Digging a Battlefield of American History

The reflections of a volunteer on an archaeological dig.

After digging down about only 40 cm, it looked as though I had hit bedrock.  It was the end of my fourth day of digging and I started to clean up the edges of my pit before moving on to a new location.  While scraping the pit wall with my trowel, a large stone came loose.  As I removed the stone, another object popped out and I caught it in my hand. It appeared to be a large arrowhead, about 6 cm or 2.5 inches long.  When Dr. Starbuck explained that it was really a Meadowood cache blade, more than 2000 years old, I was hooked on a new avocation as an archaeological field hand or ‘shovel bum.’

Let me backup and tell you what drew me to this particular dig in the first place.

Many people I’ve met have expressed at least a passing interest in archaeology.  I was no different.  Frequent visits to Fort William Henry in Lake George as a boy sparked my interest.  There I watched in the 1950s and 1960s, as archeologists unearthed skeletons, musket balls and other artifacts.  As I grew older, concerns with the present overshadowed an interest in the past and deferred my dream, lying dormant for more than 50 years.  Now in semi-retirement, I had the time and resources to fulfill that dream.  All I needed was an opportunity. 

That opportunity came when I read about the SUNY Adirondack project, led by Dr. David Starbuck, taking place at the Lake George Battlefield Park over the summer.  Only recently did I learn that you don’t have to be an archaeologist to take part in a dig.  All it requires is an interest in history, endless curiosity and a willingness to get dirty.  Every project needs field hands to excavate test pits, expose features and unearth artifacts.  My familiarity with the location from spending my summers as a boy in Lake George made it a compelling opportunity. With the encouragement of Kathy, my wife, I signed on as a member of the dig team.

Located at the southern end of the lake and operated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Lake George Battlefield Park preserves the sites of major battles and encampments from the French & Indian War, as well as the American Revolution, making it a prime site for conducting archeology.  Many of the events that inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans, actually occurred here.  Among the features found in the Park are stone ruins of a bastion from Fort George, which the British began building in 1759, but later abandoned after taking control of Fort Carillon, now known as Fort Ticonderoga.  The observant visitor can also see the outline of foundations from other encampment buildings, including barracks, powder magazines, a hospital, a stone quarry and a limekiln.

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battlefield2Statue honoring Native Americans in Lake George Battlefield Park. Erected in 1921. Photo by Ray Sarnacki

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On my first day at the dig, memories of youthful summer days came flooding back as I drove into this scenic park, with its boulder-dotted landscape and strategic view overlooking the blue depths of Lake George.  Among those memories were riding my bike along the winding paths that course through the park and stopping to explore the ruins of Fort George.  Each time before leaving, I would throw a penny into the pool of water at the base of the statue honoring Native Americans.  These boyhood visits gave me an appreciation of the history that occurred here, but participating in the dig reacquainted me with the park’s beauty and history in a more intimate way, generating new memories in the process.

About a dozen or so people participated in the dig while I was there.  Some, like me, stayed for two weeks, while others came and went as their schedules allowed. Several members of the crew were students participating for course credit, while others were volunteers with eclectic backgrounds.  Included among them were two women who drove a school bus and operated an antique shop, a recently retired forester, a nurse from New Hampshire, an accountant from Fort William Henry, and a woman from Michigan researching an ancestor who died in the Battle of Lake George.  Most had previous experience on digs and a good working knowledge of archaeology. 

By comparison, I was a neophyte.  I didn’t know one end of a trowel from another and screening the dirt for artifacts gave “shaking your booty” a completely new meaning for me. The lead archaeologist, David Starbuck, provided background on the history of the site as context for the dig’s objectives.  Lunchtime lectures added to our knowledge and afforded a needed respite from the heat.  However, I still felt somewhat inept when it came to the practical aspects of how to dig. 

Fortunately, our crew chief, Sue Leslie, not only explained techniques for digging, she also gave us practical advice needed to survive the dig. For example, after working in close proximity with Sue at the end of my first day digging, she counseled me to take a shower upon returning to my room.  When asked if I really smelled that bad, she explained that poison ivy surrounded my pit and it would be a good idea to wash off the oil from the plants to avoid a rash.  After hearing that, my skin immediately began to itch, even though a rash didn’t appear until four days after my return home.

