PSU students dig into Plymouth’s past

October 24th, 2013 by Lynn

    BY DONNA RHODES
    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 - jmckibben@poststar.com)

      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 - jmckibben@poststar.com)

      “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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