Unearthing history one shovelful at a time

“Archeology in the Adirondacks: The Last Frontier” by David R. Starbuck

Chestertown native David Starbuck traveled far afield in his archeology career — Mexico, Scotland, New England — only to circle back home again to become an expert in uncovering the material history of his own literal and figurative backyard.

In this lively and fascinating book he outlines what archeologists have looked for and found in the Adirondack soils, and gives a glimpse into the kinds of questions and challenges archeologists face (including, memorably, a vivid description of spending some time digging in an old privy. He says: “It didn’t really smell, but after removing thirty-six cubic feet of privy soil, my lungs were congested with powdered feces, and my throat was raw for days afterward.” This, apparently, is the kind of thing archeologists think is a good time.).

The book is divided into chapters that define the general categories of history that can be revealed in the Adirondacks through the leavings of material culture: Native Americans, war sites, industrial ruins, rural life, tourism and the remains of the dead. These categories roughly sketch both the kinds of people who came through or made their home here in this region, what brought them here and what they did with their time.

The Adirondacks are home to ancient history: Archeology has documented Native American presence from over 11,000 years ago: projectile points, scrapers, shards of pottery, and fire-cracked rocks that reveal their use for roasting. But modern history is also layering itself on our soil all the time, as someone drops a coin in a well at Fort William Henry or we abandon an old factory for some new site and new technology.

Starbuck explains that the goal of archeology is, among other things, to “tell the stories of those who have been ignored by history or who were so busy that they had no time to put the events of their lives down on paper.” In exploring the layers beneath his own family’s farm, for example, he says: “[T]he Adirondack farmers have left behind a legacy of artifacts that provide insights into commerce, mass consumerism, exchange networks, and even mild ‘vices’ (tobacco and alcohol). Architectural artifacts can help to date buildings, and domestic artifacts reveal changing technologies, sources of supply, and personal preferences.”

He tells of dugout canoes, remains of blast furnaces, a pig skull, old shoes, stone foundations, buttons, teeth. The many photographs help enliven the reading experience. He gives details from many area digs, for example, work at the Lake George Battlefield Park of layers from Native American presence through military encampments related to two wars as well as the history of modern day tourism, excavation around the Chester Inn in Chestertown, and review of the purported remains of Revolutionary War figure Jane McCrea.

He also reveals some of the challenges of the work of archeology, including the danger of over-digging, the paperwork required for approvals to dig, consideration of research questions and priorities, collaborating with testing facilities to date artifacts or identify human remains, and dealing with public opinion.

Starbuck’s enthusiasm for his subject is engaging and infectious. Although, perhaps not entirely so. He writes: “I cannot drive past an abandoned outhouse without wanting to stop, run to the rear clean-out panel, and go exploring inside.” That’s OK, Dr. Starbuck. You go ahead. I’ll wait out here.

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