Significant Woodland Period Discovery in Eastern New York

Looking west across the Esmond 2 site on a September morn in 2014.

Recently there has been some significant news about the Esmond sites located in the Town of Malta, Saratoga County, New York.  These are sites currently under investigation by Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc.  Curtin Archaeological has completed Phase 3 data recovery operations at these sites and is analyzing the complex of data from this work, as well as the Phase 1 and 2 archaeological surveys performed by archaeological consulting firms that preceded Curtin Archaeological at these sites. 

In recent news, the Fall 2015 issue of American Archaeology carries a story on the Archaeological Conservancy’s acquisition of portions of the Esmond sites for permanent preservation.  On Thursday last week, The Archaeological Conservancy posted a summary of this story.  This is indeed big news, because the Esmond site complex is perhaps the most unique and important group of archaeological sites ever discovered by cultural resource surveys in eastern New York State.

The sites involved are the Esmond 1, 2, 3 and 4 sites.  The Esmond 1 site has a low density of precontact (prehistoric) period artifacts, and appears to have been used as a foraging and hunting area.  While the Esmond 1 site may have been used for hunting and foraging for thousands of years, it was certainly used while other nearby sites were occupied as seasonal campsites or settlements.  These include the Esmond 2 and 3 sites, located closer to water sources north and northeast of Esmond 1.  The evidence for the use of the Esmond 1, 2, and 3 sites during the same period involves the recovery of stone tools of Meadowood-type technology at all 3 sites.  So far the Esmond 4 site has produced important information on precontact period occupation, but only circumstantial evidence of Meadowood technology (in the form of locally exotic Onondaga chert, strongly preferred by Meadowood flint-knappers).

In New York State archaeology, the Meadowood phase of the Early Woodland period dates to about 400-1000 BC.  Sites of the Meadowood phase are found across central, northern, and western New York in places such as the St. Lawrence valley, the Oneida Lake outlet, the Genesee valley, and the Niagara Frontier.  Numerous Meadowood phase sites also are found in southern Ontario and locations in Quebec.  Substantial Meadowood phase sites have been discovered in the upper Susquehanna drainage and in the Schoharie valley, but these locations may have been on the eastern and southeastern frontiers of the Meadowood cultural phenomenon.  Along this frontier, these communities may have encountered people of another great, regional tradition of the Atlantic Seaboard and its river valleys.  Beyond the frontier, in the lower Susquehanna, upper Delaware, and Hudson valleys, Meadowood artifacts such as projectile points and distinctive, refined bifaces called “cache blades” have been found in small numbers.  This small presence has seemed more suggestive of trade or gift-giving to communities south and east of Meadowood communities than of settlement and intensive, Meadowood artifact manufacturing.

A sample of Onondaga chert, Meadowood cache blade fragments from the Esmond 2 site.

Weak Meadowood connections have long been a footnote to the Early Woodland story of the Hudson valley.  Until now, that is.  The large amount of Meadowood phase artifacts and the intensity of manufacturing activity discovered at the Esmond 2 and 3 sites indicates that a Hudson valley community or set of related communities settled at least seasonally at these sites while fully involved in the manufacturing of Meadowood phase chipped stone tools, utilizing large amounts of Onondaga chert.  Onondaga chert was not only preferred by Meadowood stone crafters, it was used almost exclusively in creating distinctive Meadowood type projectile points, cache blades, and bifacial end-scrapers.  The Onondaga chert had to be imported to the Esmond sites from quarry sources south of the Mohawk River over distances of 30 miles or more.  Big questions on our minds as we analyze the data is whether these sites were occupied by people who came from the quarry locations (Terrace Mountain in the Schoharie valley, for example) and set up a Hudson valley outpost; or whether people from this upper Hudson, Saratoga region journeyed to Onondaga chert quarries and brought the stone back.  I have a favored position on this, which I will reason through some more and post later in Fieldnotes, if it holds up to scrutiny.

There also is evidence of occupation at these sites by people with more familiar Hudson valley material culture common during the 1000 BC- AD 1 time frame, so the Meadowood technology is not the only cultural tradition represented.  Perhaps the concept of the Meadowood Interaction Sphere (Tache 2011) provides the best basis for explaining this seemingly unique group of Hudson valley sites.  The Meadowood Interaction Sphere refers to the common use of symbolically-charged, panregional artifact types or technology among varied local communities.  It also involves the movement of materials such as Onondaga chert over long distances, perhaps enabling alliances among series of neighboring communities.

The latest information about the Esmond 2 site comes from analyses of hearth features.  The contents of these features show a striking absence of nut hulls or fragments, which may indicate that Esmond 2 was occupied when nuts were not available and winter stores were exhausted.  The late spring and summer fit this observation.  The radiocarbon dating of one of these features yielded an age determination of 2420+/-30 Before Present (BP), while dating of another yielded a date of 2060+/- 30 BP.  When these dates are calibrated to calendar years, they range (within 2 standard deviations) between Cal BC 745-400 and Cal BC 170-AD 5, respectively. The earlier calibrated range falls in the typical Meadowood range, but perhaps late in that range, as if it took some time for the Meadowood phenomenon to spread to the Hudson valley.  The later date is consistent with the idea that occupation of the site continued after the disappearance of the Meadowood Interaction Sphere.  Some of the artifacts from the Esmond 2 site suggest that the site was occupied during this period, referred to as the Bushkill complex in the upper Delaware valley (Kinsey 1972).

The large, preserved portions of these sites at Esmond 2 and 3 no doubt contain substantial information about what these sites mean for evolving theories of the Meadowood phenomenon, including how local communities developed, affiliated, and expressed identity between about 1000 BC and AD 1.  The preservation of these sites by The Archaeological Conservancy is a far-sighted achievement that may someday result in carefully-considered investigations to answer more questions about these sites and the historic processes they bear witness to.  

References cited
Kinsey, W. Fred III (editor)
1972    Archeology in the Upper Delaware Valley.  Anthropological Series No. 2, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Tache, Karine
2011    New Perspectives on Meadowood Trade Items.  American Antiquity