Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Born Again

     "Mammas don't let your babies grow up to be archeologists..."

     OK, maybe that's not quite how the lyrics go in the old Ed Bruce song that became a hit for Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. But after reading Archeology in the Adirondacks - The Last Frontier, it seems like good advice. In his latest book, David R. Starbuck details excavating a privy; "Inside the privy house it was hot, there were cobwebs everywhere, my lungs were filling with fine powder - probably a mix of lime and decomposed excrement..." Then there's the story of the exhumation of Jane McCrea, done while being heckled by irate protesters (and of returning two years later to do it again). Another charming anecdote involves archeology in a hog house where "we found hundreds of bone fragments from pigs. There bones had been burned as part of the fuel when pig heads were rendered in the cauldron atop the stove..." Or how about 'garbology' (use your imagination), just one more reason to steer your wee little ones away from the profession. I could go on and on but you get the picture. Archeology isn't quite as glamorous as the Indiana Jones flicks would lead you to believe.

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     David Starbuck is probably the best-known archeologist in the local area. Indeed, he may be the only archeologist many people know. Lots of folks have volunteered on his digs at Rogers Island in Fort Edward and at Fort William Henry in Lake George. He's written over a dozen books on his finds and the latest volume could be seen as a synthesis of his experiences and insights over a long career.

David Starbuck digs deeper - web image

     He makes it clear that this is not meant to be a comprehensive or scholarly tome on the archeology of the Adirondacks. What it is, is a smorgasbord taste of discoveries and ongoing work in such diverse fields as Native Americans, forts and battlefields, industrial ruins and rural farmscapes.

     The only Washington County references are of Rogers Island in Fort Edward and Jane McCrea's grave in Hudson Falls. But his sentiments about the Starbuck family farm in Chestertown (Warren County) certainly apply to many rural property owners in Washington County, "...retaining a sense of place and preserving memory are the ultimate measures of success in the preservation field. What is at stake is the very heart and soul of a family farm, both its past and its future."

A family farm - a memory worth preserving

     The author concludes his book with 'What does the future hold?' where he opines on untapped possibilities for archeology in the North Country. It got me thinking about places in Washington County that might be rewarding to explore. How about the site of the Vita Spring bottling plant in rural Fort Edward or the area around the Hogtown blast furnace? Maybe there are artifacts from Philip Embury's life at the corner of Eagleville Road and Rt. 313 where he built a small cabin and there is a family cemetery. And the old marble mill on the Battenkill at Rexleigh has a long history that could make it an interesting and productive site. Come to think of it, Mammas do let your babies grow up to be archeologists - we're going to need more of them. 

The Rexleigh Marble Mill on the Battenkill - Web image

     The archeology bug must have bitten me twice because as soon as I put down Starbuck's book, I picked up Shays' Settlement in Vermont - A Story of Revolt and Archaeology by Stephen D. Butz.
( Confused? Apparently the word can be correctly spelled with 'eo' or 'aeo'. I simply adopted each book's usage.) I've posted about the Shays' project before but now seems a good time for an update.

     In 2013 Butz became intrigued by the possibility that the leader of the 1787 Shays Rebellion had sought refuge on Egg Mountain, which is located in Vermont but accessed from Salem on the New York side of the border. Butz's curiosity lead to ongoing investigations, an archaeological field school, many public presentations, a web site and his book.

Students at the archaeological field school - image from their web site

     Shays Settlement in Vermont was published in 2017 and is an informative mix of text, photos, illustrations and maps. The author alternates chapters of historical research with chapters of archaeological findings. I was struck by how written records in tandem with material artifacts paint a more complete picture of the past than either individually. Butz's skills as a historian, archaeologist and writer are impressive. I highly recommend his book.

Teacher and student - image from Butz's website

     Recently the land where Shays' Settlement is located has been purchased by The Conservation Fund. They are continuing to support Butz's work as did the previous landowner. Hopefully there will be public access at some point in the future - an exciting prospect for history buffs and the Village of Salem, which would be the gateway to the site. 

Triple play...

     While reading the two books I learned of a Mills on the Kill exhibit at the Salem Courthouse. Judy Flagg had help from Sally Brillion in pulling together information, photos and artifacts that document past and present industry along the Battenkill. Elizabeth Cockey contributed artwork that nicely complements the historical material.

     About a dozen sites are mentioned with some hosting several industries over the years. The H&V plants at Center Falls and Clarks Mills are still operating as are several hydroelectric facilities. Almost all the sites are private but many can be viewed from roads, bridges or a canoe on the river. Buildings, foundations, dams and equipment are the archeological clues to past economies and lifestyles. There was a time when most of what you needed was made by your neighbors, right in your community. Now it's made in China and sold in a Dollar General chainstore.

Once an East Greenwich mill, now someones home by the water

Foundations and machinery of the old Eagleville Woolen Mill - photo from a real estate offering

     While the exhibit has closed at the Salem Courthouse, there is another chance to catch it at The Georgi in Shushan on the weekend of November 10 & 11.

     I use high-tech skid steers in a post and beam barn that was built by craftsmen in 1887. That's over 130 years ago. I mow and bale with modern John Deere tractors equipped with power shifts, computers and air conditioning. But from the cabs I can look down into hedgerows at old, rusty machines left by those who worked this same ground with horses and oxen. We are simply the current occupants of any given place. There will be other people here in the future and there has been people here for thousands of years into the past. Archeology finds what they have left behind, tells a little of their story. In a small way it allows them to be born again. 

Dig this...

    * Info on Rogers Island Visitor Center/SUNY Adirondack archaeological field school here.

     * Link to NYS Archaeological Association with two local chapters here. 

     * Check out Shays' Settlement Project here.

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