The Archaic Period Archaeological Sites at Brewerton, New York

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on May 30, 2013 in Archaeology |


Fort Brewerton Historic Marker "Fort Brewerton, Original Earthworks of Fort Erected by British in 1759"

Fort Brewerton historic marker. Photo credit: Kerry Nelson

Exploring archaeological sites at Brewerton, New York, the famous archaeologist William A. Ritchie (1946:1) found it fitting to consider (with due irony) the opinion of the 1790s French traveler, le duc de La Rouchefoucauld Liancourt. While camped at Fort Brewerton (built in the 1750s near the outlet of Oneida Lake), Liancourt remarked that America basically had no tangible history aside from the forts of the “wars of 1776 or 1756”; and offered the opinion that “past ages can exist here only for generations not yet born.” In the 1790s the United States was brand new, but Liancourt failed to count the ancient history that preceded European colonization.

However, at Brewerton and elsewhere, Ritchie’s work revealed some very important aspects of ancient Native American history in the Northeast. As I review Ritchie’s work on Archaic sites at Brewerton, I am inclined to think that these sites are not just historic today for what the trowel has revealed, but were historic long ago for reasons known to those who came to dwell, meet neighboring communities and visitors, and commemorate the dead.

The long native history of Brewerton extends to the earliest period of occupation in central New York State. This is evident in the age of the fluted projectile point found there on the Channing Robinson farm, as Ritchie (1944:312; 1946:1; 1957:72-73) mentioned on several occasions. The Robinson site, and the Oberlander No. 1 site located near opposite across the Oneida River, provided additional evidence of long occupation. This evidence includes 9,000-10,000 year old Paleoindian points of the Plano tradition (duly noted by Funk 1993 and Petersen 2004), as well as Early Archaic period bifurcated base points, dating to about 8,000-8,500 years ago. These Paleoindian and Early Archaic people may have been visitors or short-term residents living in small, temporary camps, but by the Late Archaic period about 5,000 years ago, sizeable communities occupied both sites. Later, smaller communities or seasonal camps were occupied during Early and Middle Woodland times, roughly from about 1000 BC to around AD 500, based upon pottery types.

Ritchie’s work occurred before the invention and practical application of radiocarbon dating, and he never submitted samples from these sites for radiocarbon dating. Robert Funk (1993:190), however, did submit a sample from a human burial context referred to as Burial 4 (excavated by Ritchie), considered one of the earliest burials at the Oberlander No. 1 site. Burial 4 was in a pit excavated into the site’s subsoil; this pit contained the remains of 4 different individuals. The burial pit’s position below a deep midden deposit suggests that this mortuary feature is one of the earliest at the site, with the midden accumulating largely after the pit was closed for the last time. For this reason I consider this group of burials to mark a founding or early transformational event in the history of the Late Archaic community at Oberlander No.1. The radiocarbon date obtained from Burial 4 is 5010+/-130 years Before Present (BP). Based upon the types of artifacts found in village midden layers above Burial 4, it is likely that the Archaic period occupation of the Oberlander No. 1 site spanned at least 500-1,000 years. A similar range of artifact types at the Robinson site indicates a similar length of occupation during the Late Archaic.

The long Brewerton history continued after the Archaic period. The Early and Middle Woodland occupations (as early as 3,000 BP) at Robinson and Oberlander No. 1 occur at just two of several sites that Ritchie eventually investigated, with others in this time range occurring at the Oberlander No. 2, Vinette, and Pickens sites (Ritchie 1946). The Oberlander No. 2 and Pickens sites were burial sites north and south of the river, respectively, while the Vinette site was a long-occupied habitation site on the north side of the river. Proximity suggests that by Early Woodland times, people using the Oberlander No. 1, Vinette, and Robinson sites may have established spatially separate cemeteries on their respective sides of the river. Much later, the Onondaga people built a village a little way down-river during the middle of the 17th century (Bradley 1987 mentions this village; it has a New York State historic marker nearby along U.S. Route 11).

"Site of Indian Village Techiroguen, Visited By LeMoyne 1654 and by LaSalle 1673"

Techiroguen Indian Village historic marker. Photo credit: Kerry Nelson

The Robinson and Oberlander No.1 Archaic sites are unusual in their size and in the depths of their middens. Ritchie (1940) provided an important clue as to why these sites may have been occupied so intensively, stating that the “sites are at a veritable crux of waterways” that would have led people traveling from different directions to this central position at the outlet of Oneida Lake. Conceivably, these sites were seasonal or periodic gathering places for regional populations, hosted by one or two resident communities.

