Being Present for Archaeology (A Perspective from the Trowel’s Edge)

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on August 18, 2014 in Archaeology, CRM |


After completing the recent 4-week archaeological data recovery program in Coxsackie, I heard that my field technicians liked that I worked with them and explained regularly (perhaps incessantly) what we were doing and what our findings meant to the interpretation of local archaeology.  To me, it seemed natural that I would work this way.  I would not have done it differently, although I am aware that sometimes in CRM archaeology the Principal Investigator (PI) isn’t present for much of the fieldwork, and reports may be written by people who weren’t there or were overwhelmed with other work while trying to be in (or visit) the field.  The direction of fieldwork from the office accommodates the schedule and task driven requirements of CRM, and works to get the job done for many in over-booked managerial roles.


Since I could have looked for someone to direct the fieldwork (allowing me to be in the office), this seems a good time to say a few words about being in the field to personally direct the excavation.  I have at times lived with a division of labor where I was present in the field and someone else wrote the report, or vice versa.  It’s hard to be in two places at once.  However, I like to be in the field, analyze the data, and write the report.  With our Coxsackie project, I have committed to do this for diverse reasons.  I admit that I like fieldwork and try to bring more sunshine into my plan for well-being.  Moreover, I frequently write and make presentations about our projects, so I like the hands-on approach.  The archaeology of Coxsackie is a continuing story for me, and this brings a high level of commitment.  In Coxsackie and the neighboring communities in Greene County, I have a 15-year history of discovery and interpretation that helps guide current research designs and analysis.  This is a process that benefits from presence rather than direction from a distant city.  Continuity and the development of perspective are among the strengths of small firms doing work locally much of the time (Kent Flannery once wrote that to learn more about a region’s archaeology, call a local contract archaeologist).

I had intended to be in the field on this data recovery project, just as I had on other recent data recoveries.  However, another reason to be in the field on this project was that archaeology and construction were closely scheduled.  Being there facilitated this schedule and the various interactions happening while the field work was going on.  So multi-tasking didn’t go away completely, but I could do it from our field location and keep my intention to be present for the fieldwork.


I mention this reason last, but it is definitely not the least important:  Being there also allowed me to work closely with a staff who were mostly new to me (as Curtin Archaeological was mostly new to them).  I had worked previously with three of the eight field technicians on the project, but not over a long period such as a full field season (although each had impressed me in his or her own way).  Being present in the field allowed me to teach about the job at hand while emphasizing how the work fit the goals and expectations of the project.

Archaeology always has an aspect of experiential learning, as archaeological sites pose a variety of situations that must be addressed by the fieldworkers.  The direct purpose of the project is not experiential learning, but it seems to me that the experience won’t happen well without the learning.  To my mind, this aspect of the work (supervising while interacting and learning about the site) is part of what Åsa Berggren and Ian Hodder have referred to as “trowel’s edge” archaeology.  An important component of trowel’s edge archaeology is to bring the moment to moment interpretation of the archaeological investigation closer to everyone who is working in it.  This can only benefit the results of the work; on the other hand, diminished presence by the PI may diminish the positive synergy that interaction brings to the investigation.


Mindful in another way of bringing people to our version of the trowel’s edge, I found opportunities to focus on some of our most basic activities and findings, photograph them, and share them on Facebook, both with my friends on my own wall, and to a wider audience on our company page.  This is an increasingly popular thing to do, as I see on a variety of consultant Facebook pages.  I think that these captioned images brought the actual moment of discovery to a wider audience while we participated in it and documented it.  Being in the field myself allowed me to make the decisions on how to reveal the nature and pace of our work.  This of course can vary from field situation to field situation.  I should say that this flowed naturally from being in the field (I didn’t plan it ahead of time but enjoyed doing it).

Since CRM is business-like archaeology, to many readers at least some of what I am saying may seem a little “soft” from a business perspective.  Do these concerns make good sense other than from my personal point of view?

Little Big ThingsI will answer this by referring to two career-long positions hammered home on every available occasion by iconoclastic “business-guru” Tom Peters.  First, hard is soft, soft is hard:  no business is conducted well without considering the human aspects of the work, while the people in the business need to be involved as effectively as possible.  Second, the people who run companies (or who work in their upper echelons) do well to be physically present and to interact on a face to face basis with workers and many others.   Arguing that the desk is the manager’s No.1 enemy, Peters advocates the fundamental practice of MBWA:  Managing While Wandering Around.  MBWA doesn’t mean aimlessly wandering (at least not always), but it is something that can bring managers onto the plant floor (or wherever) long enough and regularly enough to benefit their own work from better understanding the work-force’s work.  In the 1980s, Peters (and associate Robert Waterman) saw that not doing this was a frequent point of weakness or failure in the successful functioning of businesses.  Peters has long  pushed MBWA as something requiring wider acceptance and practice in order to improve businesses.

More recently, carrying the discussion of presence further, Peters has made the case that, beyond MBWA, managing on the ground for extended periods is more effective than directing from the office (or travel itinerary).   Whether this is desirable or even possible for office-bound CRMers of course depends upon different organizations and situations.  These questions come to mind:  Does CRM need more MBWA?  Does presence need to be considered differently or more often? To what extent do we feel that focusing on the trowel’s edge is important to archaeology?  While the requirements of what I need to do vary, much inspiration and momentum come from being present where the archaeology is being performed.


(Thanks to Cory Bowers, Meadow Coldon, Megan Comins, Barbara Gengenbach, Jamie Penk, Steve Quirk, Tom Quirk, and Charlene Rode for digging with me at the Fernlea 1 and 2 sites).


