When people who earn state paychecks spread stuff wrapped in plastic sandwich bags across a table so we newshounds can take pictures, it’s usually pounds of marijuana or maybe a few illicit handguns.
But on Thursday, a rustic picnic table at Lake George Campground was covered with chert arrowheads and stone tools — proof of human activity at today’s Million Dollar Beach something like 10,000 years ago.
Archaeological digs this fall spurred on by the planned reconstruction of the beach’s state-owned parking lot have unearthed hundreds of Native American artifacts — a major find nobody saw coming. One arrowhead is believed to be from 8,000 B.C., among the oldest ever found in the state.
“We did not expect to find this,” said Christina Reith, the state’s head archaeologist. “We were expecting to find materials related to 18th century Fort George.”
What the technicians digging the yard-deep pits and sifting through the soils found instead was proof that native nomads were staying at Lake George — though only in the summer, no doubt — almost as soon as the last glaciers melted around 13,000 years ago.
The artifacts are among the oldest significant finds ever made in the state, Reith told reporters.
“It’s very significant, mostly because there aren’t a lot of sites that are this particular age,” said John Hart, director of research and collections at the State Museum in Albany.
Even in that post-Jurassic but pre-amusement park era, the deep lake would have been scenic — and more to the point, a great place to fish, keep an eye on the neighborhood from the high ground and kill game.
“Native populations wanted to live in the same places we do,” observed Charles VanDrei, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s historic preservation officer.
The trove was turned up because the DEC is getting ready to reconstruct the parking lot at Million Dollar Beach — a project that will now have a “slight” delay.
There weren’t any historic preservation laws back when the parking lot was built in the 1950s, so artifacts weren’t even looked for — but it turns out that pavement is pretty darned good protection for what’s buried underneath.
Most of the items found so far were located underneath the adjoining DEC campground and were only two or three feet down — deep enough that picnickers and campers weren’t tripping over them or their dogs sniffing over and swallowing them.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 10 millennia is that most people who love the Queen of Lakes in the summer don’t stick around for the Adirondack winter.
Some of the stone fragments are from the Mohawk and Hudson valleys and even Pennsylvania — an indication of how far Native Americans travelled between their summer and winter hunting grounds.
The conventional wisdom among scientists — which still holds — is that while humans evolved nearly one million years ago, North America was spared from them until after the last Ice Age. Then, they came across the Bering Strait from Asia, migrating north to south and west to east. So upstate New York would have been one of the last places to see people, though evidence indicates they kept coming back to Lake George for at least 6,000 years.
“There weren’t a lot of people,” Hart said. “Animals and plants were moving into the area, and people were following them.”
The new discoveries will be analyzed and eventually make their way into the State Museum’s collection, said museum Director Mark Schaming.
“It’s part of te human history of the state,” he said.