FORT EDWARD — Every artifact his diggers uncover raises another question for archaeologist David Starbuck.
This summer’s excavation of the cellar of a 1750s trading post has raised more questions than any other dig in the 15 years Starbuck and his crews have been working on the site.
“You look at where we found the broken wine bottles and you wonder if they fell through when the building burned. Then you find the six complete wine bottles, and you wonder if they were stored in a special place in the basement,” said Starbuck, a Chestertown native and professor at Plymouth (N.H.) State, who is in his third decade of examining French & Indian War and Revolutionary War sites in eastern New York.
“Then you go over to where the door was, and you find all these small, common low-denomination coins — small piles of them — and you wonder what was going on there,” he said.
Earlier this month, Starbuck was working at the secluded site near the remains of the original Fort Edward.
“And we found plates, so we assume the owner was also running something of a tavern for the officers,” he said.
The dig, which is on private land, also produced a pair of bayonets, doubling the total discovered at Fort Edward and Fort William Henry in Lake George.
“That’s another question,” Starbuck said. “Why would a private merchant have something that would normally be in a military supply house? When we find something like that, we don’t have an easy answer.”
The dig included volunteers, along with students earning credit for an archeology class at SUNY Adirondack. Many of those who worked this summer have been with Starbuck for as long as two decades.
One morning, before heading out, Starbuck spent more than 20 minutes at the Rogers Island Visitors Center introducing volunteers, new and old, who were taking part.
“It’s almost like a big family,” he said. “People come back year after year or they take some time off and come back.”
Betty Hall, a retired teacher, runs the lab at the visitors center, where items are analyzed and catalogued.
John Kosek, who is in the restaurant business in Saratoga Springs, is a longtime digger. Earlier this summer, his daughter Sarah, who has come along in the past, joined him at the site and was overseeing the sifting of the dirt.
Shannon Havens of Corinth, who has dug before, took the class for credit and late in the final week discovered a scale used for weighing items for buying or selling.
“It was corroded,” Starbuck said. “But it was in good shape.”
The site is in the woods not far from where the original fort stood. Starbuck does not publicize where it is, because of the possibility of looters.
He first heard of the site because of reports of holes being dug there by looters. In the mid-1990s, Matt Rozell, a history teacher from Hudson Falls, took a break while working on a dig at the original Fort Edward site and found holes the looters had dug.
The discovery led to years of digging and a book about the site.
The pit is rectangular, about 40 feet long, 14 feet wide and 7 feet deep. Workers use a ladder to get into the hole, scrape dirt with a trowel, then send it back up to be screened.
SUNY Adirondack has been a long-time supporter of Starbuck’s work.
“I think what’s important here is that this is a real community effort, and the involvement of the college is crucial to that,” Starbuck said.
Rich in history
The site was a sutlery owned by Edward Best. He sold goods to soldiers at Fort Edward, a major post in the French and Indian Wars. Starbuck said he has determined that, when the fort was at its most active, it was the third-largest city in North America.
It’s exciting that Best was the sutler to Roger’s Rangers, which first codified techniques of rapid deployment and scouting that are still used by Army Rangers and other similar units today, Starbuck said.
“The main things he sold were booze and tobacco,” Starbuck said. “The soldiers would come over from the fort, ready to relax, and he would sell them what they needed.”
The dig was supposed to have ended 10 days ago, but Starbuck and his crew of volunteers were back at the sutler’s house Monday and Tuesday.
“We’re exposing a long stretch of the charred cellar well. It looks nice,” Starbuck said Tuesday. “Monday, we found a seventh bottle in the row of bottles. This week should be it for now, but with archaeology, you never know.”
Starbuck and his crews have worked at the site of the old Fort Edward; as well as at Rogers Island; Saratoga battlefield; and the Little Wood Creek site where the Washington County Sewage Treatment plant is located.
At the Little Wood Creek site, the archaeologists found storage pits, trash pits and hearths from the Woodland Period (between 1000 and 1300), with an even older site, from about 1000 B.C., beneath it.
Starbuck has also done many digs at Fort William Henry.
“Last week at Fort William Henry, we exposed over 10 feet, running north-south, of the east wall of the east barracks in the parade ground,” he said.
Starbuck has run more than 40 summer field schools and dozens of other digs; and has written or edited nearly 20 books; published numerous articles and book reviews; and presented nearly 500 papers and talks at local, regional and national conferences and meetings.
He wrote a book about earlier work at the sutling house, called “Excavating the Sutler’s House: Artifacts of the British Armies in Fort Edward and Lake George,” as well as “Massacre at Fort William Henry” and a thorough history of the wars in eastern New York — “The Great Warpath: British Military Sites from Albany to Crown Point.”
He plans to publish another Fort William Henry book next year.
With all the questions raised by artifacts coming out of the old cellar in Fort Edward, a much larger question remains.
The cellar was beneath a brick building that burned after being open for only two years.
“We have no idea why it burned down,” Starbuck said. “We do know Mr. Best had financial issues from some other documents we have found, but we don’t know if it was burned down because of the debt or if he fell into debt because of the fire.”