To get to the Robinson and Oberlander No.1 sites from the east, the Mohawk valley, plus a short portage and a trip across Oneida Lake to the outlet provide a canoe route that was preferred historically, hence the strategic location of Fort Brewerton where the route continues west. From the north, travel along Lake Ontario and the Oswego River led to Brewerton via the Oneida-Oswego confluence. Populations traveling from the west would have followed the Seneca River to its confluence with the Oneida (which forms the Oswego at Three Rivers Point a short distance west of Brewerton). The short, final leg of the trip was up the Oneida to Oneida Lake outlet, where Robinson, Oberlander No. 1 and the other sites cluster.

As this convergence of travel routes might suggest, the Brewerton Archaic sites have high frequencies of exotic styles and materials. These include polished stone gouges and plummets, otherwise common in the St. Lawrence region, Maine, the Maritime Provinces, the Lake Champlain basin, and the Hudson valley. These artifact types, as well as others such as polished slate points or knives and ulus (knives with crescent shaped edges) are referred to in New York and adjoining areas as a complex of “Laurentian” artifact types, and have a special significance associated with identity and interaction among a number of Late Archaic period communities, including the Brewerton communities. Gouges are especially abundant at the Brewerton sites (Gouges are finely-crafted wood-working tools, a sort of adz that was specialized for working on curved surfaces, such dug-out canoes). Polished bannerstones, sometimes called atlatl weights, are another type of iconic Laurentian artifact. Ritchie thought that the styles used at Brewerton were associated with New England.

Exotic artifacts from the west in the form of cold-hammered copper tools— rather abundant at Brewerton— connect the central New York region with the western Great Lakes (possibly through a route along the Ottawa River north of Lake Ontario). The long distance movement of materials such as copper from the western Great Lakes, as well as the broad geographic distribution of the Laurentian group of artifacts (and their Maine and Maritimes counterparts) may indicate geographically overlapping alliances and gift-giving relationships (essential to diplomacy) among leaders and communities over very extensive areas. Some artifacts such as bannerstones, oversize gouges, and polished stone plummets that are manufactured to a much higher degree than seems necessary to function (or more so than some smaller or rougher counter-parts) may be emblematic in some way of identity, prestige, authority, or access to extra-community relationships or resources (this inference compares favorably with perspectives on highly-crafted Archaic period artifacts offered by Sassaman 2010).

One of the most curious aspects of the Brewerton Archaic sites is that there are two of them, seemingly occupied over the same period of time on opposite sides of the Oneida River. Ritchie referred to them as “Two Prehistoric Village Sites”. Assuming Ritchie was correct— that the size of these sites and the amount of refuse accumulated indicate Archaic villages— were they occupied by one group of people or two? If two communities, how were they different, and how did they coexist?

Bridges cross the Oneida River in Brewerton

Bridges cross the Oneida River in Brewerton. Photo credit: Kerry Nelson

Both sites have deep middens, contain human burials, and have interesting stratigraphic features formed from various-sized spreads of sand and gravel (these Ritchie thought were humanly constructed, the material borrowed from the surroundings). Both sites also have generally similar types of artifacts. However, the frequencies of specific artifact types often vary considerably, and these differences seem to have significance in differentiating these communities in cultural and social ways.

For example, Oberlander No. 1 has much higher frequencies of several artifact classes. These occur in terms of absolute numbers in some cases, or more relative to the amount of area excavated in others. A much larger area of the Robinson site was excavated compared to Oberlander No.1 (8400 sq ft compared to 1783 sq ft), while the Oberlander No.1 midden was generally thicker than the Robinson midden (36-48 in compared to 18-32 in). When I refer to Oberlander No. 1 having relatively more of a certain kind of artifact, these differences are taken into account.

Compared to the Robinson site, Oberlander No. 1 has absolutely more copper artifacts, netsinkers, endscrapers made from reworked projectile points, Lamoka-type points and Lamoka-type beveled adzes (these are named after another large Archaic site at Lamoka Lake in west-central New York State). Oberlander No. 1 has absolutely more polished stone plummets, and relatively more gouges (but not by much). It also has relatively more broad side-notched projectile points (although both sites have a lot of these). Oberlander No. 1 had many more bone tools, although bone tools may have been better preserved here than at Robinson due to soil ph differences.

The Oberlander No. 1 site also produced some relatively unique artifacts unparalleled at Robinson, including an exceptionally long polished stone gouge, a large chipped stone ulu, and an intricately pitted boulder, covered with 5 or 6 dozen rather evenly-spaced pits of different, but recurring sizes.

