Phase 2

Winter Archaeology (For Hearty Souls)

     Archaeology conjures various pictures in the public imagination.  Hot, thirsty, desert archaeologists using small hand brooms to brush the crumbled dust of the ages from ancient stone foundations...

     Indiana Jones- and Joans-types in khaki shirts and wide-brimmed hats pushing through steaming, verdant undergrowth, nearly stumbling over long-lost jungle ruins...

     Hard-core students of history descending ever deeper into square excavations along a slow, muddy river, the summer sun beating down on the canopies that provide much-needed shade...

     Frigid wind blowing snow into the faces of bundled-up seekers of the past as they trudge knee-deep through the icy crests of shifting drifts toward their client's Area of Potential Effect (APE), located just beyond the distant hedgerow...

Digging to recover artifacts before construction.  Archaeological data recovery a few years back  in the Town of Coxsackie, New York.

Digging to recover artifacts before construction.  Archaeological data recovery a few years back  in the Town of Coxsackie, New York.

     Frigid wind blowing snow in the faces of bundled-up seekers of the past as they trudge knee-deep through the icy crests of shifting drifts... What?

The field crew keeps warm by working hard on the survey of a Phase 1 project in Stillwater, NY.

The field crew keeps warm by working hard on the survey of a Phase 1 project in Stillwater, NY.

     Let me introduce you to winter-time archaeology in the State of New York.  I don't want to make it sound too bad.  There are those memorable days when it's very cold and getting the job done takes extra dedication.  But some days are better than others.  Just last week we were out in mostly sunny weather with temperatures reaching the 30s by early afternoon.  And some winter fieldwork days are even better than that:  Sunny days when you might actually take off your coat and roll up your sleeves.  That being said, however, on the cold days, dressing in layers and using hand and foot warmers helps a lot.  Many of you know this, and certainly, archaeologists are not the only ones who work outdoors in the winter.  People do winter fieldwork in a variety of professions for the same reason:  we have clients who are getting ready for construction.

Screen and shovel, awaiting the gloved hands of an archaeologist to continue work in a field near Saratoga Springs, NY. A good example of the snow cover acting as an insulator for the ground beneath.

Screen and shovel, awaiting the gloved hands of an archaeologist to continue work in a field near Saratoga Springs, NY. A good example of the snow cover acting as an insulator for the ground beneath.

     There is a good reason New York State archaeology is conducted in the winter:  Archaeological data are needed to satisfy environmental review and historic preservation requirements so that construction projects can proceed.  Often, these projects need to avoid disturbing archaeological sites, or at least adequately take into account how they might affect archaeological sites.  People who want to build in the spring or summer sometimes need archaeology done in the winter.

     This process starts with a Phase 1 archaeological survey, an investigation of whether archaeological sites occur within a proposed construction area.  The Phase 1 survey includes background research:  checking files of archaeological site records, researching old maps, visiting the project site to evaluate its setting and condition.  This work is sometimes called a Phase 1A archaeological or cultural resource survey, and this part can be done any time of year.

     But the full Phase 1 survey has a Phase 1B part involving fieldwork such as test pitting.  Most 1A surveys find that the Phase 1B is warranted, and indeed necessary to meet State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) requirements.  The Phase 1B fieldwork can be performed in the winter if the ground is not frozen.

     You probably have realized by now we won't shy away just because it's cold:  the big limitation is frozen ground.  I find that in most years in the Hudson Valley region the ground freezes sometime in January, if it freezes at all.  Wooded areas with thick leaf litter and areas covered with snow stay unfrozen the longest.  There have been some years recently when the ground in the woods either did not freeze, or froze late and thawed early (staying frozen for maybe 3-4 weeks).  Last winter we shovel-tested a wooded area in Ballston, New York during February, and at the end of February we shovel-tested a project site in Warrensburg.  In winters when the ground freezes, it routinely thaws upward toward the last crust at the surface.  During February and March, a thick, insulating cover of snow may enable the ground to thaw before winter is over, sometimes weeks before it's over, as we found in Cobleskill one winter.

     So, often when someone needs to hire an archaeologist in the winter, despair about schedules may be premature.  First of all, the background research can be performed.  In addition, it may be possible to complete the field archaeology if the project area is wooded, if it has been snow-covered much of the winter, or if it is in a location such as an urban parking lot where a backhoe is needed anyway to test below paved surfaces and fill.

     We do fieldwork every winter.  The photos shown here represent winter fieldwork performed over the years (with cold hands and warm smiles) by some of the most skilled and dedicated field archaeologists.  The captions give a little context on the work and results.

