252 Acres…Already Cleared

(This is the seventh in a series of posts about the environmental context of human ecosystems and archaeological sites in eastern North America)

I have been told that when he was looking for land to buy, the New Netherland settler Pieter Bronck was attracted to a large clearing in Coxsackie where the hunting was good.  This apparently became the core of the Bronck Patent purchased in 1662 from the Mohican Indians.  According to the written transaction, 252 acres located away from the Hudson River were already cleared at the time of purchase (Dunn 1994:226).  Hunting may have been good because of the high biodiversity along the edges of the clearing (and the corresponding excellent browse for deer), as the archaeologist Roger Moeller (1996) has discussed for the eastern woodlands in general.

From 1999-2005, working for the Greene County Industrial Development Agency, Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. performed a series of Phase 1 and Phase 2 archaeological surveys, as well as data recovery excavations at several prehistoric sites within the old Bronck Patent, likely within the cleared area referred to in the deed (which seems to indicate the area between Coxsackie Creek and the Catskill Path near the Kalkberg ridge).  These investigations revealed evidence of a long period of land use from about 9,000 BC to 1761 AD, when Anthony Van Bergen (one of the Bronck family’s neighbors) built his own stone house a mile or so north of the Bronck house. 

Discoveries of particular interest include finds suggesting long history of hunting and other activities within the study area.  In addition, a small but intensively used campsite dating to the AD 1200s was found (this is referred to as Artifact Concentration 23B.1).  The 1200s are a time when most archaeologists agree that the upper Hudson region was home to the ancestors of the Mohicans.  These various discoveries are summarized in a final report provided to the Greene County Industrial Development Agency and the New York State Historic Preservation Office (Curtin 2008).

The circumstantial evidence of hunting is intriguing.  Probably the most general evidence is the large numbers of broken and unbroken projectile points found dispersed across some 200 acres of archaeological study area.  While some of these were found within camp sites, the large majority were found outside of the camp sites.  Most of these spear, dart, and arrow points date to the Archaic period (1000-9000 BC), but several indicate continued use of this landscape into the Middle Woodland period, as late as AD 1000.

In addition to the large numbers of projectile points found outside of campsites, a small concentration of broken projectile points from the Late Archaic period (about 2000 BC) was found in two small campsites in the southern part of the Greene Business and Technology Park.  This group of projectile point fragments is interesting, because several of them are haft fragments, that is, the portion left attached to the spear or dart shaft after the blade and tip of the projectile point breaks-off during use, as would happen in hunting.  In hunting camps, the haft elements would be discarded and replaced by new or resharpened projectile points (cf. Sterud 1977), leaving high frequencies of the small stone debris created in the end-stages of chipped stone tools manufacture.  Small chert flakes were found in unusually high percentages in the camps in question. 

In contrast to the finds made in the Late Archaic camps, in large areas outside of campsites unbroken projectile points and tip and blade fragments were found broadly distributed across the landscape.  These presumably were lost or abandoned during hunting. 

From the Late Archaic period on, Native Americans in the eastern woodlands are thought to have managed the forest for enhanced hunting by burning the understory, allowing for better sight and human movement through the woods, while encouraging fresh plant growth for browsing prey-species, such as deer.  Forest-clearing--  which would have created the rich edge-areas that Moeller (1996) discussed--  was accomplished by burning as well as by cutting with stone axes.  This was undoubtedly a laborious process accomplished over a long period of time, as Charles Mann (2006) has discussed in his book 1491, based upon observations made in South American forests. 

Given the long period of time in which people appear to have been hunting in this part of Coxsackie, it is conceivable that human forest modification began early.  It is suspected that over a long period of time, human activity resulted in substantial forest clearing (of the sort reported in Bronck’s deed).  In the archaeological record of the Greene Business and Technology Park, elevated frequencies of heat damaged artifacts occur over much of the area where high proportions of unbroken projectile points and projectile point blade and tip fragments occur (north of the inferred Late Archaic camps).  In addition, in this northern area, an apparent burned tree root was radiocarbon-dated 130 +/- 40 BC.  This could have been burned due to a lightening strike or a human-set fire, but it falls within the long period of suspected forest clearing. The radiocarbon sample provides a date linking the period of hunting from nearby camps during the Late Archaic period (about 2000 BC) to a renewed period of occupation during the Late Woodland Period, about AD 1200-1300.

The heat-damaged artifacts presumably were on the ground or buried slightly below ground surface when fires were set in the habitual practices of firing the understory and creating clearings (Johnson 1996 discusses evidence of ancient forest burning based upon heat-damaged artifacts found near Stockbridge, Massachusetts). 

