The New Sea Level Blues: Historical Science and Big Picture Views

News Flash: “Global crisis may hit home”.  The banner below the right margin headline in the Albany Times Union (June 25, 2017) read “Rising sea levels could drive a wave of refugees upstate from New York’s coastal areas”.  This article by Brian Nearing deals with the research of Charles Geisler, a Cornell University professor of development sociology.  The implication of sea level rise is that coastal people will be driven inland to find new homes.

I thought about it.  It reminded me of what I had been collecting information about this spring:  the effect of sea level rise on Archaic period Indians in northeastern North America.  I thought about my research.  Soon I was in the kind of prolonged reverie that historical scientists drift into when trying to piece together the almost infinitely detailed Big Picture.  Years ago, in Basin and Range, John McPhee (1981) led his readers on a special tour of this mind state.

Historical science: I had been intrigued for years by methods and metaphors held in common by the branches of science including geology, paleontology, cosmology, and archaeology that rely upon truly long views of the past.  Deep time, as McPhee called it.  Deep Time.  More a metaphor than a specific age.  Enough time for the earth’s history to unfold, and according to my interest, for human history to unfold.  I was just reading about constructing these deep histories in an old book review by Stephen Jay Gould (1987):

“Just as archaeologists might use tree-rings of support beams, styles of pottery or forms of axheads to order a group of widely scattered pueblos into a temporal sequence” Gould mused, “geologists needed, above all else, a criterion of history.”  

Damn right they did.  And their first criterion (early geologists learned in the 1830s) was the reliability of changes in the fossil record.  The artifacts archaeologists study change for different reasons than organisms, but the same powerful metaphors (such as deep time) have broad utility.  Historical scientists reconstruct the history of the world, humanity, and the cosmos.     

My mind wandered some more.  I thought “Of course the long perspective is that the reality of sea level rise isn’t new.”  Sea level has been rising for thousands of years.  But in the history of the United States, sea level rise has been so gradual that it often has gone unnoticed, at least by most people.  Global sea level has come up about 8 inches in the last 100 years, although it was slower 100 years ago, and has been accelerating in recent decades.

Not so during the deep time of human history on the North American continent, for in the ancient days more than about 4,000-5,000 years ago, the changes were considerably more drastic.  And the newcomers from the inundated coastal plain and the local communities in the area now upstate New York, suddenly neighbors, needed to find ways to move into the future together. 
I still held the paper in my hands.  I skipped ahead to see if the article had anything to say about the upper Hudson Valley--  Albany, Troy, Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls--  places in my own backyard.

“Tidal as far as Troy” Nearing observed, “the Hudson could further rise between an inch and nine inches during the 2020s, according to figures adopted this spring by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.”  I reflected on what I just read.  Compared to 8 inches in the last hundred years, 9 inches in the next 10 or so is an awful lot.  It sounds like the rapid sea-level rise of 8000-10,000 years ago.  I read on. There would be a continued rise of 5-27 inches into the 2050s.  The statistics piled up, with admittedly a wide range of predictions due to the big unknown:  how much would greenhouse gas emissions be curtailed as awareness of the problem grows and the nations of the world assert the necessary will power?  By 2100, as little as 10 inches or as much as 6 feet rise would occur at the Albany-Troy end of the Hudson’s estuary, depending upon whether greenhouse gas emissions are curtailed.  The AD 2100 prediction for New York City is 15-75 inches, again, depending in part upon human activity.  Not idle speculation, these reportedly are the data the State of New York is using to prepare.

I looked out the window.  No water in sight (but I’m in a high and dry place).  The Hudson indeed is a tidal river south of Troy.  A writer of its history, Robert Boyle (1979), remarked that water from the upper Hudson region only slowly reaches the ocean, because for every eight feet the river flows downstream, the tide flows back seven.  I don’t know if this is true all the time (there may be some poetic license going on here), but you get the point.  

I used to live next to the river in Castleton, New York.  In the scene out my back door, cormorants on posts, fishing herons standing in the low tide, the rising and falling Hudson was part of the rhythm of everyday life.  The Hudson is an estuary from New York City to the Federal Dam at Troy, built in 1915.  The great New York State Archaeologist Robert E. Funk (1976:6) noted that the typical tidal range at Troy (low to high or vice versa) is over 5 feet.  

The Hudson River estuary between Coxsackie and Athens, looking up stream on an autumn day.

The Hudson River estuary between Coxsackie and Athens, looking up stream on an autumn day.

Sea level has risen a few more inches since 1915.  You can’t eyeball the difference year to year, but the rising water over thousands of years has put the river bottom well below sea level and engulfed a great deal of floodplain (a striking example being Esopus Meadows; Eisenberg 1982:21).  Rising sea level over thousands of years is the effect of melting glacial ice since the world’s climate turned warmer in the late Pleistocene epoch.  Since those early days, sea level rise has slowed down.  For a long time, at New York’s latitude the rise in sea level greatly exceeded the rate at which the continent rebounded upward when the weight of glacial ice was removed.  Also, the climate has been turning cooler over most of the last 3500 years than it had been in the previous 6500.  Nonetheless, sea level rise never stopped, and recently it has accelerated again.  Hence the rising sea level blues. 

