Archaeologists: Don’t Miss the Plenary Sessions on the State of Current Research and the Careers of Influential Archaeologists (Such as Robert E. Funk. Hint: I Preview My Presentation Right Here)
The New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA) was formed in Rochester, New York in 1916. There weren’t many archaeologists in New York State back then. One of the luminaries present at that moment was Arthur C. Parker, who had roots in western New York and a youth spent in the environs of New York City, where he hung around the American Museum of Natural History. Parker had embarked on a successful museum career of his own several years before helping to found the NYSAA, and essentially he is the ancestor spirit of archaeology at the New York State Museum and the Rochester Museum and Science Center. From the seeds he and his colleagues planted in those days the NYSAA has grown and developed as a significant archaeological organization. Alongside it has grown the study of New York State archaeology.
On the weekend of April 15-17, 2016, the NYSAA will celebrate its 100th anniversary during its Centennial Annual Meeting. The annual meeting will be held at the Woodcliff Hotel and Spa in Rochester, and is hosted by the Lewis Henry Morgan and Frederick Houghton Chapters of the NYSAA. The meeting’s conference promises to be exciting with a diversity of research papers on Saturday and Sunday. At the core of this program are the Saturday plenary sessions, which will include presentations on the careers of some New York’s foremost archaeologists, such as Marian White and Robert E. Funk; plus various aspects of the current State of the Art, such as the Paleoindian-Archaic, Early-Middle Woodland, and Late Woodland-Contact periods, a variety of historical archaeology subjects, and Cultural Resource Management (CRM). The Keynote Presentation will be by John Hart of the New York State Museum (after the banquet on Saturday night).
My presentation in the plenary session will be on the career and contributions of Dr. Robert E. Funk, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1966 for a dissertation on the Archaic period in the Hudson valley. Bob Funk worked for more than 30 years at the New York State Museum; during most of that time, he was State Archaeologist of New York. After retirement he returned to the museum as a research associate, unofficially being a mentor and guiding some of his most important books through the publication process. From the late 1970s onward, I hung around Bob Funk as much as possible: as a Ph.D. dissertation fellow, a State Museum archaeologist, and a young colleague trying to learn as much as possible (and occasionally finding something interesting on my own). You can read a short biography of Bob Funk on the Robert E. Funk Memorial Archaeology Foundation, Inc. website.
Bob Funk knew a lot about every aspect of New York State prehistory, so reporting on his career and contributions could make for a very long presentation indeed. Writers are advised they may need to “murder their darlings”, meaning they must delete some of their favorite writing in order to make the larger piece work. Some of my darlings are being murdered for this presentation to keep it to 20 minutes. But this announcement of the NYSAA centennial meeting gives some of my deleted darlings a second chance, if I sort through the chaos of yellow sheets of paper tossed aside willy-nilly to bring together a little more on some things I will mention April 16. I have a chance here to preview my presentation, while providing a level of detail on one of Bob’s areas of expertise that surely could make it into a full-length publication, but not a 20 minute paper distilling Bob’s towering career, encyclopedic knowledge, and global interests.
One of Bob Funk’s main interests was paleoenvironmental research. This is apparent in the titles of some his publications, such as “Early Man in the Northeast and the Late Glacial Environment”, “Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Investigations on Fishers Island, New York”, “Some Major Wetlands in New York State: A Preliminary Assessment of their Biological and Cultural Potential”, “The Tivoli Bays as a Middle-Scale Setting for Cultural-Ecological Analysis,” and “Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Investigations in the Dutchess Quarry Caves, Orange County, New York.” His major archaeological project was a decade-long investigation of the prehistoric cultures of the upper Susquehanna valley, assisted by geological research that focused on floodplain dynamics and development, and palynological research that proved useful in reconstructing the timing and duration of ancient climate changes.
During the early years of the upper Susquehanna project, paleoclimatologists Wayne Wendland and Reid Bryson (1974) published an influential, comprehensive survey of radiocarbon dates that indicated chronological discontinuities that they attributed to significant changes in climatic episodes. These occurred several times over the course of the Holocene. At the same time, the accumulating upper Susquehanna radiocarbon chronology, palynological and geological data, and new discoveries of archaeological sites suggested that there may be correlations between climate change and the growth and decline of human population size in Bob Funk’s study area. This fascinated Bob and his archaeological co-investigator Bruce Rippeteau, and they examined their data in reference to the Wendland-Bryson model in a preliminary report on the upper Susquehanna project (Funk and Rippeteau 1977).
