When cannonballs dating back to the mid-1700s first were pulled from the ground at 32 Front St., they didn’t look much like cannonballs. Bulbous growths of insoluble salts had turned them irregular in shape, and pieces of limestone, glass and ceramic had become attached to them over the years.
After a careful cleaning and conservation process, the baseball-sized balls of cast iron look much like you might imagine they did when they were first launched by soldiers during the French and Indian War.
The cannonballs are part of a collection of intriguing artifacts unearthed in an archaeological dig at the home of Robert Woods in the Stockade Historic District that began in 2010 and ended earlier this summer. A selection of the findings is on display at Schenectady County Community College through Sept. 20.
At a glance
• A selection of artifacts unearthed from SCCC’s Community Archaeology Program dig at 32 Front St. in Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District is on display outside the entrance to the college’s Begley Library through Sept. 20. The exhibit is open to the public.
• A class on artifact preservation will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays, Oct. 1 through Nov. 19, at SCCC. Students will learn how to preserve historical and cultural material. The class is open to the public and costs $125.
• A course titled “Intro to Museum Exhibits” will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Sept. 18 through Oct. 30. Students will learn the basics of exhibit planning and also research, plan and install an exhibit at the Schenectady County Historical Society highlighting the Front Street dig. The class is open to the public and costs $125. For information on either course, contact SCCC’s Office of Workforce Development at 381-1315.
In a glass case outside the Begley Library are artifacts that include a shoe buckle and pottery shards, part of a wine glass stem, two clay marbles, fish scales, a corroded two-tine fork and most of a spoon. There’s also a portion of a cow’s jaw, the teeth
still intact, and tokens that may have been used in games.
“This is the first real physical evidence of soldiers who were here during the French and Indian War,” said archaeologist Louise Basa, an instructor for SCCC’s Community Archaeology Program, who worked on the dig. She pegs the time the artifacts originated to be somewhere between 1754 and 1763.
“The bones tell us about what they were eating, and so you have the cow that was probably supplied to the Army. The fish they probably caught in the river. The pottery they either brought with them or purchased, and it’s all English,” she explained.
Although the history of the relics is fascinating, the main point that Basa stressed is that without proper conservation, all of the artifacts on display would eventually be lost.
She held up a photo of an iron buckle found in the dig, perhaps once used to secure a flap on a bag. It was bloated with rust and barely recognizable. “That’s the best example of why you have to conserve it, because this is rotting,” she said. The same buckle, after conservation, was still rusty-looking but much thinner and more true to its original form. And thanks to the conservation process, it won’t deteriorate further, she said.
The artifacts on display were all in rough condition when they were discovered, said Darrell Pinckney, an instructor with SCCC’s archaeology program who preserved the findings in the exhibit.
“They were unstable; they were covered in rust. A lot of them were deteriorating because what happened was when they were retrieved from their soil deposit, you opened up a new environmental condition, which upset the equilibrium for the artifacts that it took them so long to reach while they were settled in the ground,” he explained.
As soon as artifacts are exposed to changes in humidity, temperature, air conditions and soil conditions, they begin to deteriorate rapidly, he said.
To conserve the Colonial-era treasures, Pinckney immersed them in gentle cleaning solutions, soaked them multiple times in distilled water to remove soluble salts and impregnated them with solutions like polyethylene glycol and resin to maintain their integrity and preserve them.
In October and November, Pinckney is teaching a class in artifact preservation at SCCC for anyone who wants to become more familiar with how to preserve historic and cultural material.
“It’s not just something archaeology students can find value in. This is also great for people who have collections at home, maybe folks who work at historical societies, so that they become more familiar with the process of conservation. … And it teaches them how to maintain a good environment for your objects so they last for many, many years.”
If nothing had been done to preserve the cannonballs featured in the SCCC exhibit and they were simply placed in an exhibit case, they probably would have corroded away completely in 20 years, Pinckney noted.
The objects in the exhibit are very important to preserve because they tell a story about Schenectady’s past — about the soldiers that came here from England in the 1700s, about the local militia that was with them and about how this area functioned as the “Gateway to the West.”
“It’s that old hackneyed phrase, but they’re coming through here, they’re gathering. Schenectady was building bateaux; Schenectady was sending carpenters with the soldiers to the West to help build forts,” Basa explained.
The time period was one when people were moving away from alchemy and turning to chemistry, she said.
“It’s just the stirrings, the beginnings. They know how to do a lot of things, but they don’t know all the processes that allow them to be done. But glassmaking is becoming very sophisticated; they’re using a copper alloy base and being able to put gilt on it to make it shine better. The ceramics are going through all sorts of different chemical alterations to make them shinier and better. It’s an age of experimentation, stirrings of major consumerism,” she said.