New York State.  Rochester Municipal Museum Memoir 1, Rochester, New York.

1945   An Early Site in Cayuga County, New York:  Type Component of the Frontenac Focus, Archaic Pattern.  Research Records of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, No. 7, Rochester.

1961   A Typology and Nomenclature for New York Projectile Points.  New York State Museum and Science Service Bulletin 384, Albany.

1969   The Archaeology of New York State, second edition.  Natural History Press, Garden City, New York.

Sassaman, Kenneth E.
2010   The Eastern Archaic, Historicized.  AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.

Tags: , , , ,


Frontenac, Island of History

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on September 19, 2014 in Archaeology |


If history is the process of human life experienced, symbolized, and remembered, then Frontenac Island must be one of the oldest and most significant historic places in New York State.  Frontenac Island, in Cayuga Lake at Union Springs, New York is the last of the four great Archaic period sites excavated by William A. Ritchie between 1925 and 1940 (the others being Lamoka Lake, and the Robinson, and Oberlander No. 1 sites at Brewerton).

Two Streams of Culture
Early in his interpretation of the Frontenac Island site, Ritchie (1944, 1945) came to the conclusion that the archaeological evidence represented cultural contact between the two great streams of Northeastern Archaic culture that he had recognized previously in his investigation of central New York Archaic sites.  Ritchie believed that communities of these two traditions–  Lamoka and Laurentian–  merged into one at Frontenac Island.  The Frontenac Island artifact assemblage had diverse elements of the material culture of both traditions.  Sometimes these were found in close, physical associations, in contexts such as the grave offerings placed with individual burials.

Frontenac Island was an Archaic period burial place, and arguably a place of monumental significance within the Archaic social landscape.  Ritchie excavated 159 human burials there in his 1939-1940 expedition.  Radiocarbon dating and stratigraphic sequence suggest that human burials began more than 5,000 years ago, while multiple grave-sites have been radiocarbon-dated to approximately 3,800 years ago.  Some of the Frontenac Island graves contained artifacts of both Lamoka and Laurentian cultural traditions placed as offerings during funeral rituals.

Some of the grave offerings were marine shell beads, or often, ornaments cut out of conch or whelk shell.  Also, the recovery of several copper implements in the site’s midden expands information about copper exchange networks that also involved Laurentian Archaic sites such as Robinson and Oberlander No. 1.  Frontenac Island, with two streams of culture, also appears to be a place where the copper and marine shell exchange networks met.

Frontenac Island sits just off the east shore of Cayuga Lake.  A short distance to the north, the Cayuga Lake outlet connects to a network of water-travel routes.

Met, that is, if the shell and copper exchange networks were contemporary with each other.  Frontenac Island has a long history, and sometimes new kinds of material culture were introduced, as when Lamoka material culture was added to Laurentian after about 4,500 years ago.  At the Brewerton, New York Laurentian sites, copper artifacts seem to be an old element of the Laurentian tradition, while marine shell was not found.  So perhaps at Frontenac Island marine shell (also recovered at Lamoka Lake) was used more recently than copper.

In addition to the artifacts, Ritchie saw variation in burial type, with numerous flexed burials such as occurred at Lamoka Lake, and numerous Laurentian-like extended burials, such as he had found at the Oberlander No. 1 site in Brewerton.

Moreover, the craniometric measurements (cephalic indices) that Ritchie made of the skulls indicated the presence of both longheaded and roundheaded individuals, as well as a third group with measurements in-between.  Ritchie regarded the middle (mesocephalic) group as the descendants of longhead (Lamoka) and roundhead (Laurentian) intermarriage.  It is possible, based upon the frequencies of each “type” of skull, that Ritchie inadvertently divided a relatively normal distribution of head-shape measurements into three groups.  I find the cranial information a weak part of Ritchie’s argument, although when I review his report, I see his points about the different burial practices and occasional combination of Lamoka and Laurentian artifacts in some of the grave offerings.

