Summer archaeological dig to shift to Lake George battlefield

July 7th, 2014 by Lynn

LAKE GEORGE — Professor David Starbuck and his archaeology crew of volunteers and SUNY Adirondack students have not explored Lake George Battlefield Park in 13 years.

He’s ready to go back, and he starts Monday.

“The great thing is that since it is state-owned, it is well-preserved,” said Starbuck, a professor at Plymouth (New Hampshire) State College who has been leading local digs through SUNY Adirondack during the summer since 1991.

“The battlefield park played host to some huge events. The (Department of Environmental Conservation) wants to more comprehensively understand what is in the park,” he said, noting it was important in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. “There were troops moving in and out of here for 20 to 25 years, and no one has established exactly where all of the events took place.”

Battlefield Park was the setting for the Battle of Lake George, an entrenched camp of reinforcements for Fort William Henry at the time of the massacre in 1757, the main camp of British armies of 8,000 to 10,000 in 1758 and 1759 and a major camp during the early part of the Revolutionary War.

Although never completed, the plan was for Fort George, which is on the battlefield site, to become the largest British fort in the American colonies. “We’re talking about the biggest British armies in the colonies in 1758 and 1759. This has enabled the students at SUNY Adirondack to do more work on sites from the French and Indian War than any other school in the Northeast,” said Starbuck, whose two previous digs there focused on the remains of huts and barracks, as well as the one remaining bastion of the fort (Fort George).”

“We’re going to be working on both the east and west sides of the park, because we worked in the center the last time,” Starbuck said. “For me, as an archaeologist, it’s about finding exactly where things happened.”

Starbuck said he think the state wanted more work at the site because the previous artifacts are at the state museum and because of the discovery of Native American remains in the area of Million Dollar Beach.

Starbuck, who grew up locally, has been doing archaeology in the region every summer since he first started exploring at Rogers Island in Fort Edward in 1991. He has worked there, in other parts of Fort Edward and at Fort William Henry as well.

Starbuck has written a number of books about those digs, including “The Legacy of Fort William Henry,” which came out in June.

For those interested in the SUNY Adirondack program, there will be three two-week sessions that offer three credits. Students can take up to six credits.

Classes will meet at the Lake George Battlefield Park July 7 to 18, July 21 to Aug. 1 and Aug. 4 to 15.

Tuition for New York state residents is $158 per credit hour, and tuition for nonresidents is $315 per credit hour.

For more information, contact the SUNY Adirondack Archaeology Field School at 743-2258.


Digging deeply into privies’ secrets

May 5th, 2014 by Lynn

    BALLSTON SPA — History can be a filthy business.

    At the National Bottle Museum, a tall, illuminated case displays the depths to which some people will go to uncover the details of the past.

    Labeled “Privy Pit c. 1860,” the exhibit documents a 1991 dig by Roy Topka, a veteran bottle collector who serves on the institution’s board.

    “I am amused at how often I have to explain to people what they are looking at,” said Gary Moeller, museum director.

    Before municipal dumps, outhouses served as landfills for urban dwellers.

    A bottle originally used for mineral water and found in a former privy is on display at the National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (Jason McKibben -

    The museum’s graduated display chronicles the ground-depth measurements where Topka found discarded items, primarily bottles, during the excavation of a Capital District pit toilet. Bottles of various shapes, colors and sizes hang from monofilament line at various heights, denoting their former position in the waste hole.

    For Topka, the dig is the Holy Grail of outhouses. Of the more than 1,600 excavations he has conducted around Albany, Troy and Schenectady, the collector rates this one near the top.

    “That one would be called an exceptional privy. Probably half the digs, you find next to nothing — everything is broken or there is nothing in them at all,” Topka said.

    Burrowing through 150-year-old sewage and trash seems like an odd method of research. But for historians who are willing to dig deep, outhouses can reveal forgotten tidbits.

    History is told through more than the valuable artifacts people pass down from generation to generation. The everyday items they throw away also tell a valuable tale.

    “Since the 1960s, we’ve realized it’s the story of average, ordinary people that most needs telling. Give me a privy, a backyard dump or a filled-in hole, and let me tell the story that might be worth telling,” said archaeologist David Starbuck, professor of anthropology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

    ‘Dirty deeds done dirt cheap’

    When Topka knocks on people’s doors, he isn’t trying to sell magazine subscriptions or solicit religious converts. He wants to dig up the backyard.

    “I do a lot of door-knocking. Usually, I wait until Saturdays to see if I see someone working outside in the yard,” he said. “I tell them what I do and introduce myself. One out of 10 will give me permission, if I’m that lucky.”