When the Summer Gets Hot, Coolly Crack Open a Book: Book Notes, Summer 2014

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


We all lead busy lives, and although often it is hard to find time to read, summer beckons as one of the best times to open a book you haven’t looked at before.  This time of year can be busy for archaeologists and many others, but why not take a break with a book?  Summer nights with the TV turned low, the much rumored quiet weekend, long weekends, or a summer vacation (that rarest of experiences for many archaeologists) provide the opportunities.  Lately I have looked at an eclectic selection of books that should appeal to many tastes.  These include:

The Third Gate coverThe Third Gate by Lincoln Child (fiction, paperback, Anchor Books, 2012).  Many readers are familiar with Lincoln Child, perhaps most famously as half of the Douglas Preston-Lincoln Child team that has produced so many great adventure novels blending (highly variable measures of) science, science fiction, and detective stories, often in a museum context, sometimes in archaeological fieldwork (as in Thunderhead), or legitimized treasure hunting (i.e., there is a permit and an archaeologist with legitimate research involved, such as in Preston and Child’s Riptide).  In The Third Gate, Child takes us to the Sudd, that murky, watery world of the Nile south of Egypt, where an archaeological expedition is looking for a pharaoh’s tomb that has been submerged over time by the growing, meandering, deepening swamp. The Sudd is a region where the Nile turns in on itself, collecting all the silt and river detritus flowing out of east Africa and forms a shifting morass of improbable dimensions.  Archaeologists (and everyone else), suspend your disbelief as you read about the highest-tech, spare-no-cost, most-expensive-beyond-belief archaeological expedition ever, and the diverse team assembled to find the tomb…and, uh, well, deal with the pharoah’s curse.  The archaeological survey aspect of this story is credible for archaeologists:  at least the approach is plausible, although the backing for it is at a fantastic scale.  Regarding the curse, it is at this point one appreciates the side of the expedition researching near-death experiences and enigmalogy.  Yes that’s right, enigmalogy.  Rolls right off the tongue.  It’s a field where a medieval history professor can regularly encounter mysterious forces and unexplained manifestations.  This book is a page-turner, a fun read, and it is sure to please fans of Child, Preston and Child, or thrill-seeking readers that haven’t yet discovered these authors.

 ‘A faint smell of dust and decay rose from the mummy, but Tina did not notice it.  She bent in closer, filming, heart beating fast…“Narmer,” Stone whispered.’ (The Third Gate, 278).

Bloody Mohawk coverBloody Mohawk:  The French and Indian War and American Revolution on New York’s Frontier by Richard Berleth (non-fiction, paperback, Black Dome Press Corp, 2009).

The Mohawk River flows out of the southern Adirondacks carving a course south and then east, merging its stream with others that join it on its journey.  Several have names from the Mohawk Indian language:  West Canada Creek, Canajoharie Creek, Cayadutta Creek, Schoharie Creek.  In a metaphor, the Mohawk also flows through history, an Indian river of the Mohawks and Oneidas flowing out of a prehistoric past, merging with the historical waters of multiple Old World streams, notably the Dutch who settled New Netherland in the 17th century; the Palatine Germans who came as indentured servants to the newly English domain of New York in the early 18th century; the Irish land baron, trader, and Indian agent William Johnson who built his own somewhat-bizarre world of Indians and retainers beyond the regular view of the Crown and its governors; Scotch-Irish, who, crowded-out of the good land, settled in the hills; and after mid-century, New Englanders looking for farms or converts to Protestant religion (i.e. after New England perceived the Mohawk region as a safe place to be with the fall of New France in 1763).  The Mohawk valley was a multi-cultural place learning to negotiate and in some ways appreciate differences throughout the 18th century.

The first five chapters of Bloody Mohawk relate how this world developed, largely through the stories of three individuals:  frontier lord Sir William Johnson, the Palatine German culture-broker Conrad Weiser, Jr., and the New England missionary Samuel Kirkland.  In this telling, Johnson is the central figure (just as he was politically central to all life in the Mohawk valley).  The stories of Weiser and Kirkland are often told in relation to Johnson and the uneasy tension that frequently emerged among these important agents of change in colonial America.  This often positions our view as readers looking outward from the Mohawk valley to the place where Weiser eventually lived in southern Pennsylvania, interpreting for mutual benefit the policies and events that entangled whites and Indians from there to New York; and to the places where Kirkland lived and preached, first among the Seneca at Kanadesaga Castle (now Geneva, New York), and later in the political center of Oneida country (near modern-day Rome, New York).  Centering Johnson and positioning Weiser and Kirkland in his sphere introduces the broader geographic scale needed to understand the Mohawk valley as a warpath and war target during the American Revolution.  It also lets us see the historical basis for the growing split between the Oneidas (allies of both Weiser and Kirkland) and the Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas (who were under Johnson’s sway).

The rest of the book is concerned with the American Revolution in the Mohawk valley, depicted sometimes as the crossroads of violent forces, sometimes as the major arena of hostilities.  The war drove Johnson’s heirs and close Mohawk allies to England and then to Canada; brought the war-parties of the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, Sir William’s son John, his nephew Guy Johnson, and others (including regular British army units) out of Oswego and Fort Niagara and down upon the rebel Mohawk valley communities; and launched American counter-offensives from the Pennsylvania and New York frontiers up and down the Susquehanna River and into the Indian stronghold of the Finger Lakes region.  Some of the points made in these chapters that I found particularly interesting include:

  •  The outbreak of violent revolution did not occur in the Mohawk valley as an immediate response to the shots “heard ‘round the world” from Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, but happened in fits and starts and small confrontations as neighbors merely suspected each other’s intentions, disliked each other’s attitudes, and tried to work out differences within the existing legal channels.  This period of simmering unhappiness within a relative maintenance of peace allowed the Johnsons (upholders of the King’s law and policies) to pretend that their escape (unbeknownst to the by-standers on the shore) was a vacation cruise up the river.  It also gives us the background to understand the extent to which the Revolution in the Mohawk valley became a tragic civil war.
  • The devastating blow against the western Iroquois struck by the American Clinton and Sullivan campaign of 1779 was met in kind by the British, Tories, and their Indian allies as soon as possible in 1780.  And here the Indian custom of waging war to assuage mourning is of particular significance.  The retaliatory campaign of 1780 largely destroyed the American settlements and agricultural production in the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys (and reached as far as the northern fringe of frontier settlement in the Town of Ballston, present-day Saratoga County).  The New York frontier was pushed east to the outskirts of Albany and Schenectady (where many of the American-allied Oneidas, also devastated in 1780, became wretched refugees).  This would have been the time for the British Army to focus on New York the way it had in 1777 when its pinchers-movement invasion was met in the Battles of Oriskany and Saratoga.  The Mohawk and Hudson valleys after 1780 were virtually defenseless.  The British Army did not follow through here, and arguably it was the shift of British attention to Virginia and points south that saved New York and the American cause.
  • In the peace negotiations that ensued with the end of the war, neither the British (allied with most of the Native American tribes), nor the Americans (who owed a debt of gratitude to the Oneidas and Mohicans) considered the future status of the Indians.  This despite the looming inheritance of the Americans:  Indian policy in all its dimensions, including the stubborn conflict between state and national policies regarding treaty-making, land sales, and treaty violations.  This issue of neglect in settling the war by Britain and the United States is immense.  Its repercussions have reverberated throughout American history.

It would be interesting if Bloody Mohawk author Richard Berleth picked up his story again, focusing next on the issue of the future of the Indians, moving his analysis forward and westward for at least for a generation or two beyond the Revolution.

“She named the names of trees, flowers, sycamore, tulip.
He asked her who did she think she was, Gary Snyder?”
From the poem “Fling” by James Cummins (1997)

Mountains and Rivers book coverMountains and Rivers Without End by Gary Snyder (poetry, hardcover/deluxe audio edition, 2013).  The subject and historic context of this book is mentioned briefly on the inside jacket of this hardcover edition:  “Gary Snyder’s epic of geology, prehistory, and mythology was begun in 1956, and not completed until forty years later.”  This statement leaves out that Snyder brings to this work the natural imagery of the western American forests, mountains, and rivers; the basic human connections and sensitivities experienced by a seasonal worker on the road; and Zen mindfulness honed in a life lived in part among Japanese Buddhists.  But geology, prehistory, and mythology are indeed subjects that draw the attention of readers of Fieldnotes, and recommend Snyder’s magnum opus to this review.

Published in 1996, this book was lavishly re-released in 2013 in a deluxe audio edition that is beautifully illustrated and contains 3 cds of the author reading the work.  It also contains Gary Snyder’s notes on the work and an essay on its composition.  Recently, Gary Snyder has been brought to the attention of anthropologists and archaeologists as an anthropology major (at Reed College 1947-1951) who achieved great success, making a counter-argument to those who say “don’t major in anthropology.”  Earlier, Snyder’s poetic connection to the natural environment resonated with many in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing touchstone images to the fledgling environmental movement of that period.  Mountains and Rivers Without End is the long composition of a great poet, a Leaves of Grass for our time.  It is a book you could read in fascination all night.

This is a sample (for archaeologists particularly) from Snyder’s short poem “Old Bones”, encountered early in Mountains and Rivers Without End.  Here, a person (gender not mentioned) from an ancient era of hunting and gathering, moving across the landscape in a quest for food that is at once more meaningful than a struggle for subsistence, speaks of life and transcendence:

Out there somewhere
a shrine for the old ones,
the dust of the old bones,
          old songs and tales.

What we ate—who ate what—
    how we all prevailed. 

Imagine for a moment that you are in an old and still wild part of America.

Then think of this snippet from “The Hump-Backed Flute Player” found deep in the book:

   It was whispered to me
   by the oldest of trees

  By the Oldest of Beings
  the Oldest of Trees

 Bristlecone Pine.

 And all night long sung on
            by a young throng

of Pinyon Pine.

Enjoy the summer.  We are happy to hear about your recommendations of books for the archaeologically-minded.


Field Techs, Crew Chief Needed for Work in Coxsackie, Hudson Valley, New York, July 14-August 8, 2014

Posted by Kerry Nelson on June 30, 2014 in Archaeology, CRM |


Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. is seeking local temporary full-time field technicians as well as a crew chief for work on a Phase III archaeological data recovery project for four weeks, July 14-August 8, 2014.

The Phase III Data Recovery project is focused on two pre-contact period sites that have produced Early and Middle Archaic period projectile points (6,000-10,000 years old). The field crew will work closely with Ed Curtin, Ph.D., who is considered an expert on the Early and Middle Archaic periods in the Hudson valley. This is an important opportunity to learn more about these poorly understood periods.

The Crew Chief position pays $14.00-15.00 per hour, depending upon experience. The field technician positions pay $12.00-13.00 per hour, depending upon experience. Please email resumes, or if you have recently sent a resume, email a note about your interest and availability to jobs-at-curtinarchaeology.com.


Spring 2014 Meeting of the New York Archaeological Council (NYAC)

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on April 22, 2014 in Archaeology |


The New York Archaeological Council met in Oneonta, New York on Friday, April 11, 2014.  The business meeting was followed by a presentation on the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) by NYAC’s guest, Patrick Garrow, President of RPA.  This report summarizes some of the highlights of the meeting:

Report on the Robert E. Funk Memorial Archaeology Foundation, Inc.

The Funk Foundation reports regularly to NYAC; for NYAC members, a fuller report is included in the Spring NYAC Newsletter.  Some of the more important Funk Foundation news includes:

  • The Funk Foundation was incorporated on May 29, 2013.  It is seeking 501c3 status as a charitable organization.  This determination by the IRS is expected imminently.
  • Once 501c3 status is granted, the Funk Foundation will develop a cycle of grant applications, reviews, and awards.  The Funk Foundation will be meeting on June 22, 2014 to plan for this.  Additional information will be posted on a revised Funk Foundation website after that date.
  • Two recipients of Funk Foundation grants, David Ingleman and Scott Stull, have published articles on research supported in part by these grants.  These articles include:
    • David A. Ingleman, Stephen Cox Thomas, and Douglas J. Perrelli (2012):   The Pre-contact Upper Niagara River Fishery:  Shadows of a Changed Environment.  Ontario Archaeology, Volume 92, pp. 38-73.  (This may have been issued after the publication date).