Biological relationships based upon skeletal evidence were studied again in the 1970s (Pfeiffer 1979), with interesting results showing some similarity between human remains from Frontenac Island and other Great Lakes region sites, (although skeletal remains from Lamoka Lake and Brewerton were not included in the study).  The Cole Gravel Pit site in the Genesee valley, with a Lamoka-like material culture, was included in Pfeiffer’s (1979) study and appears to be rather dissimilar to Frontenac Island and the Great Lakes region sites.

Ritchie’s discoveries at Frontenac Island not only yielded evidence of the numerous human burials, but also 13 dog burials, plus the intentional burial of a bald eagle.  Often, dogs were buried with people.  In addition to burials, there was a variety of hearths and pits; a stone platform composed of fire cracked rock (thought to be for roasting food); and several clusters, caches, or constructed architectural features of smooth, round cobbles that had been gathered from the shore-line.  Referring to these as “stone heaps”, Ritchie thought that these clusters of rocks were stockpiles for stone-boiling.  He considered their proximity to burials coincidental.  He noted however, that these stone features were unique to the site.  I suggest the alternative that the round cobble features were symbolic in some way of burial places, or of elements of mythology associated with Frontenac Island.  They may have been constructed as people ritually acted out a particular interpretation of the earth-diving motif of the old and regionally important creation myth (cf. Fox 2004).

The excavation also produced a large variety of artifacts of the sort that would support village life (when found in the midden), or accompany the honored dead into the afterlife (when found in graves).  An additional excavation conducted by Ritchie in 1953 yielded an assemblage of animal bones that indicate a variety of meat and fish, which may signify broad subsistence practices (Ritchie 1969); or at least in part, the remains of feasts conducted when people gathered for mortuary or other communal rituals.  Deer were heavily consumed.  Fish and small animals are present, but were probably more important than they are frequent in the recovered faunal assemblage (recovered that is without screening or flotation).

The Role of Migration Revived
Recently, Kenneth Sassaman (2010) has brought greater attention to migration as a process involved with Archaic period cultural history in the Eastern Woodlands region.  In addition, he has considered the possibility (indeed, likelihood) of the coalescence of neighboring communities (often natives and immigrants) in the genesis of new societies.  Noting Ritchie’s earlier theory of the merging of Lamoka and Laurentian communities, Sassaman looks at Frontenac Island as a new society formed from the coalescence of Lamoka immigrants and Laurentian natives; and an instance of interaction between two groups he refers to as Ancestry I and Ancestry II, whose different roots may extend ultimately to Paleoindian times, and whose contact experiences (he argues) recurred in different times and places across eastern North America.

Sassaman examines in particular the apparent blending at Frontenac Island of seemingly distinct fishing technologies and practices, such as Lamoka line-fishing with bone fishhooks (which he argues was inherited from a southern, Shell Mound Archaic tradition), and fish-spearing with bone or antler harpoons, considered a distinctively Laurentian (and northern) practice.  In addition, there is another possible set of parallel fishing technologies involving use of large assemblages of notched pebble netsinkers, a Lamoka tradition; and the use of polished or rough stone plummets, a Laurentian tradition (although fewer in number than pebble netsinkers, plummets often were highly crafted).  Plummets, harpoons, fishhooks, and another line-fishing implement, the bone gorge, were sometimes included in varying combinations as grave offerings at Frontenac Island.

Mortuary Traditions and Historic Places
Elsewhere in his examination of the Archaic, Sassaman (2010:78) refers to Northern Mortuary Traditions involving “emergent rituals of regional integration”.  Often in these traditions, culturally diverse populations would come together at distinctive locations upon the landscape; or minimally, at places imbued with a history meaningful in the sense that historical interpretation provided a basis for articulating differing identities and cultural practices.  These sites were physical and symbolic settings for building social organizations larger than local communities.

