I’m a North American archaeologist who uses the archaeology of the more recent past (AD 1300 to yesterday) to challenge and complicate that which we think we know about America’s past, present, and future. Currently researching the archaeology of the New York City water system as a way of speaking about the cultural impacts of environmental decisions. Recently published a manual on how to identify and interpret animal bones from archaeology sites.

Maps Lie, and Other Field Survey Finds

Our Day of Archaeology was spent conducting field survey in Kent, New York. We were on properties owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and adjacent to the West Branch Reservoir that is part of the City’s water system.

The City’s maps of these properties depict boundaries, some generalized topography, and sometimes trails, roads, or buildings. But archaeological survey generates very different maps of the same places.

For example, today’s units were Adams and Dean Pond. The Adams map suggests that we will find 2 buildings on DEP land at the SW corner then a trail that takes us through the unit. The Dean Pond map suggests that there are no roads, trails, or buildings. Some map readers might even believe the Dean Pond unit is preserved forest.

The official NYC DEP maps of Adams and Dean Pond. Note the depicted locations of building foundations and trails.

Armed with our handheld GPS units (Garmin is our brand of choice) and a high-end Nikon camera, my 3 summer research assistants and I went out to explore these units and document what is really there (or not there).

The Adams Unit had a lot of recent trash (beverage bottles and packages from fish bait and fishing lures) right by the reservoir. There was also a rowboat here, locked to a tree. The two buildings were actually private residences, and therefore off-limits despite what the map suggested. We hiked all through very rough terrain (steep slopes plus boulders) and never found the trails marked on the DEP maps. Our Garmins said we were on the trail. We trust our Garmins more than the DEP maps.

What we will be adding to our own version of the Adams map is a building foundation not far from the private residences and one of the most formal stone walls we have encountered in the forests of Kent. Despite the changing topography, this wall was consistent in size and shape for a long distance. The stones were tabular and shaped, not simply piled. Someone put a lot of effort into this wall, and therefore into this property. We’ll have to do more research to figure out what function it served here.

An undocumented building foundation and formal stone wall then goes on for 0.5 miles.

Next we surveyed the Dean Pond Unit. The DEP map shows a blank space yet there is a maintained road right into the unit (for DEP use only). We always follow roads because roads usually lead to places of cultural importance. This road passed through a few less formal stone walls and ended at a very large pile of mulch and cut tree logs. From there the property turned from forest into a beautiful meadow  (we did some “Sound of Music” re-enactments) and we followed an ATV road (ATVs are not allowed on these properties) until it became a foot trail, then a network of foot trails. (Remember there are no trails at all on the DEP map).

The Dean Pond Unit contained a beautiful meadow…but no mountains or wandering singers.

Far into the unit we followed an average stone wall that had barbed wire attached to metal posts along its length. This was not a beautiful wall yet it certainly was part of controlling animal access to the meadow. Along this wall we documented a trash scatter from the 1970s that contained beverage bottles, glass jars, and a metal bathroom scale. This find ranks right up there with the metal deli meat slicer found on another property. Given the high sugar content of the associated beverage bottles, can we speculate that someone who drank a lot of soda gave up on weighing themselves and tossed everything out together?

A metal bathroom scale found in the woods along with some circa 1970s beverage bottles.

A metal bathroom scale found in the woods along with some circa 1970s beverage bottles.

Next week we will download all the locations of our finds – from walls to beverage bottles – and begin to make our cultural maps of these places. These maps provide a means for discussing how the landscape has changed in the 150-years since New York City acquired lands to create its reservoir system. That program changed the trajectory of many New York towns, destroying some and altering others.

Instead of going on and on about our research project, we’ll leave you with this take away message: Maps show what their makers want you to see. Wherever you see a blank spot on a map of your town, ask what used to be there. Go explore and you will see the past is everywhere, even in the woods. No digging required.

Lastly, our methodology is to take photos and lat/long coordinates of our finds. We DO NOT collect any artifacts. We DO NOT disturb the ground. We simply hike with our eyes open and our GPS devices, cameras, and notebooks record what we see.

Less Glamorous Summer of One College Professor

By now it should be clear that college professors don’t really have summers off. Some of my colleagues have posted about their summer fieldwork, teaching, or writing, but many of us are also preparing for the coming academic year.

Starting this fall, I am entering into a partnership with the local National Park Service to provide them with archaeological expertise and my students with real-world experience in cultural resource management. On the surface that seems like great fun, and it is, but it also a lot of work. I’ve spent weeks upgrading an archaeology lab to handle the influx of projects, artifacts, and student workers. This takes time, money, and a large dose of patience.