On the coastal plain, the scale of inundation was massive.  While the last Ice Age was ending and glaciers were melting, the rising sea level began inundating the ancient lower Hudson Valley, a place now far out at sea.  The Hudson and other rivers once cut through a wide coastal plain.  Now all of that, river valley and coastal plain, is under water.  It has become the east coast’s continental shelf.  Farther inland, rising sea level covered the Hudson’s floodplains progressively, taking habitable and forage-able land away from people, and submerging the home sites that they and their ancestors had lived in from time immemorial.  The rising water submerged not only the valley but also the upland portions of the coastal plain, reaching high ground around New York City (where its continuing rise has become a great matter of 21st century concern).  

The water continued to rise where it could, seeking its level, flooding narrower landscapes along the Hudson and other rivers flowing to the Atlantic.  The sea refuses no river, but it has been a dynamic relationship over the long course of Holocene history.  Brackish water reaches Poughkeepsie, and oyster shell from an archaeological site in that area shows it has done so for thousands of years (Funk 1991).  The archaeologist Daria Merwin (2010:93-96) has found Native American artifacts in the Hudson River near Croton Point.  They are considered most likely to be from an inundated archaeological site.  The submerged old ground surface here appears to have been inundated wetlands about 2500 years ago and dry land somewhat earlier.  The geologist Robert Dineen (1996) has noted that since about 10,000 years ago, the river has risen 160 feet at Tarrytown on the lower Hudson.  In the upper Hudson, the estuary advanced to rocky rapids at Castleton (some 10 miles below Albany) by about 8000 years ago.  Then, invading the last stretch it would flood in the upper Hudson region, it reached the rapids at Troy about 4000 years ago.   

Sea meets land at Cape Cod near Sandwich, Massachusetts.

Sea meets land at Cape Cod near Sandwich, Massachusetts.

The “Big Picture” grows bigger.  What happened in the Hudson Valley is only part it.  Trawlers, dredgers, and clammers have been bringing things up from the submerged coastal plain for years.  These things include mammoth and mastodon bones and teeth, and the occasional human artifact, or small load of human artifacts (Merwin 2010:44-46, for example).  

The apparently oldest deep water find came from near the outer edge of the submerged coastal plain.  Its submerged site overlooks an ancient valley of the Susquehanna River, and it was dredged up with a mastodon tooth and tusk fragment.  Known as the Cinmar biface, it may be as old as 23,000 years based on a radiocarbon date from the mastodon tusk, as well as its location on the submerged coastal plain now 100 km (62 miles) out in the Atlantic from the coast of Virginia (Stanford and Bradley 2012:100-103).  It is a remarkable find indicating that people were on the east coast of North America quite a long time ago.  And not just that, but they (or contacts they had inland) had obtained the rhyolite lithic material the biface was made out of from a stone source in western Maryland, far up the now submerged Susquehanna Valley and its upland tributaries.

Parenthetically, Cinmar is the name of the boat that found the artifact and mastodon remains.  Just so you know, the apparent great age of the Cinmar biface itself is difficult for some archaeologists to accept, and debate over details of its finding are part of a larger debate that may never end.  The points to consider here are: a. the distance (62 miles) out on the submerged coastal plain it reportedly was found, and b. sea level has risen 242 feet above the old surface it was dropped on when Pleistocene glaciers were melting fast.

Cinmar.  The proverbial extreme used to illustrate the mean.  From coastal areas between New Jersey and the Bay of Fundy, Native American artifacts of more recent age (but up to 10,000 or more years old) have been recovered from the sea floor or dredged spoil taken from the sea floor.  Often (but not always) the types of artifacts found are similar to those in terrestrial sites (Merwin 2010; Sanger 1988).  

My thoughts were cascading through data on the former occupation of land now under ocean water.  I thought of submerged sites under the North Sea, off the Florida panhandle…

Noticing I was still holding the newspaper, I skimmed it for important information.  Another quote from Professor Geisler:  “We are going to have more people on less land and sooner than we think”.  Whoa.  I had included this implication in my research.  Communities on the coastal plain and the drowning floodplains of the encroaching estuaries had to move inland into areas that were already populated.  Also, adjustments to changing coastal and shallow water environments had to be made to continue to ensure successful hunting-gathering-fishing economies. 

Geisler reported that Florida has begun planning for both coastal defense and exodus.  Six thousand, 8,000, 10,000 years ago, coastal defense was not a hunter-gatherers’ bailiwick, but exodus, that would have been the obvious solution.  As long as the coastal refugees could work it out with their inland neighbors.  I read down.  As Nearing began to mention the compound, world-wide problems of ocean water incursion in the present day, along with the issue of land already made unsuitable for refugee settlement by war, resource depletion, desertification, urban sprawl, etc., I began to think about the deep time precedents for human reaction to sea level rise.  

New communities moving into someone else’s homeland or even next to someone else’s homeland would have repercussions.  Exodus and refugee resettlement.  The alternative reactions of communities suddenly cheek-by-jowl in the broad geography used by hunter-gatherers include moving farther away if possible, or dealing with conflict and new modes of cooperation.  Archaeologists have often thought that the low population density of hunter-gatherers would have allowed plenty of room for people to move around.  I am not sure this is true, as evidence of larger early populations in New York accumulate.  Or at least it became less possible as populations were driven inland.   

