“If I have seen farther…” Why State Archaeologists, Archaeology Curators, and State Museums Are Important

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on July 8, 2011 in Archaeology |

“If I have seen farther” Isaac Newton said, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

And so he acknowledged his debt to those on whose work his great achievements were based.  The prominent American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, delving deeper into Newton’s aphorism, found that the Romans, too, knew about standing on the shoulders of giants.  According to one translation of Lucan:

“Pygmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves.”

Now, that really puts the whole thing into perspective, doesn’t it?  It truly matters who came before you.  No matter whether you are Newton or someone history will find less compelling.  We indeed build on what came before, and in the scholarly enterprise, it is necessary to support those institutions that foster traditions of scholarship and the service that scholars provide.

Image from American Indian Freemasonry (1919) by Arthur Caswell Parker

Some of the giants of American archaeology were the State Archaeologists of New York.  The institution that supported them has been the New York State Museum.

If you have heard of New York’s first State Archaeologist, Arthur C. Parker, but know little about him, do not fret.  There are at least two recent biographies and a dissertation about Parker’s life and career, plus other essay-length studies of his contributions to archaeology, ethnology, American Indian folk-lore, and the professionalization of museums.  The recent biographical work tends to focus on aspects of Parker’s identity as an American Indian in relation to his career as an archaeologist and anthropologist.  But to be brief, Parker was a very accomplished Renaissance Man, and an important American intellectual of the first half of the 20th century.  His Native American-Archaeologist legacy is preserved in the name of the scholarships the Society for American Archaeology currently awards to indigenous archaeology students.

Archaeology of New York State

Archaeology of New York State

William A. Ritchie wrote The Archaeology of New York State, which, for those of us who try to stand on his shoulders, provides both a guide and a foil for our research.  In the 1930s, Parker and Ritchie helped to found the Society for American Archaeology, the foremost professional organization for American archaeologists.  Under Parker’s guidance, Ritchie introduced one of the fundamentally most important concepts in American archaeology:  a long Archaic period of hunting and gathering that preceded the adoption of corn agriculture.  Later, Ritchie made seminal contributions to Iroquoian research that today still challenge archaeologists to deepen their understanding of cultural history and the origins of Iroquois institutions and life-ways.

Robert E. Funk was another stalwart in this New York tradition.  The great University of Utah archaeologist Jesse Jennings referred to Funk’s knowledge as “encyclopedic.”  Funk was a master of synthesizing vast arrays of information into coherent cultural historical models.  I have been told that Jennings personally ensured that as many as possible of Ritchie’s and Funk’s publications were available at the University of Utah so that scholars there could be aware of the major developments in Northeastern archaeology.

William A. Ritchie

William A. Ritchie in the field, c. 1954, image courtesy of the New York State Museum

Although it didn’t always feel that way, the New York State Museum nurtured these careers.  These individuals became giants of archaeology at regional and national scales, exemplifying leadership in an area of great societal importance–  heritage–  much to the benefit of New York State, which has long cherished its role as a leader.  Over the course of more than a century since Parker was named the museum’s archaeologist, the New York State Museum, through good times and bad, through the Great Depression and World Wars I and II, and through more recent hard times, has provided significant leadership in American archaeology.  Its archaeologists have served the people of New York by providing information about the history of its Native and colonial people, of its merchants and farmers, and of its urban and rural places of cultural significance.

Funk Upper Susquehanna

Archaeological Investigations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State, by Robert E. Funk

The State Museum’s curators have maintained collections of archaeological and ethnological importance that were donated to the State of New York even before there was a State Museum.  When it comes to standing on the shoulders of giants, the collections made by earlier anthropologists and archaeologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Parker, Ritchie, and Funk continue to inform the archaeological and anthropological research of succeeding generations.  During the short time when I worked at the New York State Museum (1986-1990), I used Funk’s collections from the Upper Susquehanna valley to inform my Ph. D. dissertation research.  Funk, still at the State Museum at that time, completed his study of the collections he made through exacting fieldwork in the upper Susquehanna region, resulting in a large, two-volume, published report that appears to have no equal in Northeastern archaeology.  Jon Lothrop finished analysis of Ritchie’s collection from the Potts site, and Lynne Sullivan studied Parker’s collection from the Ripley site.  These investigations into old collections complemented well-focused, multi-season, new field research at the Potts and the Ripley sites.  Jay Custer studied Ritchie’s Kipp Island collection to assist his analysis of the Island Field site in Delaware.  Jim Petersen and Michael Heckenberger studied Ritchie’s collections from the Van Orden, Hunter, and Muskellunge Lake sites to aid their research of the Boucher site in Vermont.  Bob Kuhn continued his studies of Mohawk tribal archaeology through repeated visits to the Archaeology Range while I worked there, and I suspect afterward.  Sally McLendon studied the Morgan collection, including both ethnological and archaeological objects that had survived the State Capitol fire in 1911.