NYAC Founders Award Presentations

This Spring’s NYAC Founder’s Award was presented to two individuals:  Paul Huey and William Englebrecht.  Paul and Bill were recognized for their enormous contributions to New York State archaeology.  Although the Founder’s Award has often been presented to individuals outside of NYAC, Paul and Bill are both long-term members.

Discussion of the Gas and Preservation Partnership (GAPP)

Following the attendance by NYAC members of a recent GAPP meeting in Pittsburg, NYAC briefly discussed the GAPP initiative, which seems to seek a way forward by the gas industry for the identification of cultural resources and the mitigation of impacts in lieu of applying the Section 106 process.  The GAPP process apparently contemplates (with the guidance of archaeologists) what might be accomplished to lessen impacts to archaeological resources in situations where federal review responsibilities may be unresolved or not applicable.  This issue is sure to bear further discussion in NYAC.

Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) Presentation

The presentation and discussion of RPA by its president, Patrick Garrow was enlightening and in many ways exciting.  RPA provides a set of criteria to register archaeologists as professionals, subscribes to a professional code of ethics, and identifies a process to follow when complaints of professional misconduct are made against RPA members (most complaints are resolved after discussions that bring misunderstandings to light).

During the presentation and the following question and answer period, several benefits of RPA membership emerged.  These include the:

  • explicit and high standards for membership and ethics;
  • internal process of resolving questions of professional misconduct; and
  • clear recognition of the professional status of archaeologists by professionals from other fields with whom archaeologists work.  The credentialing by a professional organization is important outside of the field of archaeology.
Patrick Garrow and Hope Luhman lead a discussion on  RPA at the recent NYAC meeting

Patrick Garrow and Hope Luhman lead a discussion on RPA at the recent NYAC meeting

While RPA usually is most closely associated with cultural resource management (CRM) professionals, the importance of membership by academic archaeologists who teach standards of performance was also discussed.  Currently, RPA membership is in a period of healthy growth, and the value of RPA membership is recognized in a variety of professional and official contexts.

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Papers on the Paleoindian and Archaic Periods Presented at the 2014 NYSAA Annual Meeting in Oneonta

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on April 16, 2014 in Archaeology |


On Friday, April 11 I traveled down I-88 to the Spring, 2014 meetings of the New York Archaeological Council (NYAC) and the New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA).  I am always nostalgic on these trips south to communities such as Oneonta, Binghamton and Owego.  Speeding past Hudson Lake or crossing the Susquehanna River east of Oneonta, I am particularly mindful as the car rumbles over the archaeological sites below the highway. I worked on some of these sites before they built the highway.

On this trip, having just read Bloody Mohawk, Richard Berleth’s great book on New York’s colonial people and wars, I am aware that I-88 follows the route along Schenevus and Cobleskill Creeks that Joseph Brant’s war parties used to reach the Cobleskill and the Schoharie settlements from points west (mixed parties of Iroquois, Tories, and British soldiers used this route and another just to the south following Charlotte and Panther Creeks).  The mind does wander; Berleth’s book, with a chapter on the Palatine Germans, provides some context for my on-going analysis of the house site of the Palatine-descended Adam Shaffer in Cobleskill.  Several years before Shaffer was born, his family fought against Brant’s 1778 raid upon Cobleskill.  I-88 can certainly evoke history; this past weekend it was the road many took to the statewide meetings of New York’s archaeologists.

The NYSAA annual program of archaeological papers began on the morning of April 12th with a series on the Paleoindian and Archaic periods.  The first paper by Jon Lothrop, Jim Bradley, Meredith Younge, and Susan Winchell-Sweeney examined Paleoindian occupations in central New York.  This presentation based upon the New York Paleoindian Database Project outlined the Paleoindian chronological sequence beginning with Clovis-like Gainey points and continuing through later fluted and Plano-like unfluted, lanceolate points (which occasionally are notched, although, as Jon noted, not as boldly as the beautiful example shown in the presentation).  The central New York area within the former basin of glacial Lake Iroquois (now along the Seneca and Oneida Rivers) is studded with extensive wetlands and small lakes.  It contains a notable concentration of Paleoindian projectile points of all periods, and continued to be a focus of Native American settlement and land-use long afterward.

The second paper in this session was authored by Joe Diamond and Tom Amorosi.  This work reporting on the Huyler Rockshelter is based upon the excavations of members of the Mid-Hudson Chapter, NYSAA from ca. 1932 intermittently into the 1980s.  The Huyler Rockshelter is multi-component, including significant Archaic and Woodland components (The Middle Archaic period is represented by a Neville phase component).  One of the noteworthy findings in the rockshelter is the occurrence of a faunal assemblage from well below surface that contains oysters, suggesting the hypothesis that the Hudson in this vicinity, at some point during the Archaic, may have been saline enough to support oyster populations and involve humans in oyster collection.

The final paper in this session was by Sam Kuderle.  It described the excavation and analysis of the John Moore Farm site located near the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers in Binghamton.  This site contains evidence of Late Archaic and Transitional period campsites, including 16 cultural features and fragments of steatite pots.  The full analysis looked beyond the John Moore site itself, employing a GIS-assisted landscape model to ascertain that this site has optimal environmental variables associated with human occupation.  The paper also considers how this section of the Susquehanna drainage was involved with populations to the south in terms of trade and interaction.  Neutron Activation Analysis was used to associate the steatite from the John Moore Farm site with sources in the mid-Atlantic region.