Although hunter-gatherer conflicts go back a long way in some parts of the world, there is not a lot of evidence for conflict in the Northeastern U. S. archaeological record from about 5,000-10,000 years ago.  The evidence for cooperation, however, may be found in Northeastern community rituals from this time.  As I thought about this, I recalled the writing of the archaeologist Ken Sassaman (2010).  He considered the burial rituals of cultures he referred to as Northern Mortuary Traditions as the basis for diverse communities to coalesce, building new societies from disparate roots.  I recalled the evidence for these mortuary traditions, found in numerous publications.  One in particular, by archaeologist Brian Robinson (1996) is pretty comprehensive.  There was intense mortuary ritual along the coast and just inland from the coast, from the Canadian Maritimes to Massachusetts by 8,000 years ago, and probably beginning around 10,000 years ago.  These formed the basis for long traditions of mortuary ritual and special types of artifacts in coastal areas and along the lower reaches of New England rivers.  

Then suddenly, about 5,000-6,000 years ago, a complex of artifacts used in these rituals started to appear concentrated at sites in Ontario, New York and Vermont.  Burial rituals typically occurred at these sites also, although there are broad differences between the coastal and interior rituals.  Archaeologists working in the interior call this the group of ground and polished stone artifacts "Laurentian" due to an old assumption that their earliest use occurred in the region north of the St. Lawrence River (Ritchie 1969).

I put the newspaper down.  Facts had petered out at this point but the thought experiment flowing from Sassaman’s and Robinson’s perspectives continued.  Could this history of a select group of polished stone artifacts signify the importance of neighboring societies building functioning relationships?  Did this happen while inland migration may have packed many societies close together, requiring diplomacy and its material symbols and transactions?  Did this group of polished stone knives, gouges, plummets, spear-thrower weights and other artifacts (that are often a lot fancier than they need to be for utilitarian use) work in a social sense? Were they displayed and exchanged in interactions that built alliances and mutual obligations among communities, making it easier to live with closer neighbors or in larger, newly merged communities with diverse roots?  In the long history of sea-level rise, exodus, and in-migration in northeastern North America, do the changing contexts of Laurentian artifacts (and their deeper maritime traditions) hint at the ability of human communities to adjust?  The Big Picture is forming, and I’m wondering how the pieces fit together.   

References Cited
Boyle, Robert
  1979    The Hudson River:  A Natural and Unnatural History.  W.W. Norton, New

Dineen, Robert J.
1996    Holocene Environments in the Hudson Valley.  In A Golden Chronograph for Robert E. Funk, edited by Christopher Lindner and Edward V. Curtin, pp. 57-72.  Occasional Publications in Northeastern Anthropology, No. 15, Archaeological Services, Bethlehem, Connecticut. 

Eisenberg, Leonard
1982    A Preliminary Analysis of The Datum:  a Multicomponent Prehistoric Site near the Hudson River, Ulster County, New York.  Man in the Northeast 

Funk, Robert E. 
1976    Recent Contributions to Hudson Valley Prehistory.  New York State Museum Memoir 22, Albany.

1991 The Middle Archaic in New York.  Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 

Gould, Stephen Jay
  1987 The Power of Narrative (Review of The Great Devonian Controversy by Martin J. S. Rudwick).  In An Urchin in the Storm:  Essays about Books and Ideas by Stephan Jay Gould, pp. 75-92.  W. W. Norton and Company, New York.  

McPhee, John
  1981    Basin and Range.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Merwin, Daria E.
2010    Submerged Evidence of Early Human Occupation in the New York Bight.  Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Nearing, Brian
  2017    Global Crisis May Hit Home.  Albany Times Union, June 25, 2017.

Ritchie, William A.
  1969    The Archaeology of New York State, second edition.  Natural History Press, Garden City,    New York.

Robinson, Brian S.
1996    Archaic Period Burial Patterning in Northeastern North America.  The Review of Archaeology 17(1):33-44.

Sanger, David
  1988    Maritime Adaptations in the Gulf of Maine.  Archaeology of Eastern North America 16:81-99.

Sassaman, Kenneth E.
  2010    The Eastern Archaic, Historicized.  Altamira Press, Lanham, Maryland.

Stanford, Dennis J. and Bruce A. Bradley
  2012  Across Atlantic Ice:  The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture.  University of
    California Press, Berkeley.  

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

 Note:  The recent release of the film version of The Lost City of Z suggests that reposting this 2013 Fieldnotes review of the book is timely.   Although the book has been around for a while, if you really care about possible spoilers, and you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to avoid this review at this time.  You may want to just catch the movie instead or add this excellent book to your summer reading list (David Grann’s new book is Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI).

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.  He endeavored to find the City of Z just as Machu Picchu and the cities of the Maya had been found by earlier generations of explorers.  In the later years of his career, he made its discovery his only truly satisfying objective. 

Fawcett in a sense was born late:  he was a Victorian-vintage explorer in a post-Victorian age when singular adventurers were being replaced by exploration teams, expensive technology, publicity hounds, and professionals such as academics in the emerging fields of anthropology and archaeology.  This kind of competition pushed Fawcett to extremes of daring and exposure to danger.  He is thought of by some as a model for the Indiana Jones archetypal character of modern popular culture.  He was strong and determined, and in middle-age he finally disappeared forever in the Amazon forest while looking for the City of Z.  In the book the reader learns this quite early, and this big mystery is what much of the story is about.

The book covers the sensation Fawcett’s disappearance caused, the numerous expeditions that went looking for him (leading to more lost explorers), and the nature of facts about native cultures that may have given rise to the theory of a mysterious, lost, indigenous civilization located in the Amazon rain forest.   This theory is now more resonant with fact but nuanced by actual cultural history than it was in Fawcett’s day. 