An Inside View of an Archaeological Project: The Adam Shafer Site in Cobleskill, Schoharie County, New York

Early 19th-century multi-chambered slip ware found at the Adam Shafer site.

Early 19th-century multi-chambered slip ware found at the Adam Shafer site.

In 2011, construction planning of a new agricultural and environmental resources center at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cobleskill required that a Phase 1 archaeological survey be performed before construction could be permitted.  Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. performed this survey, finding evidence that part of the site had been used by Native Americans during prehistoric times.  Jon Vidulich directed this work in the field.  Curtin Archaeological also found that Adam Shafer (the descendant of early 18thcentury Palatine German settlers) built a farm house in 1816 on the same terrace overlooking Cobleskill Creek that the Indians had used in a much more remote period.  Artifacts from the Shafer farmhouse (including a feature composed of shell) were found in addition to prehistoric Indian artifacts.

Subsequently, Curtin Archaeological performed a Phase 2 archaeological site examination in order to evaluate the archaeological importance of the site.  I directed this work (if direction actually is needed for a team of co-workers that consisted of Dr. Andrew Farry, Jon Vidulich, and Sarah Vidulich).  The results of the Phase 2 investigation indicated that the multi-component, prehistoric-historic period archaeological site was a significant site eligible for inclusion in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Phase 2 fieldwork: Sarah Vidulich, Jon Vidulich, and Andrew Farry working in the Shafer midden east of the old farmhouse's cellar hole.

Phase 2 fieldwork: Sarah Vidulich, Jon Vidulich, and Andrew Farry working in the Shafer midden east of the old farmhouse's cellar hole.

The finding that the archaeological site was considered significant in this way was based on the value of the archaeological data:  the site could provide information important to the study of history and prehistory.  In 2012 Curtin Archaeological conducted more fieldwork as part of the process needed to reduce the adverse impact of construction upon the archaeological site; in other words, to mitigate the impact construction would have upon this site as a source of important archaeological data.  I co-directed the 2012 fieldwork with Dr. Andrew Farry.

                              Phase 3 excavations in front of the Shafer site front yard.

                              Phase 3 excavations in front of the Shafer site front yard.

During 2013 and 2014, we have been studying the information we recovered directly from this site.  We have also done some other things to help interpret the archaeological data.  For example, Kerry Nelson and I have examined primary data from historic documents to better understand the Shafers, their ancestry, and continuity and change in a certain traditional practice:  the naming of children in each successive generation of Shafers.  What we found was a reliable tradition, until there was a radical departure.

We have also been reading literature on the early 18th century German migration to New York State, as well as the nature of cultural change 100 years later, when the old guard of American revolutionaries gave way to the first generation born into the early republic.  This new generation was forming the first truly American national identity.

This chert artifact from the Shafer site has a graver spur (upper edge) and scraping surface (lower edge).

This chert artifact from the Shafer site has a graver spur (upper edge) and scraping surface (lower edge).

Also, focusing on the intriguing collection of chipped stone (chert) artifacts recovered from the prehistoric component, Meadow Coldon and I have examined other stone artifact collections from Cobleskill, as well as the comparative chert collection in the anthropology office of the New York State Museum.  We consulted with New York State Museum geologist Dr. Charles Ver Straeten, whose specialty is the Devonian-age cherts of New York State (the same cherts we needed to know about).  Dr. Ver Straeten kindly acquainted us with an even larger comparative collection of cherts such as Esopus and several Onondaga and Helderberg varieties.  This dove-tailed well with the field trip he led to Devonian chert exposures in November (and consequently, Meadow and I have added making our own comparative collection and obtaining chert for experimental use to the research program).

An Onondaga chert outcrop near Catskill, New York we have visited for the comparative collection. The chert is the dark stone embedded in lighter limestone.

An Onondaga chert outcrop near Catskill, New York we have visited for the comparative collection. The chert is the dark stone embedded in lighter limestone.

As part of this process, we also began a careful study of the life-group exhibits of the New York State Museum for inspiration concerning how to connect ancient stone artifacts with the people of the ancient past.  This is an interesting exercise in which we can consider what is being shown in the exhibits, and mindful of what we are learning, we can imagine other scenarios (not exhibited).  In this way we carefully use existing knowledge to stimulate thought experiments that broaden our perspective.  We are considering additional visits, perhaps with new questions, in conjunction with other projects.

I offer this post and a few that will follow on the Adam Shafer site over the next several months in order to provide a greater degree of access to an actual archaeological research project than may be available otherwise (at least much of the time).  These posts will provide behind-the-scenes looks at the nuts-and-bolts work that leads to more refined reports of archaeological research.