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.