With regard to the basis in fact for such a theory, The Lost City of Z harmonizes well with information about ancient South America in Charles C. Mann’s 1491, and brings to attention the Amazonian research of modern-day archaeologists such as Michael Heckenberger and someone who was a dear friend of many Northeastern U. S. archaeologists (including me), the late Jim Petersen.  In his account of this research, Grann visits Heckenberger in native Amazonia and brings us closer it seems to where Fawcett went and what he was looking for.  Fawcett or his remains were never found, and expeditions (some ill-fated) continue periodically to search for evidence of him.  For maximum effect, read The Lost City of Z when you come home from a hot day in the woods. 

Statewide Archaeology Meetings and Conference in Lake George, New York, April 21-23, 2017

The Spring 2017 meeting of the New York Archaeological Council (NYAC) will be held at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center in Lake George on Friday afternoon, April 21.  The business meeting is from 1-3, followed by a most interesting program (3-5 PM):  From Screen to Screen (get it?):  Growing Your Archaeology Community with Video.  A Workshop on Video Production and Distribution for Archaeologists. Rumor has it that this may also include the kick-off of a competition for a prize-winning video.  The main points, however (and the real reason to attend) involve using video to enhance social media visibility and connect with the broad community of people interested in archaeology.   

The New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA) annual conference will be held at the same venue all day Saturday and on Sunday morning.  Yes, the March for Science is on Saturday, and it’s Earth Day too, but this will all work out.  Believe me.  Archaeologists will be sciencing (to use Leslie White’s old expression) one way or the other, or possibly both.  Despair not if you are marching on Saturday:  one of the highlights of the program is the Sunday morning session of papers by New York State Museum archaeologists.  

I am also partial to the session I am in on Saturday afternoon, because I am in this session with my good friends Ellie McDowell-Loudan and Adam Luscier, and some other great researchers and presenters.  I am looking forward to the Saturday afternoon presentations by Tom Weinman on the excavation of prehistoric sites on Lake George, Kurt Jordan on marine shell from historic Seneca sites, and Joshua Kwoka on Late Woodland communities of practice.  Joshua is working on this with a Funk Foundation grant (as a reminder, Funk Foundation grant applications are due on April 30.).   

As far as I am concerned, a Saturday morning paper not to miss is Lucy Johnson et al’s summary of Professor Johnson’s research in the Shawungunk Mountains, 2006-2016.  I have immensely enjoyed the earlier presentations leading up to this one.  Overall, the program is diverse, and everyone should find something of great interest here (for example, Joe Zarzynski’s and Brigid Shaw’s search for clues to the history of a French and Indian War naval vessel, first thing Saturday morning).    

As a preview, the abstract of my paper “Revisiting the Archaic Period in New York State” reports that I will follow up on this subject:

Information concerning the Archaic period in New York State has grown considerably over the years.  Scholarly issues have as well.  Recently I have reviewed the literature on the Archaic period in New York to update the state of knowledge as it has developed since the publication of Ritchie’s Archaeology of New York State.  The present paper is a short version of this review, providing brief descriptions of (1) environmental dynamics such as Early to Mid-Holocene climate-change, sea-level rise, lake-basin inundation, and flood-plain stabilization; (2) implications of these for inland migration and encounter; and (3) historical and cultural processes involving material culture traditions and community formation.  Special attention is given to possible ethnogenesis during the Frontenac and River phases, and the possibility of Late Archaic village organization.

Wish me luck with this.  I’m working on it.  There is a lot more about the upcoming conference including the schedule and abstracts on the New York State Archaeology website.

The Funk Foundation’s New Grant Cycle

We are happy to announce that The Robert E. Funk Memorial Archaeology Foundation, Inc. is now accepting proposals for grants for research into New York State archaeology.  Grant applications must be received by April 30, 2017.  The grant applications will be reviewed by the Funk Foundation Board of Directors in a competitive process with award decisions made by June 15, 2017.  Further information including the grant application forms and guidelines may be found on the Funk Foundation website.  If you have any questions, please email Funk Foundation President Ed Curtin at, or call Ed at (518) 884-7102.

The 2017 grants are for amounts in the range of $1,000.00-$2,500.00.  They are ideal to assist parts of stand-alone research projects or studies that are parts of larger projects.  For example, Funk Foundation grants have been made to support a range of services such as faunal analysis, radiocarbon dating, petrographic slides, lithic analysis, and remote sensing.

Field Techs Needed

Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. is seeking local field techs for Phase 1 work in Saratoga County, New York through the week of December 26.  Work is starting Monday. Please email resumes in word or pdf format to  If you've recently submitted a resume, please email us with your availability. 

Meadow Coldon discovers evidence of cryoturbation, January 2016

Meadow Coldon discovers evidence of cryoturbation, January 2016

Field Techs Needed

Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. is seeking local field techs for Phase 1 work in Saratoga County, New York.  Work is starting immediately and will go for 2 weeks with the potential for additional work beyond. Please email resumes in word or pdf format to  If you've recently submitted a resume, please email us with your availability.

The Vampire Skeleton: A Scary Seneca Iroquois Story

In western culture the passing of October into November has long been regarded as a spooky time.  Insufficiently tempered with the Christian commemoration of saints, Halloween was thought of as a time when a door opens between this world and the one where ghosts and malevolent spirits linger.  In the ancient Irish calendar, November 1 was the first day of winter, and in historic times Europeans found the winter a good time to tell ghost stories.  For the historic Iroquois people of upstate New York, this late fall-early winter period was a time for harvesting deer from the forest, and then retreating to the longhouse for warmth, food, family, friendship, and story-telling.

