Arnold Printup looked over the walkway on the Route 30 bridge in Amsterdam last month and talked about how his ancestors used the site alongside the Mohawk River where hundreds of artifacts, some dating back 5,000 years, were uncovered last year.
Printup, a Mohawk and the historic preservation officer for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, is among several people eager to learn more about the Chuctanunda Terrace Site, an archaeological project required as part of planning for the new pedestrian bridge to be built by the state.
“It’s always a joy to go down to that area and look back and think about what our people did down there,” Printup said.
Archaeologists from Louis Berger Group Inc. unearthed hundreds of artifacts at the site, not far from the mouth of the North Chuctanunda Creek. The findings, being stored at a processing center in Iowa, include spearheads and arrowheads from 500 years to 5,000 years old.
There are also items that shed light on early settlements in the region, including hearths and pits and remains of tool making.
The site was discovered in June 2010 during an archaeological survey required by law as part of the Canal Corp.’s environmental assessment review for construction of Amsterdam’s pedestrian bridge, slated to be built next year.
Archaeologists explored areas north and south of the Mohawk River where elements of the bridge will be built. While nothing significant was found on the south side, the dig on the north side turned up numerous artifacts. Archaeologists called the site significant and said it might be eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
State Archaeologist Dr. Christina B. Rieth said, “It’s rare to find intact sites such as this, especially in an urban area, that can afford such a wide range of research down the road.”
And there are few in the state that offer a glimpse of 5,000 years ago. “It represents an important time period in history that we don’t know much about,” Rieth said. The discovery of artifacts from multiple time periods can help to reconstruct subsistence and settlement patterns in the Mohawk Valley. “Historic waterways like the Mohawk would have been important transportation corridors, an important venue for food procurement.”
Cooking residue reveals what people ate; pottery shards reveal where the pots were made and what raw materials were used, Rieth said.
Archaeological sites likely exist along most waterways but they are not often found because of construction. Many are buried as a result of flooding.
Oftentimes during construction projects, the ground is dug up as it’s prepared for building, work that often churns up artifacts, making it impossible to place them in time, said Dell Gould, a field archaeologist for Louis Berger Group, who worked at the Amsterdam site.
“Construction usually eliminates these sites from the record,” Gould said.
In this case, the artifacts were undisturbed and in layers chronologically — with the oldest items found on the bottom of excavations, the newer items closer to the top.
Like geologists studying different layers of sediment, archaeologists are able to estimate the age the items were used at the site and determine in this case how rudimentary tools were improved as time progressed.
One unique element of the site is the indication of settlements along the river during a time period when it was believed Native Americans lived primarily isolated in upland settings — not right at the river, Gould said.
“It puts us in an unknown territory as far as what was going on during that time period with people,” he said. There isn’t enough information yet to determine what was there and when.
“We just don’t have a lot of evidence to know what was going on there: Were there buildings, villages? Were they small camps associated with fishing, hamlets or those types of things? Were they stopping by or were they staying for a while?” Gould said.
There will be more work at the site, although the time frame is not yet set, Gould said.
The ultimate disposition of the artifacts remains in question, though it’s likely they will wind up in the care of Rieth at the New York State Museum in Albany.
The findings would make for a popular display at the Walter Elwood Museum in the Guy Park Manor a few miles to the west, museum director Ann Peconie said.
“The objects being on display in Albany in the New York State Museum isn’t quite as meaningful as the objects being on display in the city where they were found. It’s kind of like where they were born, where they came from,” Peconie said.
“It’s the only museum in the city where the artifacts were found, and being that we’re the only year-round museum that holds the history of this city and area, I think it would be quite fitting if these artifacts were on long-term loan at the Walter Elwood Museum,” said Peconie. She and other history-minded folks around the city are thrilled about the find.
“For me, being a history buff, this is exciting to me, that people have been living here for thousands of years. It’s interesting to look out over the Mohawk River and think thousands of years ago Indians looked out over this river,” she said.
Peconie said she is hoping the State Museum will ultimately loan out some of the items, but she said she expects the rarest of them will stay in Albany.
Amsterdam Historian Robert von Hasseln said the Historic Amsterdam League, formed last year, issued a resolution recently and sent it to the State Museum calling for some of the find to be brought back to the city.
“Some of this should come back and be displayed in Amsterdam,” von Hasseln said.
Von Hasseln said he’s most interested in the list of items that suggest more was taking place at the Chuctanunda Terrace than just people occasionally stopping by to go fishing. Flakes and pieces of tools left by the dozens there suggest longer-term work, he said.
“It’s a very, kind of labor intensive, striking an edge on both sides to make it sharp,” he said of prehistoric toolmaking. “It’s not the kind of thing you do when you’re out hunting. You don’t carry around a bag of rocks with you to make up arrowheads.”
Historians typically find habitation sites on easily-defendable hills, he said.
“We’ve always thought that there was no real Native American settlement here in Amsterdam.”
Other finds include fire-cracked rock, which could indicate cooking.
“If you add up the flints, and some of the other indications, what it sounds like is there may have been more, not permanent, but more habitation here than we suspected,” von Hasseln said.
respect for culture
Ultimately, the St. Regis Mohawk Nation seeks to ensure respect is shown to the site and the artifacts that are pulled out of it.
Printup, tribal historian, said it’s actually preferable to leave things in the ground when possible.
“From the tribe’s perspective ... we prefer to preserve in-situ. It’s a cultural view that we have. That’s where they belong, they belong to their ancestors on the other side of the circle and we should leave them out of respect for that,” he said.
The tribe receives any burial items and human remains that are found, under federal law, Printup said. They are reinterred after a proper ceremony.
As for artifacts uncovered in development, Printup said leaving them in the ground isn’t always possible. “We try to find a good balance, respecting our culture and our history.”
He said the New York State Museum is probably the best place for the items that are found.
“We’re always interested in preserving them but we have limited resources and limited storage areas. The State Museum has been very cooperative in working with our nation in preserving and returning anything we request,” he said.