Onondaga

In Memory of James Tuck, Who Helped Shape Contemporary Archaeology in New York State and the Canadian Maritime Region

Dr. James A. Tuck

Dr. James A. Tuck

The world recently lost James A. Tuck, an archaeologist who was born in Buffalo, New York, received a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Syracuse University, and taught at Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada.  Tuck is best known in New York State for his work on prehistoric Onondaga Indian archaeology in which he outlined a sequence of village movements and cultural changes that provided the first comprehensive model of the development of Iroquois culture within an Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) tribal homeland.  This was published in Tuck’s 1970 book Onondaga Iroquois Prehistory:  a Study in Settlement Archaeology.  The significance of this research for New York State archaeology cannot be understated.  Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, archaeologists grappled with the notion that Iroquois culture had developed locally in and around the tribal homelands occupied during the 17th century.  This idea, referred to as the in-situ hypothesis, was replacing the older theory that the Iroquois had migrated into New York from the south, perhaps from the Mississippi Valley, and possibly not long before the European entrance into these homelands.  Tuck’s research was not performed in an intellectual vacuum; for example, he incorporated Donald  Lenig’s concept of the “Oak Hill Horizon” bridging the previously presumed period of cultural hiatus and Iroquois migration.  But testing the in-situ hypothesis required large amounts of data from a single area.  You can think of Tuck’s book, replete with excavation data, ceramic seriation, and radiocarbon dating, as a blow-by-blow account showing long-term continuity (since about 1000 AD) between late prehistoric Iroquoian communities in the Syracuse area and the temporal phases of the preceding Owasco culture. 

Tuck’s research in Canada included studies of the Maritime Archaic culture in Newfoundland and Labrador, around the Strait of Belle Isle and in seminally important excavations of the L’Anse Amour burial mound and the Port au Choix cemetery.  Research by Tuck and his students on the Maritime Archaic provided a long temporal sequence spanning ca. 2000-7000 BC.  Based upon his findings in Newfoundland and Labrador, Tuck published an article in 1977 called “A Look at Laurentian” in which he described how an important Archaic period culture in New York State and surrounding parts of Ontario, Quebec and Vermont had roots in different material culture traditions of the North American interior and Far Northeast coastal region.  Put otherwise, there came a time, ca. 5000-6000 years ago (the beginning of the Laurentian Tradition), when in the great unfolding of indigenous history, populations in the upper St. Lawrence River region began recreating (perhaps initially trading for) some the most highly crafted artifact types of the Maritime Archaic.  These artifact types include ulus, gouges, plummets, and polished slate points and knives.  A broader view of this process would also incorporate coastal areas farther south in New England in a similar but somewhat different pathway through history, although that is not what Tuck focused on.  However, his idea and its implications are intriguing during the current era when the native cultural history of the Northeastern region is being rethought. 

Tuck’s many contributions to Newfoundland and Labrador archaeology are best summarized by others who were closely connected with this work, and there are several informative obituaries available online.   I will simply mention that he also investigated, or supervised student research on prehistoric Indian cultures of more recent periods of Newfoundland-Labrador archaeology, as well as the remarkable 16th century Basque whaling station in Red Bay, Labrador (another important site on the Strait of Belle Isle, and a UNESCO World Heritage site).  Archaeologists in both New York State and the Canadian Maritime region owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to James A. Tuck.  

June 30, 2019, edited Dr. Tuck’s place of birth.

Significant Woodland Period Discovery in Eastern New York

Significant Woodland Period Discovery in Eastern New York

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. 

Understanding Chert in the Mid-Hudson Valley: A Note on a Recent Workshop and Field Trip

Tables of chert on display at the NYSM

On November 1, 2014 a group of archaeologists and geologists participated in a workshop on chert at the New York State Museum, and then left in a caravan of cars, trucks and vans for a field trip to chert-bearing sites located in Greene and Ulster Counties.  This is the second of a projected annual series of field trips in eastern New York that promises to provide archaeological and geological colleagues with a firmer basis and common language for discussing chert.  Chert is one of the most fundamental materials used in ancient Native American technology in this region.  These programs are produced through the collaboration of New York State Museum geologist Charles Ver Straeten, New York State Museum archaeologists Jonathan Lothrop and Christina Rieth, and Binghamton University Public Archaeology Facility archaeologist Laurie Miroff.