Spooky tree (Photo by Ed Curtin)

Spooky tree (Photo by Ed Curtin)

A long time ago, when the world was a very different place, the Iroquois of the Seneca tribe lived in great clearings that they made in the forests south of Lake Ontario.  Their longhouses were clustered in villages protected by strong stockades built to keep out any evil that might emerge from the woods.  In the summer the sun smiled upon the fields of corn, beans and squash that the women grew in the clearing between the stockade wall and the forest’s edge.  In the fall people told the story of the hunters who pursued the great bear in the sky, and how when the hunters killed the sky bear, his blood flowing to earth, colored the leaves of the trees red.  As winter came on, people ventured into the forest to hunt deer for food, hides, and the bones they made into tools when the snow was deep and people stayed by the fires in the longhouses.

But going into the forest to hunt was dangerous.  Bears and panthers lived in the woods, and when meeting a man or woman in the forest, it was difficult to know whether this was a human being or an evil spirit in a person’s form.  Despite this, people went into the forest to hunt every fall when it got cold and the snow threatened to fall.  A few people even lived in lodges in the woods.  However, one problem with people who lived in the woods was that the world was beset by evil caused by witches and wizards, even cannibals.  Dwellings in the woods were good places for them to work their dark acts without detection.

For example, the great Hiawatha, who later helped the Peacemaker convey the word of the Great Peace of the Longhouse, once was a horrid, ill-kempt cannibal who lived alone in a lodge in the woods.  Finding him there, the Peacemaker climbed the roof and peered through the smoke-hole.  At that moment, Hiawatha put a pot of water on the hearth to cook a meal.  Looking into the pot, Hiawatha saw the Peacemaker’s reflection in the water and thought it was his own.  It was the image of a good man with a rational mind:  a man who could think straight, listen well, communicate, and find agreement with others.  Thinking this was how he now was, Hiawatha was converted from his evil ways and became the Peacemaker’s companion and spokesman.  But that is a different story.

One year late in the fall, when the leaves were mostly down, a man and woman put their young daughter into her cradleboard and packing food and blankets, went into the woods to hunt.  They journeyed to the hunting ground where a friendly, helpful old man lived, hosting hunters and other visitors.  However, there was a problem at the old man’s lodge because some of the visitors disappeared or mysteriously died.  Nonetheless, it was a warm, welcoming place to stay in this hunting ground.  And so the couple and child went there.

The snow fell early during their trip, and the swirling wind piled it up.  The couple and child arrived at the old man’s lodge at night after struggling through drifts in the moonlight.  The husband called for the old man, but there was no answer.  Entering the lodge, they left the door open so the moon would light the interior.  Their eyes became accustomed to the dim light and then they noticed a platform against the opposite wall.  It had a long bark box on it.  Crossing the floor and peering into the bark box, they found the old man.  He apparently had built the box to crawl into and die.  Now he reposed like a man sleeping, but he had turned into a frightening skeleton!

The man and woman were cold and hungry, and decided to build a fire in the lodge, eat, and sleep before leaving in the morning.  After supper the fire died low while the man and woman slept on two sides of the fire place.  The baby cuddled with her mother.  In this haunted atmosphere the woman dreamed of ghosts, wizards, and witches.  Waking from her troubled sleep, the woman thought she heard a sound, like an owl crunching a mouse.  She looked around.  The firelight was low, but she could see a figure crouched near her husband.  It was the old man’s skeleton chewing her husband’s neck and face!

The woman was terrified, but quickly planned her escape.  Pretending to speak to her husband she said “Our daughter is thirsty.  I will take her down to the stream and get her a little drink.”  And she gathered the girl in a blanket and quickly went out the door.

Now the woman fled through the woods, holding the little girl close.  Soon she heard a loud howl from the lodge.  The vampire skeleton cried “The woman has deceived me!” and she could hear its running feet stomping through the snow and cracking dead wood.

The vampire skeleton yelled “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” and the woman could hear it getting closer.  She wrapped the blanket on a broken tree trunk so that it looked like a person.  This slowed the vampire skeleton down.  It ripped through the blanket.  It tore the blanket to pieces, looking for blood.  It looked for the woman’s body, but didn’t find it.  Then the woman heard the vampire skeleton yell “The woman has deceived me!” followed by the sound of the monster crashing through the woods.

The vampire skeleton shouted “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo” and closed the distance.  The woman was terrified but still fought to escape.  She tore off her robe and hung it to look like a person.  And then she ran on as fast as she could.  Again, the vampire skeleton stopped, tore up the garment looking for blood, searched for the bodies, and cried “The woman has deceived me!”  She heard it call “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” and break branches as it ran through the woods.

The woman and daughter were almost caught, but dawn lightened the sky and the woman saw that there was a village stockade straight ahead.  She burst into the clearing calling loudly for help.  The men of the village came out of the stockade with their clubs, saved the woman and baby, wrapped them in warm blankets, and told them that they were brave.  The vampire skeleton, blood on its teeth, glowered from the forest’s edge with burning-red eye sockets.  Then it turned and left, following its bony footprints through the snow.

