Walking in October Light: A Memory of Learning about the Archaic Period

(This is a seasonal re-post of an original blog posting dated October 29, 2012)
(This is the third in a series of posts on the Archaic period in New York State)

            This month as I drive down narrow country roads on my way to work, the sunlight shines at low angles through the tree canopies ahead, reminding me of an earlier time when I walked through October light in Albany, New York’s Washington Park on my way to the State Museum.  It was the late 1970s, and I had come to Albany from Binghamton to study with State Archaeologist Bob Funk, supported by a SUNY pre-doctoral research fellowship.  Two or three days a week I would wind my through the park to the old State Museum, lodged in the massive, Corinthian-columned State Education building that had been its home since 1912.  On these walks I was particularly struck by the quality of the October morning light shining through the autumn leaves in the wondrous, Olmstead-inspired city park.

Maple leaves in the morning light of October.

Maple leaves in the morning light of October.

            At the museum, Beth Wellman provided access to the Mattice No. 2 site collection of Late Archaic period artifacts that I was studying to learn more about Lamoka phase lithic technology (I had visited the excavation of this site during the archaeological survey of the nearby I-88 highway right-of-way).  Meanwhile, Bob Funk guided my reading on the Archaic period.  They both often spoke to me about Mattice No. 2 and other sites, and the design and goals of their upper Susquehanna archaeological project (Funk 1993, 1998).  A pre-doctoral student, I was essentially a novice in the discipline of Archaic studies, but keen about what I might learn.  I learned a lot, and quickly began to apply it to my understanding of Northeastern archaeology, and within another semester, to my work at Binghamton University’s Public Archaeology Facility.

            I will always fondly remember the kindness and collegiality shown by Bob and Beth, curator Charlie Gillette, and Highway Archaeology director Phil Lord.  I will never forget how great it was, on occasion, to be invited for an afternoon pumpkin pie break with Bob and Phil in a nearby state workers’ cafeteria.  Over the next several years, and as the museum moved to its new building, I visited every so often.  I recall Bob’s excitement on one of these visits, when he had just received the radiocarbon dates for the Early Archaic components at the Johnsen No. 3 site (Funk 1993:152; Funk and Wellman 1984).  Bob had just been delivered long-awaited, definitive data on this poorly understood period of Northeastern United States human history (more or less about 9,000 years old).  I was indeed fortunate to be able to share in a growing perspective of the Archaic period, in which Bob was a leader.

            Time goes on.  My analysis based on the lithics of the Mattice No. 2 site eventually was published (Curtin 1996), as was Bob’s full site report (Funk 1998:151-176).  For my part, I was impressed that the Occupation 2 chipped stone assemblage seemed to be geared for transportability--  an indication of human mobility on a large landscape--  despite some indications that people may have spent some time at Mattice No. 2 during this period of occupation.  Bob favored the interpretation of Occupation 2 as a seasonal settlement.  I continue to ponder this site and its technology years later.  Bob mulled over the implications of the size, linear shape, and concentration of features and artifacts in Occupation 2, long reporting his unorthodox interpretation word-of-mouth, and then finally putting in print his proposition that “the occupants of zone 2 constructed, lived, and worked within a longhouse type structure about 65 feet in length and 20-25 feet wide” (Funk 1998:163). 

            This is an exceedingly uncommon interpretation, given the great time-gap (more than 3,000 years) between the age of Occupation 2 (about 2000 BC) and the well-documented, post-AD 1000 longhouses of the Late Woodland period in upstate New York.  There seems to be little or no evidence of longhouses in the intervening centuries and millennia, no continuity, no slowly evolving set of longhouse connections over time.  More often, it is assumed that Late Archaic social groups were small and lived in small shelters.  But Bob’s interpretation is not one that I care to reject due to lack of comparable data.  It is, perhaps, a very useful challenge to some embedded assumptions about what could happen during the Archaic contrasted to later developments such as life in longhouses.  I prefer to accept Bob’s view as an indication that social forms and living arrangements that archaeologists have not considered within that early time frame may have developed at some sites, under conditions we have not adequately contemplated.  It’s a reminder to keep an open mind.  