At the beginning of the afternoon session Renee Walker, Cynthia Klink, and Nicole Weigel offered two papers on the Pine Lake site located along Charlotte Creek near Oneonta.  The Pine Lake site is a series of floodplain and nearby ridge locations.  Intensive occupation occurred 3,000-4,000 years ago; features include hearths, pits, and postmolds.  The diverse artifact assemblage indicates subsistence activities such as hunting, seed and nut processing, and fishing.  The possible meanings of projectile point diversity provide another focus of the Pine Lake investigation.  Pine Lake appears to be a very important Archaic site.  The long series of investigations at Pine Lake by SUNY Oneonta and Hartwick College–  reaching back into the 1970s–  is benefitting from the renewed attention of the recent joint Oneonta-Hartwick field schools (held at Pine Lake every two years).  It is now possible to synthesize understandings that draw upon the older information in addition to the data being obtained currently.

Bob Hasenstab and Michelle Hayward discuss the Pine Lake posters

Bob Hasenstab and Michelle Hayward discuss the Pine Lake posters

The great variety of information from Pine Lake was explored further in a series of excellent posters by these authors as well as students.  Additional poster authors include Leslie Hasbargen, Emmon Johnson, Kasey Heiser, Randoulth Palmer, Holley Reynolds, Amanda Phelps, and Marielle Genovesi.   Poster topics dealt with stratigraphy and floodplain development, archaeological features, aspects of the Archaic period at PineLake (including rare stone artifact types), experimental use-wear analysis, and the field school experience.  The extensive presentation of the Pine Lake project was distinctly refreshing to the NYSAA meeting, providing a good model for expanding NYSAA programs in the future, and bringing important information to the attention of others working in New York State archaeology.

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Upcoming Presentation on Archaeology in Albany’s South End

Posted by Kerry Nelson on February 17, 2014 in Archaeology, History |


Join us this Wednesday, February 19, at the John A. Howe Branch of Albany Public Library, 105 Schuyler Street, Albany, for a presentation on recent archaeological investigations in Albany’s South End. Light refreshments will be provided at 6:00 p.m., and Edward Curtin will give a presentation followed by a Q&A session at 7:00 p.m. This event is presented by Omni Housing Development LLC and the Albany Housing Authority.

Stoneware beer bottles

Part of the profusion of stoneware beer bottle fragments from 15 Alexander Street.

Learn more about this project here and here.

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History and Archaeology in Albany’s South End, Part 2: The Late 19th Century Households at 15 Alexander and 70 Broad Streets

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on January 29, 2014 in Archaeology |


Archaeologists working

Archaeologists recording soil stratigraphy and measuring depths at 15 Alexander Street.

Broad Street, 2012. Three teen boys made their way up Broad Street. Jay said good-bye to his friends at Fourth Avenue and continued up the street, past the new homes at the corner of Third. They had stopped by the archaeological dig on Alexander Street again today. They had watched for a while and talked some more with the archaeologists. It was definitely cool, Jay thought. It wasn’t like the TV shows about digging up old stuff and selling it. These archaeologists were going to study what they found, write a report, and try to find a museum to keep the stuff they were finding. The head archaeologist didn’t like the TV shows. He said they were “ruining our precious heritage.” Whatever. This was different though. Watching and talking back and forth, Jay could see how the archaeologists could “read” the past through different soil layers, where the deeper soil contained the older artifacts. Things were still pretty much in order, depending on when people threw them away. The archaeologists kept measuring the depth to

Stoneware beer bottles

Part of the profusion of stoneware beer bottle fragments from 15 Alexander Street.

make sure of just how deep everything was buried. The archaeologists’ trowels slowly dug away the dirt and cleaned off the artifacts: everything appeared just about where it was when it was thrown on the ground in the 1800s. Back then,people off the boat from Germany lived in the South End, and the archaeologists were uncovering what they had left behind: lots of white oyster shells, bones from food, and plenty of pieces of brown ceramic bottles. They were going to learn how people from Germany lived in Albany back in the 1800s. Definitely cool.

Hard times token

This 1837 Merchant’s Exchange Hard Times token (bottom) was found in the clay spoil layer below the Dasch family midden at 15 Alexander Street. An uncorroded example is provided for comparison (top).

15 Alexander Street, 1852. John Dasch, Sr., and his wife Catharine stood before their building lot in the growing German neighborhood of Albany’s South End. John contemplated the sparse ground cover of plantains and other weeds growing in the clay spoil that covered the lot. He spoke to her in German: “In our homeland we had trouble, and found it hard to live. But we have journeyed over the Atlantic, and tried our chances in New York City. Now, together, we finally greet our destiny in Albany. I will build our house with a strong foundation, and erect on it a structure that honors our family, street, and city. And here, where even the weeds struggle, we will thrive.”

Blue transfer-printed ceramics

Blue transfer-printed ceramics from the late 19th century midden, 15 Alexander Street.

The home construction of John and Catharine Dasch represents a local trend in Albany’s South End in which new homes were built by the individuals who owned and occupied them. John Dasch was a moulder who worked a short distance away at ironworks located east of South Pearl Street. Albany was a center for the molding and manufacturing of formed iron products (particularly stoves). The Dasch’s sometimes had a renter, and for a period of time, the second household under this roof was that of their daughter Mary Ann and her husband, Jacob Cook.

70 Broad Street, 1857. The spades of John Gutmann’s laborers cut a trench for the new foundation, shoveling aside the dark brown topsoil, scattering the pieces of old dishes: some were printed blue, some were printed red, some had been plates with blue or green feathery edges. Others had gaily colored, painted floral designs, while some had brick-textured red bodies and flowing, yellow decoration under clear glaze. The work-men’s shovels bit into the clayey subsoil, throwing it on top of the pile.

Slip-decorated redware

Slip-decorated red earthenware from 70 Broad Street.

John Gutmann, born in Prussia, bought 70 Broad Street in 1856. This vignette illustrates a hypothetical event: new construction under his direction to replace or modify the early 19th century housing on the property. Guttman became a long-term owner of 70 Broad Street and his use of the property for apartment rental presents a different living situation than the nearby Dasch property. At 70 Broad Street during this period, numerous (often German immigrant) renter households lived under one roof, and there was a rapid turn-over of renters. Archaeological evidence suggests that ceramics associated with these households were, as a group, less costly than those at 15 Alexander Street. Also, with a wide variety of colors, the transfer-printed wares often may have been purchased as individual pieces rather than larger and more expensive matched sets. The documentary and archaeological evidence from these two sites illustrate variety in the experiences and circumstances of immigrants and working class people in Albany’s South End.