After hearing the woman’s story, the chief said that people were wrong about the helpful old man in the forest lodge.  He had been an evil wizard, and dying, had become the vampire skeleton.  This was a great threat that they needed to end.  The chief instructed the men to dance in order to keep evil away, so they danced from morning until dusk.  When night fell they gathered their clubs and followed the winding, moonlit forest path to the house of the vampire skeleton.

They entered the lodge and found the vampire skeleton asleep in the bark box.  They lit a fire in the hearth.  Then the chief addressed the vampire skeleton formally:  “We have come to discuss with you the problem that evil is overcoming good in this world.  We need to act to restore the proper balance.”  Then some of the men closed the box with a great sheet of bark and tied it shut.

The men piled firewood around the bark box and set it afire.  They stood outside the lodge while the fire blazed, soon enflaming the entire structure.  The fire and smoke grew higher.  The men could hear the vampire skeleton crash the box to the floor and shout in excitement “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!”, “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!”  The flames roared and towered.

After a while, the lodge began to collapse as the fire died down.  The men felt joy that they had stopped the threat of the vampire skeleton.  Then, as the timbers and bark of the lodge parted with a loud whoosh!, a great owl flew out and disappeared into the woods.

Forever after this the Seneca refused to put the dead in boxes above ground, but buried them in the earth to keep them from rising and bothering the living.

This is a Seneca story that has been told and retold.  No doubt details have changed with the telling (as they have with this telling).  In the old days it would be a good thing to draw this tale out, prolonging story-time in front of the fire on a winter’s night.  The tellings of the story I read before recounting it are listed in the references below:

Sources for The Vampire Skeleton:
Bruchac, Joseph
1985   Iroquois Stories:  Heroes and Heroines, Monsters and Magic.  The Crossing Press, Trumansburg, New York.

Hewitt, J. N. B. and Jeremiah Curtin
1918   Seneca Myths, Fiction and Folktales.  Annual Report 32, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington.

Parker, Arthur C.
1923   Seneca Myths and Folk Tales.  Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo, New York.

Wallace, Anthony F. C.
1969   The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca.  Vintage Books, New York.

For more on the hunt of the Sky Bear (a tale told in the stars of the Big Dipper), see “Iroquois Star Lore:  What Does It Mean?”  In At the Font of the Marvelous by Anthony Wonderley (2009, Syracuse University Press).

For more on the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, see The White Roots of Peace by Paul A. W. Wallace (1946, University of Pennsylvania Press).

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.  In New York State, Columbus Day is a bigger deal than Leif Erikson day.  It is a bank-holiday with parades through the streets in some cities.  Originally October 12, it is now celebrated on a designated Monday in October (This year it was the day after Leif Erikson Day).  In this part of the country, Columbus Day is long-recognized as a commemoration of Italian-American heritage.  

Also in New York, we could have Henry Hudson Day, or we could make the whole month of September Henry Hudson Month.  So far, New York has missed this opportunity to draw people into the beautiful Hudson Valley every September.  It would be one more reason to have a destination with beautiful scenery, historic homes and sites (including a number of colonial-era military sites), brilliant fall foliage, red ripe apples, sweet apple cider, tasty cider doughnuts, New York Giants football…oh wait.  The Giants play in New Jersey.  

We do not have Henry Hudson Day in New York, nor do we have Champlain Day (a large part of northeastern New York used to be part of New France).  In 2009, New York State noticed (but barely) the 400th anniversary of Hudson and Champlain first arriving in its modern territory.  The historical context did not go unnoticed by scholars, however, and this context has been examined from different directions by James Bradley in Before Albany and David Hackett Fisher in Champlain’s Dream (Fisher paid special attention to Champlain’s march deep into central New York to attack an Iroquois stronghold). 

Leif Erikson’s voyage to Helluland, Markland, and Vineland ca AD 1000 is considered by many people of European descent (except for some of the Irish) to be the first voyage from Europe to America.  Since the 1870s, this has been promoted as the discovery of America, although America was discovered long before Leif Erikson by the ancestors of the people who drove the Vikings out.  The Vikings called the American and Greenland natives Skraelings, not knowing their actual names.  This first period of encounter was hostile; European and Native American languages probably remained mutually unintelligible, except for war cries emphasizing volleys of arrows, raised shields, and brandished swords.

Photograph of the largest original Viking building in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Photo by Clinton Pierce (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of the largest original Viking building in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Photo by Clinton Pierce (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The longer story of the Viking voyages can be found in certain Icelandic sagas, notably the Greenlander’s Saga and Eric the Red’s Saga.  But these sources were not originally written as histories.  They were oral histories passed down through the generations for 200-300 years before they were committed to parchment.  And they don’t quite tell the same story.  They differ on issues such as:  Did Leif Erikson sail from Greenland on a voyage of exploration?  Or was he blown off course on a return trip from Norway, missing his father’s Greenland home and arriving at the treeless, stony coast of Helluland before turning south?  Did another Viking named Bjarni Herjolfsson glimpse America before Leif?  If so, why didn’t Bjarni stop and do a little exploring for some of the things that attracted his successors (grapes according to the sagas; also wood, bog iron, butternuts…yes apparently butternuts, which got transported from a temperate clime to the boreal Viking settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows).  History can be a bit murky, even while the mythology is widely known and long-established.

