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.


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  • Wayne says:

    isn’t there also an historic Cayuga component on the island?

  • Ed Curtin says:

    Hi Wayne. You may be aware of something that I am not. Ritchie referred to slim traces of Point Peninsula, Owasco and Iroquois “sojourns”. I can’t find a mention of historic Cayuga occupation, but it would be surprising if the Cayuga did not visit the island. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the context of the bone comb is about 3800 years old.


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