129 Fourth Avenue, Albany’s South End, 1880s. Jacob Cook spoke in German to some prospective customers: “My friends, I present to you our new weissbier…it is weissbier, and it is not just good, it is becoming a new tradition right here in Albany. I offer it at an excellent price for a high quality product. Without doubt, it is very good beer. And we sell it in bottles to men who truly love beer. I prefer it myself. I keep it at home to entertain with when important political friends come to visit.”

Jacob Cook, also German-American, lived at 15 Alexander Street. His work as a beer merchant reflects the activity of an entrepreneur in a business of changing technology and regulation. As with many or most people who lived in the South End at the time, his work-place was a short walk from his home. The record of his political activity indicates that he operated within a faction of Albany’s Republican Party.

15 Alexander Street, Albany’s South End, 1880s. Mary Ann Cook carried a bucket of trash down the back stairs, taking it to dump behind the house. Reaching the ground level, she heard the music of her parents’ piano more clearly. The bucket was full of steak bones, beer bottles, and lots of oyster shells. Jacob had entertained his political friends last night and they spent the evening eating, drinking, and talking about how to “fix” Albany. And here was the usual result: steak bones, beer bottles, and lots of oyster shells. Lots and lots of oyster shells. The refuse clattered across the sparsely weedy yard and she turned to ascend the stairs. Mary Ann kept cats to quell the rats attracted by the bones, oyster shells, and broken, dirty dishes and bottles that accumulated in the yard.

Stoneware beer bottles

Stoneware beer bottle fragments found in the late 19th century midden at 15 Alexander Street.

Various historic and archaeological details inform this imagined event. Jacob Cook was a beer merchant. The archaeology at 15 Alexander Street revealed an unusually large assemblage of stoneware beer bottle fragments deposited in a back-yard midden with other artifacts and food remains, such as steak bones, other animal bones, and oyster and clam shells (in which oysters were the strong majority). Jacob was active in politics, and served for a while as a police commissioner. Here it is imagined that he had entertained his political friends at home, and Mary Ann, straining to hear the music of her parental home, was not particularly pleased to clean up afterward.

Mary Ann’s parents had a piano, as it is recorded that they were taxed for its ownership. The animal bones recovered from the midden lacked significant indications of rodent-gnawing, while rat bones were largely lacking from the faunal remains. Might these absences reflect the nocturnal patrols of household felines?

34 Alexander Street, 1880s. As the older John Gutmann reviewed the draft of his will, he spoke to his son John: “We are all growing older, and death has touched this family too often to feel safe in the belief that we– or especially I– shall be here to provide for my sweet grandchildren John Henry and Julia. But the legacy of my buildings on Broad Street can secure their income as they grow up and get their start in life. My will shall set that in motion at the right time, but we must also ensure that we have good tenants, stable families who can afford the rent and want to stay with us. Those buildings have changed a good deal since I started there– I believe for the better. Whenever someone moves out, you must find those good tenants and offer them a home that they will appreciate for years.”

This monologue illustrates part of the changing history of 70 Broad Street. There is a record that this property was probably developed initially by Buckridge Webb about 1809; archaeological evidence supports the view that this lot was occupied in the early 19th century (A longer history of occupation is indicated by the larger archaeological assemblage). During the period when John Gutmann owned the property from1856-1889, the number of households simultaneously occupying the property decreased, while the length of time each household stayed at 70 Broad Street increased. In 1889, John Henry and Julia Gutmann inherited the property and then sold it after reaching adulthood (1903). Eventually 70 Broad Street became the home of the Kearney household, who lived there for several decades, with the owners (husband and wife) John Kearney and Lillian Hoffman sharing their home with Lillian’s adult children for extended periods.

red clay marble

A red clay marble from 70 Broad Street.

70 Broad Street, 1925. Lillian Hoffman Kearney was busy at work in her kitchen. She was preparing something special, a suckling pig to have with Christmas dinner. As she worked, she thought fondly of her husband James, an Irishman who seemed to thrive on their blended family traditions and her good home cooking. James was her second husband and her cherished partner in a new life. It is almost a miracle, she thought, that we now have this good house with room for the family. Her children, young adults, had been dispersed into foster homes for years when they were younger. With James’ help, she had gathered her family back together, and her children could live here with them as they made their starts in the world.

Read Part 1 of this series.



History and Archaeology in Albany’s South End: Recent Investigations

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on January 22, 2014 in Archaeology, History |


Near the corner of Broad and Alexander Streets, Albany, New York, 2012. About 8:00 AM on an overcast day archaeological field workers are gathering to begin the day’s work. Exchanging good mornings, they finish their coffee and move field equipment from their vehicles parked along Broad Street to the two nearby dig sites at 70 Broad and 15 Alexander Street.

Archaeologists working

A view of 15 Alexander Street with archaeologists at work (taken from 70 Broad Street).

The work of the archaeologists at these sites was performed at the request of Omni Housing Development, LLC. The archaeological project was carefully designed to recover information important to the history of the South End prior to construction in Phase 3 of Albany’s South End Revitalization, a project of the Albany Housing Authority.

The old city of Albany, 1794. The surveyor Simeon De Witt spread his recently completed Albany map on a table in his study. This new version of the Albany map was replete with the right-angled grid-work of intersecting streets. It was his design, made to chart Albany’s future. De Witt, a surveyor and developer of great renown, was witnessing the visionary planning and growth of American cities such as Washington and New York. Under his plan, the thriving port of Albany would follow suit. His new grid pattern of streets would provide for the development of housing beyond the old stockade, while major thoroughfares built into the grid would deliver the people of these neighborhoods into the market and civic areas of the old city core.