            Archaeologists who study the Archaic period are in a position to observe how social forms came and went in the context of changing conditions a very long time ago.  We perhaps should not find seemingly precocious developments entirely out of place if they do not appear plausibly connected to later (but perhaps similar) developments.  We still know too little about how Archaic cultures were organized, how they varied, how the Archaic as a great era ended, and how the Archaic is related to the Woodland period cultures that came afterward.

            All that aside, I might not recall those good old days at the State Museum so often (or with seasonal regularity) if not for the distinctive quality of the October sunbeams that my car now-a-days flashes through on country roads, red and yellow maple leaves dropping, earthy-brown oak leaves still clinging to twigs and branches, the Wooly Bears (large and abundant this year) foretelling the nature of the coming winter. 

References Cited

Curtin, Edward V.
  1996Late Archaic Period Technology and Land Use Patterns: Lessons Learned from the Mattice No. 2 Site.  In A Golden Chronograph for Robert E. Funk, edited by Chris Lindner and Edward V. Curtin, pp. 119-128.  Occasional Publications in Northeastern Anthropology Number 15, Archaeological Services, Bethlehem, Connecticut.

Funk, Robert E.
  1993Archaeological Investigations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State, Volume 1.  Persimmon Press, Buffalo

 1998Archaeological Investigations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State, Volume 2.  Persimmon Press, Buffalo.

Funk, Robert E. and Beth Wellman
  1984Evidence of Early Holocene Occupations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State.  Archaeology of Eastern North America 12:72-80.

Looking for Leif Erikson: A Busman’s Holiday along the Bass River, Cape Cod

           Cape Cod reaches out from New England like a great strong arm, elbow bent, hand curving inward as if to clench a fist.  Cape Cod fights against the crashing Atlantic as its land is carved away and slowly sinks below the rising sea.  Behind the crumbling bluffs backing Nausett and the other Atlantic beaches lays an historic land where Pilgrims landed in 1620, Puritan settlers built houses and mills, and Wampanoag Indians mustered the resilience to match the colonial enterprise back then and for the next 400 years.                               

            In the center of Cape Cod, starting almost at Cape Cod Bay and draining south to Nantucket Sound, the Bass River flows through this historical landscape, thematically a little distant from Corn Hill, First Encounter Beach, and the 17th century sites of Sandwich and neighboring towns.  But the Bass River has a very special historical connection to an unmatched legend:  it is purported to be the scene of Leif Erikson’s Vinland.  I learned this on my recent Cape Cod vacation, when I picked up a copy of Cape Cod Collected:  A Selection of Cape Cod’s Greatest Stories by Jim Coogan and Jack Sheedy.  Sheedy wrote the part about Vinland.

                                                                           A view of Bass River

                                                                           A view of Bass River

            I know I am just a tourist in this story, but I think it is important while considering history to also consider legend.  However, it also is important to be wary of poorly founded legends, obvious fabrications, or conflicting stories.  For example, local legend in the Village of Ballston Spa, New York (where my office is located) holds that James Fenimore Cooper wrote portions of The Last of the Mohicans while staying at a local hotel.  I sincerely doubt that this is true (Curtin 2011).  Looking into this I learned that Cooper’s daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, described how her father had been inspired to write the book while on an upstate excursion that took him eventually to Glens Falls, where the story was born in a conversation he had there.  According to Susan, her father wrote the book after hurrying back to the family on Long Island with the idea.  Apparently The Last of the Mohicans was written on Long Island, not in Ballston Spa.  However, James Fenimore Cooper’s stay in Ballston Spa (at a different hotel than the one mentioned in the legend) may have inspired a certain scene in The Last of the Mohicans, set next to a little creek containing a spring.  The kernels of truth in the local legend are (1) Cooper did sojourn in Ballston Spa; and (2) he apparently stole a scene from the village to recreate in his best known book (while writing it on Long Island).