    Although the strategy seems odd, Topka manages to convince around 25 homeowners a year to let him into their yards for his amateur outhouse excavations.

    He scours neighborhoods he believes are likely to have 19th-century sites, based on his knowledge of regional history and prior digging experience. Once he gets approval from a homeowner, he uses his deductive skill to narrow down a location for his dirty work.

    “With experience, you can tell, but you don’t always know for sure — sometimes you can be about 95 percent positive. You never really know until you start digging a hole,” he said.

    Intuition plays a big role in his treasure hunts.

    “I’ve improved over time. You learn by what you feel in the ground. That gives you the clues you need,” Topka said.

    He probes the soil looking for signs. Many privies were lined with wood, stone or brick. As he digs deeper, if he finds an outhouse site, items start to emerge in the soil.

    “You will find things like common marbles, china doll heads, porcelain doll dishes and you will occasionally find false teeth,” he said.

    Topka surmises many of the items fell down the privy hole by accident. Other artifacts probably were discarded with hopes they would never be seen again.

    “I have found bawdy items from the Victorian era — obscene little statues of people doing obscene acts,” he said.

    Bottles are his pay dirt

    “I’ve found bottles that go back as far as the mid-1700s. I enjoy finding bottles that were never known to exist — something that no one knew about. Sometimes what I find are the only remnants known of a business that existed in the mid-1800s. Some of the things I find aren’t listed anywhere — the only existence is that shard of glass,” he said.

    Courtesy photo Collector Roy Topka excavates a privy site in Schenectady in search of bottles. The outhouse pit, which was lined with field stones, dated back to around the 1850s.

    The digs are a laborious process and can take up to nine hours to complete, depending on the dimensions of the original privy.

    “The average pit is about 3 by 4 feet and about 8 feet deep. But they can be full of rocks and roots,” Topka said.

    The human waste generally has decomposed in the more than 100 years since the sites’ original use.

    “I have dug a few where they were sealed off with caps of lime and sand in between, and there still was discernible poop. But that is very unusual,” he said.

    A good yield for a privy dig would be 10 to 15 bottles, but Topka often leaves empty-handed.

    “It’s a lot of work, and there’s little reward. Probably half the digs, you find next to nothing — everything might be broken, or there is nothing in them,” he said.

    He has unearthed a number of bottles with historical value, but few items are worth much money.

    “I have found things that might go way up into the hundreds, but usually, if they have any value, it’s between $1 and $5,” he said. “Condition is very important, and chips and cracks shoot that right down.”

    ‘Good riddance’

    David Starbuck has fond memories of an outhouse he refers to as the “three-holer.”

    “When I grew up, the water source was a couple of springs. During dry times, we would have to head out to the three-holer,” he said.

    The archaeologist, who has led excavations at Rogers Island and Fort William Henry, still lives on the 18th-century Starbuck family farm in Chestertown that had a communal outhouse on the property for generations.

    “Not too long before my father died, I saw him taking it down. I was horrified. I had a real sentimental attachment,” he said.

    Although indoor plumbing has been a standard for more than 100 years, the outhouse is more contemporary than many people think.

    “Modern folks think of them as incredibly antiquated. But if you didn’t live in a municipal area, that’s what you used until the early 20th century,” he said.

    It’s not uncommon for properties to have more than one privy hole. Homeowners would often abandon sites.

    “Once a hole got really filthy, they would dump trash in it and fill it in. Then they would dig a new hole,” he said.

    Most of Starbuck’s excavations have been pits that are more than 100 years old. He warns that any privy dig — even locations that haven’t been used for a century — can be unpleasant and possibly unhealthy.

    “You really want to wear a respiratory mask when you dig these things. The stuff that gets into your lungs — holy cow. One time, I was sick for a month or so after a dig from the stuff I breathed into my lungs,” he said. “Powdered feces is not great for your system — and exactly what bacteria could be in there, I’m not sure.”

    During an excavation at Rogers Island, Starbuck and his team uncovered a full-sized latrine.

    “This would have been from the 1750s. It was about 8 feet long, and they had put all sorts of garbage in it. We found butchered animal bones and buttons and other trash,” he said.

    The discovery offered clues about the soldiers’ daily lives not available from other sources. For Starbuck, privy sites and dumps are historically significant. Even modern landfills can reveal details about our culture.

    “I’ve listened to plenty of people say that no archaeologist would ever dig a particular spot. But the things that archaeologists dig today and might dig in the future are so different from just a century ago. Even recent material tells a story of our society. Modern dumps are being dug by archaeology students. There is no time cut-off for what is interesting or important,” he said.

    As a history buff, he understands the appeal of amateur digs. As an archaeologist, he discourages the practice, which can contaminate a location and leave it undocumented for further study.