The largest archaeological excavation was conducted at Concentration 23B.1.  Careful digging revealed a small campsite with some very interesting attributes.  Very small fragments of pottery were found as well as a diverse artifact assemblage including chipped stone tools such as scrapers and utilized flakes.  There were also artifacts that archaeologists sometimes refer to as site furniture:  general purpose artifacts such as hammerstones and anvilstones that are usually left at camps for everyone’s use.  One piece of site furniture was a pitted stone, an artifact type often interpreted as used for cracking nutshells (white oak grew nearby, based upon flotation recovery of charcoal fragments).  Interestingly, few projectile point fragments were found, and those that were found seemingly were older than the date of occupation, suggesting that they are fragments of objects that may have been picked up, reworked, and put to other uses by the camp’s occupants.  A reworked point was made into a graver; a small point fragment was made into a so-called “spokeshave” (that is, a scraper for curved surfaces).  While this site had plenty of evidence of occupation, hunting does not appear to have been a strong focus of activity (as it was at the Late Archaic period camps).

 Excavations at Concentration 23B.1

Excavations at Concentration 23B.1

Concentration 23B.1 (described further in Curtin 2011) is located within the large area interpreted as a long-term hunting area, and where--  in conjunction with hunting and camping over several thousand years--  there may have been a large clearing by the that time Concentration 23B.1 was occupied (about AD 1200-1300, based upon radiocarbon dates of AD 1170+/-60and AD 1200+/-60).  Apparently established for some general, mostly non-hunting purposes in an area that had long been used for hunting, the obvious question is:  Why was this site occupied?  Although several samples of soil from the site were processed by flotation to recover organic materials, no animal bone or evidence of food plants was found (however, melted silica spheres from burned plants, consistent with firing grassland, were found; McKnight 2010). 

It is thus difficult to find a definitive subsistence-based reason for why this site was occupied.  However, the period around 1200 AD is associated with the Medieval Warm Period, a several-hundred year long period of relatively warm, sometimes droughty climate that could have affected growing corn or other subsistence pursuits.  Possibly, just possibly, if increasingly adverse conditions affected some of the favored agricultural sites near the Hudson River and large streams, Mohican ancestors may have occupied inland sites more routinely; or at least cultivated crops on interior, moisture-retentive, clayey soils, camping for short periods while away from a home-base.  Concentration 23B.1 may represent a seasonal or temporary residence associated with nearby gardens, or even a well-located wild resource procurement site that provided resilience, especially in hard times.  Whichever the case, this site provides a connection between the Bronck Patent and Mohican land use of a few hundred years earlier, within the context of a plausible history of human intervention in forest dynamics through land clearing that occurred over a much longer period of time.

A more extended discussion of the Concentration 23B.1 site and its Hudson Valley and Medieval Warm Period contexts is found in the New York State Museum Record, Volume 2 at http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/publications/record/.  Thanks for support of these investigations go to the Greene County Industrial Development Agency.

References Cited

Curtin, Edward V.
  2008 Phase 3 Archaeological Data Recovery Report, Greene Business and Technology Park, Town of Coxsackie, Greene County, New York.  Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc., Ballston Spa, New York.  Submitted to Greene County Industrial Development Agency, Coxsackie, New York.  On file, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Peebles Island State Park, Waterford, New York.

  2011 A Small Site in Coxsackie, Circa A.D. 1200:  Some Ecological Issues Concerning Its Age and Location.  In Current Research in New York State Archaeology:  A.D. 700-1300, edited by Christina B. Rieth and John P. Hart, pp. 53-76.  New York State Museum Record.  Electronic document at www.nysm.nysed.gov/publications/record/vol_02.

Dunn, Shirley W.
  1994. The Mohicans and Their Land 16091730.  Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmann’s, New York.

Johnson, Eric S.
  1996. Discovering the Ancient Past at Kampoosa Bog, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services, Amherst.

Mann, Charles C.
  2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.  Vintage Books, New York.

McKnight, Justine Woodard
  2010. Analysis of a Single Flotation Sample from Non-Feature Contexts within Concentration 23B.1, Dunn and Prescott Properties, Greene Business and Technology Park, Town of Coxsackie, Greene County, New York.  On file, Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc., Ballston Spa, New York.

Moeller, Roger W.
  1996 Some Thoughts on Late Woodland Ecology.  In A Northeastern Millennium:  History and Archaeology for Robert E. Funk, edited by Christopher Lindner and Edward V. Curtin; Roger W. Moeller, general editor.  Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 12:61-66.

Sterud, Eugene L.
  1977 The Application of Small Site Methods to the New York Archaic.  In Archaeology and Geochronology of the Susquehanna and Schoharie     Regions, edited by John R. Cole and Laurie R. Godfrey, pp. 53-73. Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York.