I view Frontenac Island as this kind of place:  a distinctive natural setting that, through use and historical reference, centered and integrated a large, culturally diverse landscape (in Sassaman’s words, a Landscape of Historic Practice).

This is the first in a series of posts focusing on how a more detailed historic perspective can help to reveal interactions between diverse regional populations in rich, ritual contexts. You can read the introduction to the series here.

References cited

Fox, William
2004   Islands of Creation, Islands of Rebirth.  The Bulletin:  Journal of the New York State Archaeological Association 120:47-57.

Pfeiffer, Susan
1979   Archaic Population Affinities as Determined by Analysis of Cranial Morphology.  Ontario Archaeology 32:35-41.

Ritchie, William A.
1944   The Pre-Iroquoian Occupations of New York State.  Rochester Municipal Museum Memoir 1, Rochester, New York.

1945   An Early Site in Cayuga County, New York:  Type Component of the Frontenac Focus, Archaic Pattern.  Research Records of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, No. 7, Rochester.

1969   The Archaeology of New York State, second edition.  Natural History Press, Garden City, New York.

Sassaman, Kenneth E.
2010   The Eastern Archaic, Historicized.  AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.  

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Glimpses of Archaic Societies

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on September 9, 2014 in Archaeology |


Many of the sites that archaeologists discover in New York State are referred to as Archaic sites:  sites occupied during the Archaic period from about 3,000-10,000 radiocarbon years ago (or, calibrated, approximately 3,300 to 11,500 calendar years ago).  Many of these sites are small and have relatively few artifacts, especially compared to Late Woodland (500-1,000 year old) village sites.  A prevailing view of the Archaic period is that these sites were occupied by small, simply organized groups of people for very short periods of time.  Archaic period archaeology has often focused on subjects such as general aspects of settlement patterns and chronology, in part because of the meager material remains at many Archaic sites, and in part because of the view that social organization was relatively simple and these small societies were relatively isolated in vast regions with low population density.

Advances in chronology are a relatively recent frontier in Archaic period research in New York, as there is an increasing awareness of the Early and Middle Archaic period cultures (6,000-10,000 radiocarbon years before present/ BP).  Robert Funk (2004) provided much of this awareness, calling attention to the “missing 2,000 years” at the beginning of this time frame, and documenting it in the upper Susquehanna valley (Funk 1993).

Contract archaeologists are contributing to the growing perspective of a larger and more continuous occupation of the eastern New York area during these periods.  Increasing familiarity with Early and Middle Archaic period projectile point types has been a fundamental advance.  Radiocarbon dating also provides an important tool.  For example, Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. documented an Early Archaic pit feature in the Town of Wilton in Saratoga County with a C-14 date of 8760 +/- 40 BP, as well as an intriguing episode of 9th millennium BP Schoharie Creek floodplain-building at a multi-component site in the Village of Schoharie.  I suspect (with support from data recovery projects conducted from Coxsackie to Queensbury) that many of the small sites with a general lack of temporally diagnostic artifacts (so-called “lithic scatters”) are Archaic sites, and that many of these are unrecognized Early and Middle Archaic sites.

These glimpses of substantial Early and Middle Archaic periods underscore the importance of understanding a long history, a history long enough for substantial cultural and social change within societies that started out small, but were growing.  And in contrast to the interpretation of an Archaic period limited to small sites occupied by small groups of people, numerous Late Archaic period sites (especially circa 4000 BP) are large.  Several of the large Archaic sites were some of the earliest studied (by William A. Ritchie, circa 1925-1940).  One interpretation of them has been that they are large because they are accumulations of the remains of countless occupations by small groups.  Ritchie on the other hand, referred to these sites as villages in the 1930s-1940s.

Were they villages?  I suggest that this question identifies another frontier in the study of the Archaic period in New York State.  Given that some of the best Archaic sites to study as villages–  Lamoka Lake, Brewerton, Frontenac Island, and Geneva–  were extensively (and destructively) excavated long ago, much of the investigation of possible Archaic villages will require the reinterpretation of old data.  These investigations will inquire “how were Archaic societies organized?”