In case you are wondering, why is October 9 Leif Erikson Day?  Is October 9 when Leif the Lucky landed in Vinland?  Was the date selected to compete head-to-head with Columbus Day, October 12?  To answer the first question, no one knows, but the fall season may be plausible because according to the story, the grapes were ripe.  To answer the second question, it seems a coincidence.  October 9 was selected because it was the landmark date in 1825 when the first organized Norwegian immigration to the United States arrived.  Leif Erikson Day had a Scandinavian-American incentive, and therein lies most of its significance as a holiday.  

Columbus Day commemorates Columbus’s discovery of the Americas (specifically his landing in the Bahamas).  While in New York there is a strong demonstration of Italian-American pride on this day, Columbus’s discovery is also a significant historic event for people of Spanish descent.  Indeed, Columbus’s identity has been contested and speculated upon historically.  Was he a Genoese Italian, or was he Spanish?  What about the recurring theory that he was secretly Spanish of Jewish descent; and that his search across the Atlantic was for a new home for Jews driven out for refusing to convert to Catholicism (Forced conversion, expulsion, or death was Spain’s Jewish policy during Columbus’s lifetime).  When it comes to his identity, it has been difficult for non-specialists to sort Columbus’s history from his myth, although it seems to me that the most widely accepted conclusion is that he was from Genoa.  

When it comes to Columbus’ story of discovery, the myths and history are also entangled.  Did Columbus discover that the world is round, or was this more widely assumed during his lifetime?  In his early seafaring life, did he visit Ireland and hear the story of St. Brendan’s voyage to lands across the western ocean?  Did he travel to Iceland, and if so, what did he learn there?  Did he ever know that the lands he found were not the Indies, Japan, etc.?  Or did he know it but deny it?  I am not trying to debunk anything about Columbus, but I am pointing out that history is often a story in search of documentation, while mythology lingers around, always appealing to our belief systems.

Columbus’s story also is notable because it signals the adverse effect of European contact with the millions of American Indian inhabitants of the New World.  Millions died from European diseases, warfare, and maltreatment.  European culture of the era was warlike, violent, and to use a 21st century word, entitled.  This part of Columbus’s life is the better-documented part.  After discovering San Salvador and returning to Spain a success, Columbus made return voyages.  He became a colonial governor in the New World, and had a direct hand in attacks upon, and enslavement of the natives (of Haiti in particular).  He wasn’t the only cruel conquistador to invade or govern in the New World.  He seems rather typical.  Although millions of individuals died, many American indigenous nations ultimately survived this and all the rest of colonialism.  At the moment I write, in the week that began with Columbus Day, Columbus’s discovery cannot be remembered without the growing awareness of an alternative commemoration honoring native history and resilience:  Indigenous People’s Day.

Henry Hudson's ship Halve Maen in the Hudson River

Henry Hudson's ship Halve Maen in the Hudson River

The Northeastern U.S. has its own colonial history.  As I mentioned, in New York we could have Henry Hudson Day, but we do not.  If we did it would be in September, and we would have to choose a day based on where Hudson was in his journey up the fjord-like, tidal Hudson River (which the colonial Dutch called the North River, and the indigenous Mohicans called “the waters that are never still”).  At the end of his trip up the river, Hudson was treated to dinner by the Mohicans who lived in the vicinity of Castleton, Schodack, and Bethlehem, located on the river just south of the City of Albany.  The Mohicans’ discovery of Hudson and his ship, the Halfmoon was long preserved in oral history, much like Leif Erikson’s voyage to Vinland was preserved in Icelandic oral history.  And like Leif’s saga, the Mohican story was eventually written down in a later generation of tribal historians.  The record of the transmission of the story over time is chronicled in Shirley Dunn’s book The Mohicans and Their Land, 1609-1730.  The value of oral history in this eventually written history cannot go unrecognized, and this history seems less murky (or embellished) than the sagas of Leif Erikson’s discovery, or some of the historically-contested aspects Christopher Columbus’ mythology.  

These are the pieces of the story Dunn has gathered together in Chapter 1 of her book:  A Dutch account of 1649 (forty years after the event) recorded that Mohicans who remembered the first sighting of Hudson’s ship thought it was possibly a fish, or a “monster of the sea”.  To Adrian Van der Donck, who lived in the New Netherland colony in the 1640s, the Mohicans seemed to have been surprised by the appearance of Hudson’s ship.  Van der Donck’s legalistic point was that no Europeans could have preceded the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, or the Mohicans would have remembered it, and would not have been so surprised.  In this, he cites the authority of oral history by saying “There are Indians in this country who remember a hundred years”; that is, in his view at least, the authority of memory stretched back 100 years.

Or longer, as it turns out; speaking to a conference in 1754 (some 140 years after the event), the Mohican orator Hendrick Aupamut said much the same thing about one of his forefathers’ first encountering Hudson’s Half Moon.  As he walked out of the village that day he saw something on the river which he took “for a great fish.”   Aupamut also repeated other memories that Mohicans had stated to Europeans before:   that the Dutch crew of the first encounter would not sail up as far as Albany, but would return in a year to explore farther.  Aupaumut related that when the Dutch returned, the Mohicans invited them into the river flats that would become the original Albany, showed them the geography of this gift; and, remarking that the Europeans were small in number, protected them from possible Indian enemies while telling them they would grow quite numerous in this land.  Dunn described that these kinds of details were communally remembered, compared, and kept as a coherent history in recurrent tribal conferences.  