    “If all the artifacts are fished out from a site and just mundane things are left behind, we can’t tell the whole story. We are interested in anything physical that might add knowledge to the past,” he said.

    Starbuck asks collectors not to disturb historic places searching for antiques to dress up the mantel.

    “Archaeologists can be real party-poopers,” he said with a chuckle.

    PSU students dig into Plymouth’s past

    October 24th, 2013 by Lynn

      Staff Writer

      PLYMOUTH — “Half the world likes to make things change, and the other half likes to discover,” said Plymouth State University professor David Starbuck as he watched an ongoing archeological dig on the PSU campus.

      And what his students are discovering is a bit of Plymouth’s past as they uncover shards of pottery, glass, pipe, chains and other items hidden in the layers of dirt they have sifted through over the past four years.

      The location for the dig is the grounds around Holmes House, a former residence from the 1830’s, which is adjacent to Rounds Hall.

      “This is the oldest house on campus. It’s right beside our lab at Rounds, so students are able to come over here whenever they can and take part in the dig,” he said.

      Starbuck himself has vast experience in the field of archeology, and has participated in many notable digs around the country. A few years ago, he said he noticed that archeological digs on campuses were becoming much more common, and he agreed that it was a great way to give students some real experience in the field of archeology.

      “Practicality is one reason to do a campus dig because it’s hard to get a van and transport students to sites around the state,” said Starbuck.

      The second reason he cited was that digging around older locations on an ever-changing college campus allows students the opportunity to gain knowledge about the history of their own school.

      “It’s better than memorizing data,” Starbuck said, “because by digging, it may sound corny, but history comes alive.”

      Sophomore Cindy Wade said she took Intro to Archeology with Starbuck last year, and has a real interest in the subject. Besides Holmes House, she also worked with state archeologists on other digs in Jefferson and Randolph.

      “This is a good spot, though, because it’s on campus, but it’s isolated, so it hasn’t been damaged,” she said.

      In fact, many of the students currently sifting through the history of Holmes House have already moved on from Starbuck’s class. The interest in archeology that he instilled in them, however, has stayed with them and they wanted to continue their participation in the campus dig.

      Each day, anywhere from two to 25 students can be found with trowels, brushes, and other delicate tools in hand as they pick their way through the layers of soil. Over the past few years, most of the trenches they dug were located in the back yard of the old house, but this year, they have moved in closer to the foundation.

      “In those days, people threw things out the back door, and there was usually a builder’s trench around the foundation where they packed a lot of trash as they worked on the house,” Starbuck pointed out.

      And there beside the old stone foundation, students are now finding more remnants of the past.

      Wade explained that when an unusual item is found, they carefully map where it was located in their pit, along with how deep into the soil it was discovered. All of those facts can become clues to uncover the age or purpose of each item.

      “When we find an artifact in place, we map it so we can see its placement in the ground in relation to other items we discover,” she said.

      As each layer is carefully scraped away, the dirt is then carried by bucket to a screened sifter. There, objects they may not have previously noticed are revealed as the soil drops below.

      While they work, the students oftentimes find themselves engrossed in interesting and stimulating conversations about the past and life in Plymouth in the 1800’s. Many confessed that they also find the process of sifting through the history of Holmes House relaxing, interesting and a good way to relieve the stress of college.

      It is not likely that the students will find Spanish gold or a pharaoh’s ring deep in the grounds of PSU. But, there is one thing they are all certain to take away and that’s a deeper appreciation of the history of their campus and a greater understanding of life in the Town of Plymouth over the past 180 years.

      Bottles, coins, bayonets and questions come up with dig

      August 20th, 2013 by Lynn

        Archaeologist and professor David Starbuck, lower left, works Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, with volunteers Mary Jane Breedlove, Shannon Havens and Hannah Andrews to excavate around a mass of tree roots where the west wall of a sutler's house used to sit during the mid-1700's in Fort Edward. The sutler, likely named Edward Best, was a civilian who sold goods including tobacco and alcohol to British soldiers stationed nearby. Starbuck, a professor at Plymouth State University, has been excavating the site for nearly 15 summers. (Jason McKibben -

        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.

        Volunteer Mary Jane Breedlove holds an intact bottle pulled from the earth at the excavation of a mid-1700's sutler's house in Fort Edward Thursday, August 8, 2013. (Jason McKibben -

        “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.”

        PSU professor says the world not likely to end on Dec. 21

        December 20th, 2012 by Michael

          Students find artifacts in Plymouth State dig

          October 4th, 2012 by Michael

            The past comes alive with archaeological dig at PSU

            October 4th, 2012 by Michael

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