Hazy lake scene with trees and boats in foreground

Lamoka Lake at the outlet of the channel

In pursuing this question, it is important to realize that these sites may not have been just villages.  In discussing northern mortuary sites under the rubric of “Landscapes of Historic Practice”, Archaic archaeology expert Kenneth Sassaman (2010) compels us to think about social organization around ritual performance and obligations, and the likelihood that certain Archaic sites were places where ritual performance formed a basis for the social integration of regional populations, including culturally diverse populations involved in processes of coalescence and ethnogenesis.  While I won’t argue that sites centering Landscapes of Historic Practice necessarily are village sites, I see them as providing a basis for village formation (perhaps seasonally, perhaps for longer periods) at Brewerton and Frontenac Island.  To be frank (and brief) I think of Archaic village development as something separate from, probably different than, and historically unrelated to Late Woodland village development.  This sense of rising complexity (and the implication of an eventual collapse and reorganization) of Archaic societies seems a radical departure from existing models of the prehistoric past in New York State.  I hope that greater attention to Archaic period archaeology will test this hypothesis.

Last summer I explored the idea of Archaic villages and significant Landscapes of Historic Practice with reference to the Robinson and Oberlander No. 1 sites at Brewerton.  These sites that sit across the Oneida River from each other appear to be largely contemporaneous, but material culture differences suggest that they may represent different communities of practice, and different sub-regional alliances.  Also, variations between these sites in terms of mortuary programs and arguably high value artifacts suggest that they may have been hierarchically structured in relation to each other, with the Oberlander No. 1 site representing the more dominant community (or possibly a more dominant set of alliances).

Ed and Alice on the Cayuga Lake shore with Frontenac Island in the background

Ed and Alice at the Cayuga Lake shore with Frontenac Island in the background

As this summer winds into fall, I will offer two articles on the Frontenac Island site, focusing on how a more detailed historic perspective can help to reveal interactions between diverse regional populations in rich, ritual contexts.  The analysis provided in these posts is based on the succinct yet detailed presentation of data by Ritchie (1945).  My interpretations of data differ in many respects from Ritchie’s, but benefit from developments in archaeology over the last several decades.

A view of Frontenac Island on a cold winter day

A view of Frontenac Island on a cold winter day

Frontenac Island is a resistant tip of Silurian rock stratigraphy rising just above the water in the northern part of Cayuga Lake (one of the beautiful Finger Lakes in central New York).  It is unique as a limestone island in this region.  The alkalinity of the limestone has preserved human remains, faunal remains, and bone and shell artifacts like no other site in the region has.  Saved in the 19th century from complete destruction by stone mining (for railroad construction), Frontenac Island is owned by the Village of Union Springs, which gave Ritchie permission to work there.  The excavations and report that followed yielded an iconic image of an Archaic site that is unparalleled in New York, and which will no doubt continue to shape archaeologists’ views of the Archaic well into the future.  In these essays I ask whether it is reasonable to see Late Archaic societies as small (with a striking lack of internal diversity, or socially complex interaction) when we are confronted by the evidence of sites such as Brewerton and Frontenac Island.

References Cited

Funk, Robert E.

1993   Archaeological Investigations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State, Volume 1.  Persimmon Press, Buffalo.

2004   An Ice Age Quarry-Workshop:  The West Athens Hill Site RevisitedNew York State Museum Bulletin 504, Albany.

Ritchie, William A.

1945   An Early Site in Cayuga County, New York:  Type Component of the Frontenac Focus, Archaic Pattern.  Research Records of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, No. 7, Rochester.

Sassaman, Kenneth E.

2010   The Eastern Archaic, Historicized.  AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Copyright © 2010-2023 Fieldnotes All rights reserved.
This site is using the Desk Mess Mirrored theme, v2.2, from BuyNowShop.com.