Strait of Belle Isle

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.