Morgan, regarded as the “Founder of American Anthropology” and a well-known

Lewis Henry Morgan

Lewis Henry Morgan

industrialist and entrepreneur of his day, donated several significant collections to the State of New York from 1848-1850.  After the State Museum was founded, Morgan’s collections went there.  The other collections just mentioned had been in the State Museum for anywhere from approximately 10 to 80 years when they were revisited in the late 1980s.   A tremendous amount of information had been preserved and remained accessible (It remains so today).  During the 1980s, the State Museum replaced a retiring curator, launching a massive inventory of artifacts and related documents with new National Science Foundation funding, while consciously recognizing the value of professional expertise in the curatorial role.  Fundamentally, the museum encouraged the activity of the archaeology curator in promoting the use of the collections, and in evaluating the importance and likely success of proposed collections research, as a peer with experience and the highest qualifications.  It seemed to me that this was very basic during Lynne Sullivan’s tenure as curator, and remains so with the current curators, based upon the evidence of their backgrounds, education, and prior experience, as well as the continued use of the collections.  Significant archaeological collections research at the New York State Museum continues to this day, demonstrated, for example, over the last 10+ years through numerous professional and public presentations, as well as highly visible, and easily accessible publications by archaeologists such as Christina Rieth, Jonathan Lothrop, John Hart, Hetty Jo Brumbach, James Bradley, Elizabeth Chilton, and James Truncer.

New York State Museum

The New York State Museum, image by Matt H. Wade

The State Museum and its staff in the roles of State Archaeologist and Curators of Archaeology, have long provided much of the leadership and a strong, enduring foundation–  one might say strong shoulders–  for archaeology in New York State.  This is, in fact, an essential service, because history and culture fundamentally define identity for many New Yorkers, especially those New Yorkers with deep roots in the state.  Moreover, since New York communities engendered numerous of the daughter communities of pioneers and displaced Native Americans who moved west during the 19th century, New York’s archaeological legacy provides a reference point for a wide variety of modern-day Americans.  A unique and irreplaceable part of the understanding we have of history and culture comes from archaeology.

Small Lithic Sites in the Northeast

Small Lithic Sites in the Northeast edited by Christina B. Rieth

Obviously, it is not possible to reflect back upon careers still in the making with a real prospect of seeing a complete or nearly complete picture; but the State Archaeologist (Dr. Christina Rieth) and the archaeology curators (Dr. Jonathan Lothrop and Dr. Charles Orser) currently at the New York State Museum are accomplished archaeologists, well-known, professionally active, and extremely well-qualified with respect to the tradition of excellence that has characterized this important institution.  Archaeologists of the late 21st century may well stand on their shoulders, and see farther for it.  Nonetheless, these roles, along with two other State Museum scientist positions, are now threatened by state budget cut-backs, unless a decision by the State Education Department can be rescinded by July 21.  The loss of three significant archaeology positions provides a tremendous blow to the State Museum’s tradition of leadership in the field of archaeology.

I feel, and I think that many archaeologists feel that the loss of these positions will

Northeast Subsistence-Settlement Change A.D. 700-1300

Northeast Subsistence-Settlement Change A.D. 700-1300 edited by John P. Hart and Christina B. Rieth

not only weaken the State Museum, but will greatly diminish the effectiveness of archaeologists who work outside the State Museum.  For example, the State Museum archaeologists have significantly encouraged the publication of archaeological research in New York.  In addition, the curators provide access and interpretive expertise to the vast body of information that resides in the archaeological collections, which are valuable for assessing the significance of archaeological finds, both for pure research and for publicly mandated archaeological surveys.  In my own experience as an archaeologist whose special area of interest involves the prehistoric Native American cultures of the Hudson valley, my understanding of important information and my ability to convey it have been sharpened and improved on multiple occasions during the past year by conversations with Jon Lothrop and Christina Rieth.  I intend to write a letter today to ask that this decision be rescinded in view of the important roles that these positions (and the people who occupy them) serve.

I urge you to join me in supporting these important scientists.  If you do write to Chancellor Tisch, I have attached some points you may want to make.  These were circulated by the New York State Archaeological Association earlier this week.

Letter to the Chancellor:

Points to make in your Letter to Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch:

  1. express deep concern over the recent layoff of five museum scientists and the process by which the decision was made.
  2. emphasize the quality and productivity that these professionals bring to their work, especially for educators and the general public.
  3. If you are a resident of New York, make clear that this is a good use of taxpayer money.  These are important public service positions.  Note – the museum is mandated to keep collections; it is the professional staff that makes them usable and available.
  4. If you are not a resident of New York, emphasize the leadership role the Museum and its professional staff have earned nationally and internationally.  It serves as a model educational institution for other states.
  5. While layoffs may need to occur, given the budget problems, the specific decisions as to who should be made by the Museum Director.  He and his staff are the ones who best understand how the museum needs to meet its mandated responsibilities.
  6. Finally, in what ever way seems best to you, express your strong support for the museum, its professional staff and the essential services it provides (for free) to the people of New York State.

Send your letter to:

Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch

With copies to:

Dr. John B. King, Jr.

Dr. Clifford A. Siegfried, Director, New York State Museum

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