River shoreline wetlands with low hill rising behind.

View of Robinson site vicinity. Photo credit: Kerry Nelson

The Robinson site had absolutely and relatively more projectile points, and of particular note, the overwhelming majority of triangular projectile points (220 to 29 at Oberlander No. 1). Robinson also had the overwhelming majority of bannerstones, and more unifacial, ovate-shaped endscrapers (absolutely a lot more, but relatively perhaps only slightly more).

Another way to look at quantitative differences is by proportions within each site’s assemblage. Ratios provide a good measure to show the dominance of one artifact type compared to another. At Robinson, the ratio of triangular (and similar eared-notched) points to broad side-notched and corner notched points is 0.45. At Oberlander No.1, the ratio is much less, 0.10. With respect to scrapers, at Robinson, the ratio of unifacial endscrapers to endscrapers made from reworked projectile points in 3.24. At Oberlander No.1 the ratio is much lower, 0.61. The preferences at each site seem clear: triangular points and unifacial endscrapers at Robinson, notched points and endscrapers made from modified projectile points at Oberlander No. 1.

Several of the artifact categories that differ quantitatively between the sites may signal cultural differences, and thus hint at the differential integration of regional populations at these sites. These artifact classes include the Lamoka points, beveled adzes, and bannerstones, as well as the varying relative frequencies between broad side-notched and triangular projectile points.

Differences in scraper technology may also hint at cultural differences in the sense that the production of scrapers from unifacial blanks versus production from reworked, bifacial projectile points may indicate different traditions of learning and choice in the creation of tools that had similar functions (although similar function is something that begs for demonstration through microwear analysis).

Other artifact classes may signal special statuses, or special connections with important, distant neighbors. Copper artifacts fall into this category, as do the polished stone Laurentian artifacts. Bannerstones may also fall into this special category (this compares favorably to a view of bannerstones articulated by Sassaman 2010). There is a strong contrast between Robinson, with a preponderance of bannerstones, and Oberlander No. 1, with remarkably more copper, plus polished stone plummets, and the several unique items including the oversize gouge, the large chipped stone ulu, and the interestingly pitted boulder (seemingly an abstract or highly stylized work of art).

It is fair to ask how much of difference may be due to change over time, as there were long periods of Archaic occupation, and continued occupation into the Woodland period. There are indeed clear differences over time in the middens. Ritchie noted that fire cracked rock and Woodland pottery were concentrated in the upper third of the middens at both sites, although mixed with Archaic period artifacts. Ritchie also noted that notched points and copper artifacts were most prevalent in the lower middens, while triangular points became more common higher in the stratigraphy. In addition to this, consulting Rochester Museum records and collections, Funk (1976) found that Lamoka points (particularly at Oberlander No. 1) and Lamoka beveled adzes tended to be found relatively high in the middens, suggesting that these were added to the artifact assemblages relatively late in the Archaic period history of these sites. From this it seems that the frequency differences pertaining to copper artifacts— their higher concentration at Oberlander No. 1— is true of a relatively early period when notched points were relatively common at both sites. The greater proliferation of projectile point types later may indicate a growing cultural diversity, and interesting tendencies for triangular points to cluster at Robinson while Lamoka points were concentrated at Oberlander No. 1. With regard to the triangular points, while this form becomes quite common by the last phase of the Middle Woodland period ca. AD 800, nothing in Ritchie’s illustrations or descriptions, or comments by Funk (1976, 1988) suggest that Middle or Late Woodland projectile points are very common at either site. The best assumption, especially in comparison to data accumulated since Ritchie’s era, is that the large majority of triangular points from the Brewerton sites date to the Archaic period.

If there were two villages (with somewhat disparate cultural origins) facing each other across the Oneida River some 4,000-5,000 years ago, how might they have related to each other? Ritchie argued that the people who occupied these sites were fishing at rifts that occurred at Brewerton before the rifts were removed by the early 20th century construction of the Barge Canal. The rifts- stretches of shallow water over a rocky bottom- slowed the progress of migratory fish, presumably allowing for intensive harvesting by humans. The artifacts of the Brewerton sites support the fishing hypothesis; they include netsinkers (from both sites), a group of copper artifacts interpreted as gorges (for line fishing, from both sites), and an assemblage of bone harpoons (from Oberlander No.1). Although highly well-crafted, the polished stone plummets from Oberlander No. 1 also may have been involved in the fishing economy (and a rough stone example from the Robinson site may have been as well). Fishing gear was found at both sites, but the absolute majority was found at Oberlander No. 1, including durable stone and copper items as well as the more perishable bone harpoon technology. One way that the two villages would relate to each other would be to create and navigate a consensus to share access to the fish resource when migratory species traveled upstream across the rifts into Oneida Lake to spawn. In this, each site may have drawn in people from regional communities, and so the consensus may have been negotiated between two groups of allied communities who used the Brewerton villages.

