Puzzling out shards of history in Central Bridge

Steve Moragne privately smirked as he watched two of his students sift through dirt in a pit about 3

Steve Moragne privately smirked as he watched two of his students sift through dirt in a pit about 30 inches deep.

Dirt stained their jeans and fingernails as they scooped shovelfuls of soil off to the side, looking for ancient artifacts at the Pethick Site, a Native American site along the Schoharie Creek.

“It’s great just training them, training their eyes to see what they need to see,” said Moragne, a University at Albany graduate student and field director at the site. “It’s not like you just come out in the field and you can see everything and all the little soil changes. Knowing that a few years down the line these might be coworkers or colleagues, I really love getting them interested.”

The farm field adjacent to Smith Road has been used as a teaching site, where archaeologists have uncovered almost 300,000 artifacts and more than 700 soil features during its eight years of excavation. About 100 visitors turned out at the Pethick Site during its two-day open house that concluded Friday, said Dr. Christina Rieth, archaeologist with the New York State Museum.

The majority of the artifacts point to a Late Woodland period occupation, from A.D. 1000-1500. Other evidence suggests that the location was occupied going back to at least 2000 B.C., Rieth said.

The Schoharie Creek site is unique because it served as a major waterway in prehistoric times, connecting people along the Mohawk River with the Susquehanna River and Hudson Valley, Rieth said.

“It really provided a major transportation and tourism route that allowed people to move throughout the area,” she said. The river and valley provided fish and other food, “… important for their economic livelihood.”

Dr. Sean Rafferty likes the stories that artifacts tell. The materials themselves aren’t what is interesting, he said.

“It’s not just the artifacts that are important,” said the UAlbany anthropology professor. “It’s the stories they tell you about what people were doing with them. The artifacts are interesting only in as much as they tell you about what people did.”

A few years ago Rafferty and students discovered a tinkling cone, a decorative copper piece that Native Americans sewed into their clothing. The copper came from Europe, where it was originally traded as a kettle for beaver pelts in the 1600-1700s.

“It tells the story of connections between different people and really two whole different cultures colliding,” Rafferty said. “The way they were used had a strong ritual and religious component, which is the kind of information that’s hard to get at.”

It’s the people behind the pots that matter, as Rafferty would say.

If Brian Clow finds a fire pit in his excavated unit, he knows to look for contacts and associations. These could be a fire-cracked rock or red soils. The terms are standard for him and two fellow UAlbany anthropology majors buzzing in and around the pit.

“It doesn’t matter if we find a really nice biface or an awesome fire feature,” Clow said. “What really matters is where it’s found, how much of it is found, and what it’s found with. If you have the artifact and don’t know anything about it then it’s useless.”

The anthropology students lucked out in finding some broken pottery at the site this year. Pottery is usually very brittle and difficult to find hundreds or thousands of years later.

In their fourth week at the Pethick Site, Clow and fellow students Caroline Lahti and Jacquelyn Rajchel said they know more about archaeology than they ever learned in a lecture or lab.

“I feel like I learn more this way,” Clow said. “If we have questions, instead of showing us a book, they’ll show us an answer physically right in front of us.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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