A few years after the 1754 speech, Aupaumut and another Mohican man (both educated in John Sergeant’s school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts) wrote the Mohican history of the first encounter.  Although some of the originally written narrative has been lost, some has been preserved by being transcribed directly into other histories.  Aupaumut’s role in committing the Mohican oral history to paper was recalled by a later Mohican orator, John Quinney, in his July 4, 1854 speech at Reidsville, Albany County, New York.  During a season that otherwise focuses so closely on the Euroamerican story, and that has become so important to celebrating ethnic origin and achievement to many Americans of European descent, it seems fitting to provide some information on a preserved, indigenous, historical perspective. 

Announcing a Great New Publication in Archaeology

Northeast Anthropology Numbers 83-84 Honors Albert A. Dekin, Jr. with Northeastern Archaeology Articles on Landscape, Scale, and Technology

Numbers 83-84 of the journal Northeast Anthropology is a single, integrated, guest-edited volume titled Archaeological Landscapes:  Scale, Technology and Emerging Approaches.  It is guest-edited by Nina M. Versaggi, Laurie E. Miroff, and Edward V. Curtin.  

That’s right.  I’m announcing a book that I helped to edit.  However, one cannot respectably review one’s own publication, not even nowadays.  Mindful of this, what I offer here is purely archaeology news, not a book review.  My bias as a reporter is that I think this book is great.

    Archaeological Landscapes is first and foremost a Festschrift for the late Al Dekin, who was one of the most important archaeological mentors in the Northeast.  Al had many students, including a cadre of Binghamton University graduate students learning and working in Cultural Resource Management (CRM).  The themes of Landscape, Scale, and Technology were dear to him.  These three themes therefore were easily located when we looked for a title for Al’s Festschrift.  In one way or another, they have guided each contribution.  They substantially informed Al’s teaching, his mentoring, and his well-organized approach to applied archaeological research in the vast universe of CRM, which was an impressively undisciplined discipline at its inception.  

The authors of the articles are Al’s students plus some co-authors.  They are long-time friends of mine, except for the couple of co-authors I don’t know (However, they are just friends I haven’t met yet).  In order of appearance, the authors are:

File Sep 21, 3 44 32 PM.jpeg

•    William Andrefsky, Jr.
•    Susan C. Prezzano
•    Daniel Cassedy
•    Edward V. Curtin
•    Nina M. Versaggi and Samuel M. Kudrle
•    Francis P. McManamon
•    Laurie E. Miroff
•    Doug Harris and Paul A. Robinson
•    Victor T. Mastone, Craig Brown, and Christopher V. Maio
•    John J. Knoerl
•    Robert Quiggle and Matthew Kirk

Within the rubrics of landscape, scale, and technology, several articles consider ancient hunter-gatherers, and several of these focus on the Archaic period.  Dan Cassedy interestingly analyzes how a shifting Archaic settlement location responded to the growth and expansion of the Mohawk River floodplain, underscoring the importance of a refined historical sequence to understanding place.  Generally speaking, several articles that consider either the Archaic, later pre-contact, or early historic periods tease out details of archaeological history, often touching on implicit native thinking (including memories, beliefs, or traditions from deep in the past) that recognize sites or landscapes as important (even sacred) because they are historical (i.e., histories made places important, revisited, revered, transformed).  This conceptualization of place contrasts with (although doesn’t necessarily exclude) an older idea that sites and landscapes were important because it was easy to find food there.  

Moreover, Susan Prezzano considers the importance of present-day Archaic period archaeological discoveries to non-Indian residents of her study area with respect to recognizing the “intrinsic value of the natural environment.”  The importance of the past to the present emerges in several other articles, including the articles on historic battlefields.     

Technology looms in this volume in ways ranging from lithic technological analysis, to the emergence or coalescence of Archaic period technological traditions, the development of historic Adirondack industries, and some wonderful GIS applications.  The technology theme thus includes studying old technology and using emergent technology. 

Often, specific archaeological sites are considered within larger, sometimes extensive, landscape perspectives.  Meanwhile, the several analyses of historic battlefields are explicitly landscape-scaled.  In addition, Frank McManamon, who pioneered a site-less, landscape approach to archaeological survey and data interpretation on Cape Cod in the 1980s, revisits that and subsequent work, while relating how digital technology has improved information sharing and the potential for effective public outreach.  

Although this is a volume focused on the Northeast, do not despair if you grow tired of reading about the Northeast.  Bill Andrefsky’s view of landscape structure, human agency and evolutionary process takes in a southeastern Oregon study area, while John Knoerl’s general perspective of battlefield analysis and preservation emerges in specific Virginia contexts.  So if you plunge right into reading about Frontenac Island or Cape Cod, move on to the Mohawk or Susquehanna valley region, and then, breaking from your reverie find you need to wander, let your imagination drift south, or perhaps far to the west.  It’s all good stuff.

This informative new volume has an introduction by Nina Versaggi and Laurie Miroff, which will orient you further to its themes as well as the career of Al Dekin and his impact on students.  

Archaeological Landscapes:  Scale, Technology and Emergent Approaches, Numbers 83-84 of Northeast Anthropology is now available.  To get a copy, visit Northeast Anthropology.  

One Head, Many Hats: The Diverse Expertise of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Archaeologists

One Head, Many Hats: The Diverse Expertise of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Archaeologists

Recently, my friend Nina Versaggi provided a contribution to The Conversation that succinctly and beautifully offers her perspective of a career in archaeology. While Nina conveys the excitement of archaeological discovery and the importance of reconstructing the past, she also talks about the varied responsibilities and skill-sets that many American archaeologists have as cultural resource managers.