He could not do anything about the old irregular street pattern and lots of old Albany, but the new street grid would serve the purposes of meeting the demand for expansion, while efficiently promoting traffic to main public and commercial areas. He also would not attempt to rectify that unfortunate bend along the south stretch of Washington Street, where, running along the landward edge of the Hudson River bottom-land, the street curved around the foot of a hill. If Albany ever grows that far south, he mused, that bend either will be rectified or bring an odd, old-fashioned feel to the new neighborhood.

DeWitt 1974 Plan of Albany

Simeon De Witt’s plan of 1794. The archaeological investigation took place west of the area labeled Schuyler in the lower left section of the map.

Simeon De Witt had been assigned the role of surveyor during the Revolutionary War, a job learned on the fly that determined the course of his remarkable career. Becoming surveyor general of New York in 1784, and working in part out of offices in Ithaca at the head of Cayuga Lake, De Witt helped develop central New York. He produced a map of New York State in 1802. Along the way, he created the Albany map of 1794 shown here. The square-angled grid pattern of parallel and perpendicular streets was the primary tool De Witt and other urban planners used during the period of rapid growth experienced in the early days of the American republic. The Washington Street referred to above was later renamed South Pearl Street. When the South End-Groesbeckville National Register of Historic Places nomination was written, the signature bend in South Pearl Street (also reflected in Broad and Clinton Streets) was cited as a feature imparting an “Old World” feel to the neighborhood.  De Witt’s plan doesn’t show the bend, but it would need to extend farther south to do so.

The late General Philip Schuyler’s farmland (at the future 70 Broad Street, early autumn, 1808). Buckridge Webb gazed across stretches of blooming goldenrod toward Washington Street (now South Pearl Street), taking in the old Schuyler holdings that were being subdivided, sold, and resold to speculators and prospective home and business owners. Albany grows apace, faster every day, he thought. Before long, Washington Street and this new Malcolm Street will be built out. Depending on what one does with his property, there will be new places to live, conduct business, or rent housing to the neighborhood’s new workers. Walking down to Washington Street, Buckridge hailed Benjamin Lattimore, who was guiding his cart through the traffic: “I wonder if old General Schuyler ever imagined all these changes” he shouted, “and all this traffic.”

Gunflint fragments from 70 Broad Street.  Flintlock weapons were used from General Schuyler's day through Buckridge Webb's.

Gunflint fragments from 70 Broad Street. Flintlock weapons were used from General Schuyler’s day through Buckridge Webb’s.

Malcolm Street later became Broad Street, as Washington became South Pearl. Albany was indeed growing quickly throughout the 19th century. One of the early stimuli of growth and expansion was a massive influx of New Englanders beginning in the late 18th century. In the 1840s and 1850s, great waves of migrants arrived from Ireland and Germany. The South End became notably German in the 1850s. Thereafter the German language was seen in print and heard in conversation, and in the songs of the many singing societies. The Webbs owned 70 Broad Street from 1809-1825. The age of many of the artifacts found at 70 Broad Street suggest that this site, purchased by Buckridge Webb in 1809, was first developed and occupied as a residential property during the early 19th century.

An archaeologists carefully excavates with a mason's trowel at 70 Broad Street.

An archaeologists carefully excavates with a mason’s trowel at 70 Broad Street.

12 Malcolm Street (now 90-92 Broad Street) in Albany’s South End, 1816. Benjamin Lattimore, Sr. stood with his three youngest children (Mary, Betsy, and William, ages 8-11) in front of the building lot that Benjamin had purchased five years earlier. Benjamin bought this land from Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, daughter of the great General Philip Schulyler and widow of the esteemed Alexander Hamilton, one of the chief men of the republic.

Born in Connecticut and raised in Ulster County, New York, as a young man Benjamin himself had fought in the war for independence. While houses such as Buckridge Webb’s sprang up in this growing neighborhood, Benjamin’s purchase reflected a different vision: a school for Albany’s children of African descent, which the New York State legislature had just enabled by passing a law “to incorporate a School for People of Colour, in the city of Albany.” Benjamin and his associates had urged this legislative action. Now he stood with his children gazing at the building lot, listening to the comings and goings one short street away on Washington, and imagining the school. The day was warm, the grass was growing green under the April sun– the Malcolm Street lot was a pleasant place. These children would go to school here. Not taught to read and write as a child, Benjamin remembered when he used to sign his name with an X.

As our research in the South End progressed, we learned the story of Benjamin Lattimore, Sr., who purchased the house lots now numbered 90-92 Broad Street for development as Albany’s first school dedicated to educating African-American children. The school is an example of cultural diversity within the developing, early 19th century South End. It reflects as well the actions of “free people of colour” during the early 19th century (at a time when New York slowly transitioned away from the practice and legal status of slavery).

This hand-painted pearlware was found at 70 Broad Street (front and back images are shown).  This kind of ceramic was widely used during the early 19th century.

This hand-painted pearlware was found at 70 Broad Street. This kind of ceramic was widely used during the early 19th century.

Further Reading

The Colonial Albany History Project

Hughes, Marian I.
1998  Refusing Ignorance: The Struggle to Educate Black Children in Albany, New York, 1816-1873. Mt. Ida Press, Albany.

Kennedy, William
1983 O Albany! Penguin Books, New York.

McEneny, John J.
1998  Albany: Capital City on the Hudson. American Historical Press. Sun Valley, California.

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It Was Forty Years Ago Today (On Getting Started in Archaeology)

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


Since it is December 25 as I write this, I know exactly where I was 40 years ago today: I was at my parents’ home in Geneva, New York for Christmas, following my first season of field experience in archaeology. I had looked forward to my fall field school class since the spring, when I learned I needed it as a requirement of summer employment on an archaeological field crew. Without it, I spent the summer working as a field assistant in the Department of Entomology at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (apparently biology field schools are not required for this; but still, I found I was underqualified as an entomology field assistant until I learned, on the fly, to drive a standard transmission). I’m not complaining: I’ll never forget my experiences working among entomologists and other scientists at the Experiment Station.