Despite the seeming need to cooperate— in a sense to become one society in order to use common resources, while reducing the potential for conflict— some of the differences between the two sites suggest that the Oberlander No. 1 site had better access to important things that may imply high or privileged status, such as copper and perhaps some of the Laurentian polished stone artifacts. Oberlander No. 1 also had more (and possibly more diverse) fishing equipment.

Did the community at Oberlander No. 1 have higher status among a network of Archaic communities than the community at Robinson? The evidence from human burials at the two sites suggests that this is true. The previously mentioned burial pit at Oberlander No. 1 contained the remains of 4 burials placed in the extended position, a form of burial that archaeologists often infer was given to relatively high status individuals. At least 3 other extended burials were made at Oberlander No. 1, including one other in the subsoil (presumably a relatively early burial) and 2 (or possibly 3) in the village midden soil. All of the extended burials that Ritchie attributed to the Archaic period at the Brewerton sites occurred at the Oberlander No. 1 site. Four burials in the flexed position were made in the midden soil at Oberlander No.1, and an additional 4 flexed burials were made at Robinson. In addition, each site had one burial of cremated bones, plus Oberlander No. 1 had 3 bundle burials in the upper midden soil, while an additional bundle burial was made at Robinson.

The burials are too few to consider that these sites were cemeteries, but they are burial places for some set of specific reasons. The burials seem to reveal historic patterns involving the selection of these sites for the interment of the remains of small numbers of individuals. One pattern is a division between Oberlander No. 1 and Robinson in terms of the frequency of burials (they are much more prevalent at Oberlander); another involves the type of burial: extended burials were the preferred type at Oberlander No. 1, but possibly were not permissible at Robinson. Another pattern forms in terms of the sequence of burial at Oberlander No. 1: at first it seems that only extended burials were made; later all other types were made, but with a possible further shift over time to bundled and cremated remains.

Bundled, and often, cremated remains were brought from somewhere else and represent reburials. So it seems that over time there developed a practice of disinterring individuals and bringing them to Oberlander No. 1 and Robinson, especially to Oberlander No.1. Since this pattern involved shifts in practices over time, historical knowledge such as genealogical-reckoning or social memory was likely involved in the specific circumstances of the burials. Even the selection of a specific site at Brewerton for high status burials, perhaps as a founding series of events, may reflect that this was a traditionally-used place of long-standing and great memory. Perhaps by the time burial began, ca. 5,000 years ago, Oberlander No. 1 was already associated with a leading kin-group.

These are important aspects of history that occurred very long ago. Long afterward, as he mused upon the breaking dawn of the American republic, allowing that nothing but the fort had ever happened around his resting place, le duc de La Rouchefoucauld Liancourt, invested in an Old World historic perspective, greatly underestimated his surroundings at Fort Brewerton. Of course, in those days— before geologists startled the world with then-unconventional theories regarding earth science— writers didn’t knowingly contemplate things 5,000-10,000 years old.

Fort Brewerton earthworks

Fort Brewerton earthworks. Photo credit: Kerry Nelson

References Cited:
Bradley, James W.
1987 Evolution of the Onondaga Iroquois: Accommodating Change, 1500-1655. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.

Funk, Robert E.
1976 Recent Contributions to Hudson Valley Prehistory. New York State Museum Memoir 22, Albany

1988 The Laurentian Problem: A Review. Archaeology of Eastern North America 16:1-42.

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

Petersen, James B.
2004 Foreword: West Athens Hill, the Paleoindian Period, and Robert E. Funk in Northeastern Perspective. In An Ice Age Quarry-Workshop: The West Athens Hill Site Revisited, by Robert E. Funk. New York State Museum Bulletin 504, Albany.

Ritchie, William A.
1940 Two Prehistoric Village Sites at Brewerton New York. Research Records of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences No. 5, Rochester.

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

1946 A Stratified Site at Brewerton, New York. Research Records of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences No. 7, Rochester.

1957 Traces of Early Man in the Northeast. New York State Museum and Science Service Bulletin 358, Albany.

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


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