            In the case of Leif’s journey up the Bass River, it isn’t really possible to debunk the claim that Leif may have done this, or wintered at Follins Pond through which the river flows.  There aren’t any solid facts to check, only sagas, which are oral histories written-down several generations removed from the events.  As far as Cape Cod goes, the Bass River-Follins Pond system resembles the estuary where Leif’s ship was grounded and then lifted by the tide to sail upstream to a lake where the Viking leader found it suitable to spend the winter (this story of Leif is contained in the saga known as The Greenlander’s Saga).  Jack Sheedy’s writing on this legendary account finds that the details of the Bass River location match those of Leif’s journey in the sagas, and that Cape Cod’s latitude “matches the vague latitudinal inferences in the sagas.”  The comfortable inferences of distance and latitude have been claimed by others, and there probably are those who would debate them.  Holand (1940) has more about the distance calculations.  This idea has been around and applied to Massachusetts locales for a while.

                                                                                Bass River

                                                                                Bass River

            The description of Leif’s winter camp in The Greenlander’s Saga fits the Bass River and Follins Pond.  The other Vinland source is The Saga of Eric the Red.  It also has a river that flows through a lake into the sea, but the camp established here was Thorfinn Karlsefni’s on a later voyage (possibly a conflation of Leif’s and Thorfinn’s legends that occurred over countless retellings, or because the saga’s writer, in Iceland in the 13th century, wanted to credit Thorfinn more then Leif).  In addition, The Saga of Eric the Red describes a northerly winter camp, occupied first and compatible in some ways with a location in Newfoundland, where the Viking site of L’Anse aux Meadows has been documented by archaeologists.  North of the forest and wild grapes, L’Anse aux Meadows probably wasn’t Vinland.  The two sagas contradict each other in most details (the prominent American geographer Carl O. Sauer went into the contradictions at some length in his book Northern Mists).  Moreover, The Greenlander’s Saga is pretty straight-forward and sounds credible for the most part, while The Saga of Eric the Red has more fantastical detail, wandering side-stories, and passages of sheer non-sense (like sea-birds nesting and laying eggs in the fall, and grapes discovered in the cold north of the forests).  So, the good news for Cape Cod’s claim is that it has this going for it:  Cape Cod matches the description of Vinland in the saga that has less fantasy and nonsense.   

                                                                                Follins Pond

                                                                                Follins Pond

            Anyway, flipping open Sheedy’s summary of the sagas (and with none of the hard facts that archaeologists like to consider), I couldn’t resist but take a side trip along the Bass River from Route 6A to Route 28 on the way from Sandwich to Eastham.  The photos are here for your viewing pleasure.  I found nothing precisely resembling the winter camp of a Viking far from home, but I did feel a couple of chills.

References Cited

Coogan, Jim and Jack Sheedy
2015   Cape Cod Collected:  A Selection of Cape Cod’s Greatest Stories.  Harvest Home Books, East Dennis, Massachusetts.

Curtin, Edward V.
2011   Phase 1 Archaeological Survey, Proposed Mohican Hill Apartments Phase 2, Fairground Avenue, Village of Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, New York.  Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc., Ballston Spa, New York.

Holand, Hjalmar
1940   Norse Discoveries and Explorations in America, 982-1362.  Dover Publications Inc., New York.

Sauer, Carl O.
1968   Northern Mists.  University of California Press, Berkeley.


From the Archives: Review of the Lost City of Z by David Grann

From the Archives:  Review of the Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Vintage Departures/Vintage Books, 2009) is the story of the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who spent much of the early 20th century exploring and mapping the Amazon Basin.  The City of Z is the name Fawcett used to refer to a mysterious, undiscovered ancient city he believed to exist in the Amazon basin.

Myth, Memory, History, Encounter: Fall Commemorations

Myth, Memory, History, Encounter:  Fall Commemorations

October 9 is Leif Erikson Day.  It has been since 1964 when congress approved it and President Johnson proclaimed it (it is a federal “observance”, not a federal holiday).  Leif Erikson Day usually passes relatively unnoticed where I live in New York State, although I imagine things are a bit different in Minnesota and other places around the upper Midwest.