In addition to Bruce Rippeteau, Funk’s team of colleagues investigating the prehistory of the upper Susquehanna valley included the geologists Robert Dineen and James Kirkland, and the palynologist Donald Lewis. The large number of radiocarbon dates that Funk obtained from stratified archaeological sites in the Susquehanna floodplain provided relatively fine chronological control for Dineen’s and Kirkland’s research, and Bob Funk and Don Lewis selected additional radiocarbon samples from bog cores and deep stratigraphic cuts to assist interpretation of the palynology.
The research that resulted from the work of this interdisciplinary team provided:
- a model of floodplain development from braided to incised stream, and a record of four relict river terraces of different ages;
- a series of associations between relict river terraces, archaeological sites, and radiocarbon dates that illustrate how floodplain changes affected human settlement; and
- a palynological data base concordant with the more generally recognized northeastern sequence of A-B-C1-C2-C3 pollen zones, essentially periods reflecting changing domination of pollen data by different tree taxa over time.
In the upper Susquehanna profiles this sequence features (A) spruce, (B) pine and oak, (C1) hemlock, (C2) oak, and (C3) beech with hemlock, oak, and pine resurgences.
One of the most fascinating findings of this research is that using proxies such as archaeological site frequency (component frequency), as well as temporally diagnostic projectile point frequency, there appears to have been a great period of human population growth during the relatively warm, dry period generally associated with the C-2 zone, when oak and probably other nut-bearing trees (such as hickory) increased significantly. Human population growth may have occurred because acorns and other nuts were food both for humans and their main prey deer, as well as other, smaller food animals. It seems fair to assume that more nuts and more deer improved the human subsistence base, so there were fewer hard times, less mobility, and ultimately more people.
However, using the same archaeological proxies, human population seems to have declined thereafter during a cool, probably wetter climate associated with the early C-3 pollen zone. Hemlock definitely prefers cooler conditions, and made a resurgence across the transition from the C-2 to the C-3 zone. The so-called hemlock minimum occurred during the C-2 zone about 4,000 years Before Present (BP), and the hemlock resurgence is widely recognized by 3000 BP. Some profiles show hemlock increasing gradually before this date. Oak began to decline after the hemlock minimum (note: the hemlock minimum often also looks like an oak maximum in the upper Susquehanna pollen profiles). Painting with a broad brush, it looks like increasingly open, dying hemlock woods typically were infilled over time with other trees, of which oak was exceedingly prominent.
Funk was impressed with the evidence of millennia-old climate change, especially from about 2000-5000 years ago. In the late ‘70s he shared with me a one-liner that the renowned paleoecologist Edward Deevey came up with in front of him. On a field trip earlier in Bob’s career, when someone referred to the Little Ice Age (ca. AD 1300-1860) as beginning in the late Middle Ages, Deevey quipped, “The Little Ice Age? That began 3000 years ago” (Funny for some, but perhaps not for everyone). With regard to the upper Susquehanna region, the cited climate reconstructions reflect the environmental requirements of the key tree taxa involved; but even as Funk et al collected the upper Susquehanna data, another new study complicated the interpretation of the hemlock minimum, because a hemlock pathogen may have caused the destruction of the trees (Miller 1973).
Using a variety of different kinds of data, it is widely recognized now that climate did indeed deteriorate to cooler, wetter, perhaps stormier conditions by 3000 BP (Fiedel 2001; Kidder 2006; Robinson 2015; Sassaman 2010). A close reading of Fiedel (2001) suggests that this trend may have been composed of episodes, such as discrete events or brief, intense periods of Northern Hemisphere cooling shortly before and after 3000 BP. Also, while significant forest composition changes may have been the most deleterious effect in some regions, rain and flooding may have created more significant problems in others.
Climate change ca. 3000 BP affected much, if not all of eastern North America, and some of the characteristic, human-associated changes include the abandonment of long-used sites; abandonment of some regions, or if not regional abandonment, severe population decline; and changes in settlement size and dispersion. This is concordant with what Funk (1993:esp. 294-308) and colleagues found for the upper Susquehanna study area: following an apparent population boom during the period of the hemlock minimum, there was series of fluctuations in late C-2 times leading to an apparent human population nadir for several centuries after the beginning of the C-3 zone (i.e., correlated with the hemlock resurgence).
In Volume 1 of his final report on the upper Susquehanna project, Bob Funk (1993:320-322) reviewed Wendland and Bryson’s (1974) record of wide-spread climatic disruptions for correlation with climate change, floodplain terrace formation, and key times of cultural and demographic change in the upper Susquehanna region. Although there were a few striking correlations, this review often seemed inconclusive. Funk brought up a variety of issues in this regard, including possible lag factors between climatic disruptions and archaeologically recognized cultural changes, as well as the masking of local variation in the global data set. Still, Wendland and Bryson’s climatic disruptions at 1620 BC and 810 BC fall near the beginning of the Susquehanna tradition and the Meadowood phase, respectively, and may be concordant in some ways with environmental conditions affecting the hemlock resurgence (i.e., a cooling climate).