At the Esopus exposures near Catskill, Chuck Ver Straeten (left), and Nate Hamilton

At the Esopus exposures near Catskill, Chuck Ver Straeten (left), and Nate Hamilton

The morning program featured table-top displays of chert from eastern New York and northern New England, as well as presentations on the Munsungun Lake and Mount Jasper quarry locations in Maine and New Hampshire.  The presentations were made by University of Southern Maine geologist Stephen Pollock with significant additional information and discussion by University of Southern Maine archaeologist Nathan Hamilton, Chuck Ver Straeten, and geology/geoarchaeology consultant Philip LaPorta.

The afternoon portion of the program was designed and led by Chuck Ver Straeten.  It led to locations near the Village of Catskill in Greene County and the City of Kingston in Ulster County where a combination of different exposures provided the opportunity to see Helderberg, Esopus, and Onondaga chert-bearing rock formations in place.  Chuck Ver Straeten provided the guide to stratigraphic order and the origin of these formations and their cherts.  Chuck also inspired the participants with a sense of what still needs to be learned with regard to these eastern New York Devonian cherts.

              Jon Lothrop selecting chert samples at the Helderberg exposures near Kingston

              Jon Lothrop selecting chert samples at the Helderberg exposures near Kingston

This program was immensely useful to the participants, not to mention a lot of fun on a crisp November day when the late afternoon rain was very light, and yielded little in the way of stinging sleet.  Rarely does a group of adults become so engaged in the pleasure of a Saturday outing, except perhaps at an amusement park (but bedrock exposures have a way of becoming amusement parks for geologists and archaeologists).

The Helderberg sequence near Kingston, from the bottom: Kalkberg, New Scotland, Alsen, Port Ewen

The Helderberg sequence near Kingston, from the bottom: Kalkberg, New Scotland, Alsen, Port Ewen

Speaking as just one archaeologist, I want to give at least a hint of why I find the subject of chert sources fascinating (and why I will continue to have fun with it long after the field trip).  Eastern New York State is rich in chert sources, including the Ordovician Normanskill chert as well as the subjects of November 1’s field trip, the Devonian cherts of the Helderberg, Esopus and Onondaga formations.  Often a relatively short trip of a mile or two (quite less in certain places) will provide access to several, or perhaps all of the chert varieties contained in these rocks.

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At the same time, however, it is not unusual for archaeologists in this region to find evidence of archaeological sites or ancient activity locations dominated by the occurrence of one chert type in preference to others.  And these preferences often differ at adjoining sites.  As an archaeologist, I need to ask why this happens, because access as a function of distance doesn’t seem to apply in these cases.  I need to consider whether this is a matter of ancient knowledge (i.e., were only limited sources of chert known to the inhabitants of the site?); habitual practices adopted by the site’s inhabitants; or larger traditions of practice that provided a broader and more enduring set of rules that largely excluded some chert varieties from selection for tool stone.  The quality of the stone may be a factor, but if so, it must operate in a complex way, because although archaeologists may feel that these stones vary in quality, a wide range of stone types was used, at least over the long period of eastern New York prehistory.

                                    Alsen (Helderberg) chert exposed near Kingston

                                    Alsen (Helderberg) chert exposed near Kingston

I may have more to say about this in future blog posts as my colleagues Kerry Nelson, Meadow Coldon and I examine the strength of evidence for the spatial differentiation of the use of stones such as Esopus and Onodaga chert at the site we are studying in Cobleskill, New York; and Normanskill and Kalkberg or other Helderberg cherts at a series of sites in Coxsackie, New York.  A similar or different sense of ancient Native American choices in stone selection may emerge from work we have been doing in the Town of Malta, Saratoga County, New York.  We shall see.

The thought I want to leave with was stated succinctly by Chuck Ver Straeten at the end of the field trip.  What geologists and archaeologists are doing with the chert workshops and field trips is useful.  We are still finding out how useful, but the chert workshops are already enhancing our ability to communicate and envision future research that depends on better understandings of chert.