 

Tray

How difficult is it to order trays for the archaeology lab?

For example, I ordered 24 trays to hold artifacts for analysis. A week after placing the order I received a large box with one tray in it. Several phone calls later it was clear that if I returned this one tray they would send out a new set of 24. Single tray returned and one week later I received another large box with one tray in it. Phone calls… return single tray again… 24 trays arrive three weeks after placing the order. (If you think that is crazy, you don’t want to know how many emails it takes to get an electrical outlet installed.)

 

Birds

These birds crashed into my office window and now they are part of my comparative collection.

Within archaeology I specialize in bone identification. Preparing to teach forensic anthropology this spring means many hours spent in the lab sorting bones that have become unorganized over the past year. Boxes, bags, labels, and a good music playlist make time fly by as I work to re-associate a femur with a tibia and a clavicle with a sternum. Once the human collection is reorganized it is time to clean off some of the new animal skeletons and get them in color coded and labeled boxes. Until last week I had 15 animals decomposing in my backyard. Now I have two.

 

Crypt

A geocache was hidden against the outside wall of this crypt but it looks like people have broken into it.

 

Because my love of the outdoors goes along with my love for archaeology, I am taking breaks from all this lab and administrative work to go geocaching. This spring I am teaching a new course called Maps, Culture, and Archaeology. I hope to use geocaching to teach students how to navigate with paper maps and with handheld GPS units. That means I need to get better at geocaching and setup the new GPS units. The last cache I found was at this crypt – coordinates are N 40° 49.994 W 083° 07.923

 

My Day of Archaeology may not have been glamorous but I accomplished a lot of things that will help make the next academic year run more smoothly.

Museum Mummy and Boxes of Animal Bone

This day of archaeology is somewhat typical for me. I specialize in the analysis of human and animal bones (humans are animals after all). Today’s work involves taking a look at an Egyptian mummy and packing up approximately 2,000 animal bones for shipment.

Mummies are a relatively common component of art museum collections. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, museums built their artifact collections by buying objects with little concern over how they were acquired by dealers. Mummies and their sarcophagi (cases) could be purchased individually or as a pair. Ethics have greatly changed since then and such transactions are now rare.

The mummy I went to see is in storage at the Vassar art museum. My goal was not to conduct any scientific study of the mummy, it was simply to evaluate the potential to use it as part of my introductory archaeology course in the fall. The mummy is in very good condition, which means that anyone expecting to clearly see an arm, leg, or face will be disappointed. This will allow my class to discuss where their fascination with archaeology lies – do they simply want to see something that is macabre or do they have a genuine interest in understanding the past? For those with a genuine interest, this mummy presents a challenge in that it is both easy and difficult to learn more about it.

A simple Google search will produce several different stories about the mummy, each coming from what seems to be a reputable source. This is one of the greatest challenges archaeology professors face – how do we teach our students to search for the best answer since there is often no single right answer about the past. For example, one Vassar source says the mummy is Swty-Hetep, a priestess of Isis from 200 BC. Another Vassar source says the mummy is Shep-en-Min, the son of a chantress who died in his late teens around 600 BCE. A third Vassar source says the mummy is Shep-en-min who was a priest involved in rituals for the god Min. His age is placed at 25 to 30 years old and cause of death may have been a fracture of his right leg. The more recent analyses of the mummy are likely more reliable than the older ones as technology has allowed researchers to look under the wraps without unwrapping him. A video showing how this was done can be found on YouTube and a newspaper article is at the local newspaper site.

 

 

These boxes contain approximately 2,000 fragments of animal bone.

These boxes contain approximately 2,000 fragments of animal bone

As a North American archaeologist I have no special expertise in mummy analysis nor do I have a great interest in mummies. But students and most non-archaeologists expect me to talk about mummies so I do. I am more interested in understanding the past of people who lived in the same places that my students and I live.

Currently, I am finishing up a report on animal bones recovered from sites in Nevada. As a faunal analyst, other archaeologists send the bones they recover to me for specialized study. I identify the bones and then interpret them and mail them back along with a report.

These bones are helping those who excavated the site to understand what some stone circles or rock rings were used for. As with the mummy, there are various ways of interpreting these features and additional data helps to create a more reliable interpretation.  In archaeology we are always refining our understanding of the past using new tools. Some are high tech like CT scans. Others are low tech like using the complete skeletons of known animals to identify tiny fragments of animal bones recovered during excavation.

These animal skeletons are used to identify the fragments of bone recovered during excavation.

These animal skeletons are used to identify the fragments of bone recovered during excavation.