In the fall, however, I continued my Anthropology major. At 20 years old, I had one foot in the youth culture of my teens (such as the world’s largest-ever rock and roll show at Watkins Glen in August ’73). With the other, I stepped decidedly into the archaeology career track I would follow through adulthood. This career has been a blend of learning, teaching, research, and cultural resource management (CRM). CRM itself involves a combination of finding, protecting, and wisely using archaeological sites. It is best applied with strong input from anthropological archaeology honed early in an academic setting.

The autumn of 1973 was when I went to Binghamton University’s archaeology field methods class, which was held at the Cottage site in Apalachin, New York, on the Susquehanna River a few miles west of our campus in Vestal. The instructor of record was South African archaeologist Nikolaas J. van der Merwe, but the class was actually taught by grad student Verna Hayes, who was an expert in the archaeology of the upper Susquehanna River region.

It was at the Cottage site that I kept finding bits of charcoal in the floodplain soil and wondered how they got there, since they were small, scattered granules not contained within ancient hearths. It is more common knowledge now that these little pieces of charcoal, stratified in sediments that are flood-deposited along rivers and streams, are proxy data on the frequency or extent of ancient forest burning, tracking events such as droughts (with attendant forest fires), and human clearing of the landscape by intentional burning. Extensive, active human involvement in forest ecology was rarely considered then, but is actively researched now (and denied less often).

Tents house archaeologists at the Sidney Airport site

Archaeologists’ tents at the Sidney Airport Site, June 1974, from left, tents of Ed Jess, Jeff Hantman, Ed Curtin, Bob Ewing.

The field school ended after the first week of November due to the predictable onset of bad weather. Bad weather, however, deters some archaeologists about as little as it does mail-carriers and NFL football teams. I spent much of November and early December as a volunteer in salvage archaeology operations conducted at the Sidney Airport site, where a circa 1200 AD (Owasco culture) Indian village site was being mined for gravel to provide road fill in the construction of the I-88 highway. No money was available at that time for archaeology, but the State Museum was able to intercede to allow volunteers from the university to respond. I went to the Sidney Airport site with Professors Fred Plog and Gene Sterud, plus a group of dedicated grad students. I remember that Fred disappeared in the afternoon, finally emerging from a four feet deep Owasco storage pit. He was with us all the time but invisible underground; and no doubt better protected from the biting wind. Trained in the surface collection and ruin-mapping archaeology common in Arizona, Fred explained that he had personally excavated the complexly-stratified, refuse-filled pit in order to learn how to do it.

In subsequent years (into the early 1980s), I graduated from Binghamton University and became a graduate student there myself. I fondly remember the highlights of those years. I worked for three summers in the I-88 highway archaeology program, which emerged better-funded by 1974. Our crews completed the salvage excavation of the Sidney Airport site (funded this time), recorded numerous additional archaeological sites in the right-of-way of the as- yet-unbuilt interstate, and went on to a data recovery phase in 1977-1978. During that period I also gained my first teaching experience, along with fellow teaching assistant Ed Hession, in a 1976 field school directed by Gene Sterud.

By the end of the I-88 archaeology project I was conducting Masters thesis research, which for me was a collections-based project that took me to museums in Rochester, Albany, Ottawa, East Lansing and Ann Arbor to study Archaic period (ca. 2000 BC) artifact assemblages, and carefully measure and record samples of Lamoka and Dustin type projectile points (or as my advisor, Al Dekin liked to refer to them, “Ladustin and Dumoka points”).

Archaeologists working

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

By 1979-1980, I was engaged in fieldwork for my Ph. D. dissertation. This project took me to the southern Finger Lakes region for two summers, where I worked excavating Archaic period sites with some of my best friends and two excellent teams of undergrad students, who we were teaching field methods within the context of a research project rooted in anthropological archaeology. We also made sure to incorporate common CRM field survey techniques. A small historic preservation, survey and planning grant assisted with the archaeological survey, and we integrated this work with the educational experience. Many of the field school students were themselves on the verge of entering into CRM work, at least for short careers as archaeological field technicians.

My career in CRM and other aspects of archaeology has been considerably longer, and has included a wonderful diversity of experience (much of it obtained after 1980 in the upper Hudson River region). After forty years, I pause to enjoy some fond memories, including some of my oldest.


Pethick Site Open House July 1 & 2 in Central Bridge NY

Posted by Kerry Nelson on June 28, 2013 in Archaeology |


Join New York State Archaeologist Dr. Christina Rieth and others for an open house at the Pethick Site!

The Annual Pethick Archaeological Site Open House will be held Monday, July 1st, and Tuesday, July 2nd from 10am – 2pm on Smith Road in Central Bridge. The Pethick Site is in its ninth season of excavation as an archaeological field school co-taught by the New York State Museum and University of Albany, SUNY. It is a rich and important Native American site, and to date has yielded almost 300,000 artifacts and several hundred soil features. Evidence recovered in the excavations suggests that this location has been used for several thousand years by the indigenous people of the Schoharie Valley.

Visitors to the site will be given tours by university students, but they are welcome to explore at their own pace and stay as long as they would like. Professional archaeologists, including State Archaeologist Dr. Christina Rieth and Dr. Sean Rafferty of the University at Albany, will be on hand to look at private artifact collections, which visitors are encouraged to bring. The site is fairly easily accessed (in a farm field). For safety reasons, guests will not be allowed to excavate.

Visitors of all ages are welcome! There is no cost for this event.

For more information, call (518)402-5975 or (518)473-1503.

From Albany: Take I-88W to Exit 23– Schoharie/Central Bridge. At the end of the ramp, turn right. At the flashing red light, turn left onto 30/7A. Cross the Schoharie Creek, then take your first left onto Smith Rd. Follow to the end– the site is visible on the left.

via Christina B. Rieth


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