In the final analysis Funk (1993) paid significant respect to Norton Miller’s (1973) alternative argument that the hemlock decline was caused by a pathogen. Miller’s hypothesis competed with climate change hypotheses. On page 124 of his 1993 final report, Funk recognized Miller’s as 1 of 3 competing hypotheses, with both of the other 2 citing warm, sometimes dry conditions (of differing extremes or durations), thus leaving the issue of peak warm conditions ca. 4000 BP open. The big problem was that as long as the pathogen hypothesis remained viable, Funk could not adopt climate change as the cause of the hemlock decline, weakening the argument that ameliorating climate favored some cultural adaptations leading to human population growth. As a result, on page 322 he set aside “for an indefinite period” the hypothesis of causal linkages between climate change, cultural change, and population size that he and Rippeteau had proposed in 1977.
Nevertheless, testing this hypothesis was not the only (or even original) goal of the upper Susquehanna project. For example, Funk’s larger goal was to chronicle the regional prehistory in comparison to regions to the east and west. Arguably, this was done more extensively, with more diverse scientific data than any regional archaeological survey in the Northeast before or since. The upper Susquehanna project was exceptional during its time because of Bob Funk’s promotion and organization of significant levels of interdisciplinary research involving archaeology, geology, and palynology, often linked through the common base of (for its era) a massive radiocarbon chronology. The data Funk and his colleagues collected in the area around Oneonta, New York are a tremendous legacy that stimulates the formation of archaeological research problems, remains useful to answer questions, and constitutes a body of facts amenable to future explanation (including the reinterpretation of old conclusions).
Interestingly, Jess Robinson’s (2015) recent review of the possible role of climate deterioration in the reorganization of New England and eastern New York Native patterns of interaction ca. 3000-2000 BP recognizes a pre-3000 BP warm period correlated with the hemlock minimum; de-emphasizes the role of the hemlock pathogen (e.g., if the pathogen outbreak actually occurred, it also may be a symptom of the warming climate); and (3) sees population decline with the onset of a cooler Northeastern climate. Looking across other large areas of eastern North America, Fiedel (2001), Kidder (2006) and others summarize apparently abrupt changes affecting Native cultures on a sub-continental scale about 3000 BP. So perhaps it is time to bring the Funk-Rippeteau hypothesis back to upper Susquehanna archaeology. Perhaps in his conceptualization of the role of climate change, Bob Funk was in the right ballpark after all.
Fiedel, Stuart J.
2001 What Happened in the Early Woodland? Archaeology of Eastern North America 29:101-142.
Funk, Robert E.
1972 Early Man in the Northeast and the Late Glacial Environment. Man in the Northeast 4:7-39.
1992a Some Major Wetlands in New York State: A Preliminary Assessment of Their Biological and Cultural Potential. Man in the Northeast 43:25-41.
1992b The Tivoli Bays as a Middle-Scale Setting for Cultural-Ecological Analysis. The Hudson Valley Regional Review 9(1):1-24.
1993 Archaeological Investigations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State, Volume 1. Persimmon Press, Buffalo.
Funk, Robert E. and John E. Pfeiffer
1988 Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Investigations on Fisher’s Island, New York: A Preliminary Report. Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut 51:69-110.
Funk, Robert E. and Bruce E. Rippeteau
1977 Adaptation, Continuity and Change in Upper Susquehanna Prehistory. Occasional Publication in Northeastern Anthropology No. 3, George’s Mills, New Hampshire.
Funk, Robert E. and David W. Steadman
1994 Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Investigations in the Dutchess Quarry Caves, Orange County, New York. Persimmon Press, Buffalo.
Kidder, Tristram R.
2006 Climate Change and the Archaic-Woodland Transition (3000-2500 cal B.P.) in the Mississippi River Basin. American Antiquity 71:195-231.
Miller, Norton G.
1973 Late-glacial and Postglacial Vegetation Change in Southwestern New York State. New York State Museum and Science Service Bulletin 420, Albany.
Robinson, Francis “Jess” W., IV
2015 The Initiation and Maintenance of the Early Woodland Interaction Sphere (ca.3,000-2,000 B.P.): The View from Six Northeastern Mortuary Sites. Ph. D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The University at Albany, State University of New York.
Sassaman, Kenneth E.
2010 The Eastern Archaic, Historicized. Altamira Press, Lanham, Maryland.
Wendland, Wayne M. and Reid A. Bryson
1974 Dating Climatic Episodes of the Holocene. Quaternary Research 4(1):9-24.