Few things can compare to the excitement of hands-on archaeology. Unearthing something that no one has seen for several hundred years stimulates the imagination, creating an instant bond between you and the person who left it there.  A bond, I might add, that you cannot achieve by just reading history books.  After finding anything I considered interesting, I would search out David or Sue to show them, like a cat proudly carrying a dead mouse to its owners. In the process, I learned that sometimes a rock is just a rock.  Other times, my find turned out truly to be an artifact dating back to the 1750’s, or, as in the case of the Meadowood cache blade, even older.   I did find a number of other artifacts one might expect from a military encampment of that period: a musket ball, hand wrought nails, sherds from a delftware teacup, glassware from a wine glass stem, and green glass from a large bottle. I even found phalanges (finger bones) that were probably from a deer or sheep.

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battlefield3Author talking with the crew chief, Sue Leslie. Photo credit David Starbuck

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Shannon Havens (left) Peter Lihatsh and Mary Jane Breedlove expose the corner of a building with a brick floor Photo credit David Starbuck

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battlefield5Site of limekiln partially exposed. Photo credit David Starbuck

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However, finding the cache blade gave me the biggest thrill. As I showed it to David, he looked at me incredulously and asked whether it had really come out of my pit.  After reassuring him that it had, he explained that it dated to the Early Woodland Period (1000-1 BC).  While they look like arrowheads, blades are not notched for hafting to a shaft and are usually found in large numbers or ‘caches.’  Native Americans from this period used them primarily as burial offerings.  To David’s knowledge, no one had ever found one at Lake George. Later in the dig, I also found a hammerstone used for knapping flint.  Based on its proximity to where I found the tool, I like to believe that someone had used it to create the blade I found, though I have no hard evidence to substantiate the claim.  For the rest of the dig, I became obsessed with the single-minded purpose of unearthing more cache blades, but to no avail.

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battlefield6Author holding Meadowood cache blade. Photo credit David Starbuck

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battlefield7Meadowood cache blade dates to the Early Woodland period. Photo credit David Starbuck

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Archaeology is not just about finding artifacts as a collector does, simply to possess them.  It is about uncovering the story behind them to fill in history’s gaps. Based on historical writings, we already know much about what happened at the Lake George Battlefield, but The Last of the Mohicans also created much popular lore unfounded by facts on the ground.  The objective of our dig at Lake George was to provide more information that would allow the State to improve signage and create an interpretive center to house some of the artifacts we uncovered, giving visitors a greater appreciation of the park’s historical significance. Plans for future digs over the next few years will expand on the work our team did this past summer.

Overall, the dig lasted six weeks with the team opening around 40 pits and uncovering several features.  The mixed nature of the artifacts I found during my two weeks digging make it difficult to determine what occurred at the specific site where I dug. Opening additional pits in the future will likely clarify the story.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed speculating about who had made and used some of these items and the possible stories behind why they were there.  To establish a basis for my speculation, I’ve recently begun reading about the Woodland period, starting with William Ritchie’s Archaeology of New York State.

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battlefield1Numerous test pits were dug along the west side of the park. Photo by Ray Sarnacki

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battlefield8Digging in the field. We had hoped to find evidence of the smallpox hospital from the mid-1700’s but the mixed artifacts found were inconclusive. Photo credit David Starbuck

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battlefield9Sue Leslie discussing a possible dig site with Doug Schmid, a member of the dig team. Photo by Ray Sarnacki

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At dinner on my last evening in Lake George, I ate at a restaurant on the water.  From my vantage point, I saw the hill where the park sits and tried to imagine what it must have been like back in the 1750s as well as during the Woodland period.  My experience as a ‘shovel bum’ really made the history of the site more tangible for me.  After throwing a penny in the pool surrounding the Native American statue, I left that Friday evening with an itch to come back and dig again.  On the other hand, maybe it was just the poison ivy flaring up on my arm.

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Interested readers can link to numerous archaeological field school opportunities at this website.

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