Department of Anthropology

University at Albany Historical Archaeology Field School – Summer 2017

Nine students participated in the Anthropology Department’s first historical archaeology field school (AANT338) in downtown Albany, to document the domestic patterns of enslaved persons at the Ten Broeck Mansion (early 19th century) and of influential leaders of Albany’s Underground Railroad at the Stephen and Harriet Myers residence (mid-19th century). This opportunity provided six weeks of hands-on research training in fieldwork and lab data collection for students, co-directed by Professor Marilyn Masson (UAlbany), Dr. Michael Lucas (New York State Museum), and Matthew Kirk (doctoral student, UAlbany). Archaeological information enriches knowledge and rounds out patchy historical accounts. The activities of daily life formed the cores of social identities in the post-Revolutionary war and pre-Civil War periods. Historical African American life, in Albany and elsewhere, for both free and enslaved persons, cannot be simply characterized. This research project evaluates the health, relative affluence, consumer preferences, identity markers, and specialized household activities through time at two important Albany localities.

From June 26th to July 7th, the team worked at Ten Broeck Mansion, identifying features related to two outbuildings to the rear of the mansion where enslaved persons probably worked (and used for summer housing). From July 10th to August 4th, the project focused on the area of three rear outbuildings at the Stephen and Harriet Myers residence, potentially used as multi-function structures for refuse disposal or housing animals or stored goods. At both locations, outbuilding locations were identified using 19th century maps. Both sites had lengthy occupational histories that extended from the early 19th to the early 20th century.

At Ten Broeck, architectural features and artifact concentrations (activity areas) were uncovered at the southern and northern outbuildings; the latter was newly discovered, revealing an intact brick, paving stone, and cobble surface. At the Myers residence, the most stunning find was that of a buried brick cistern of mid-19th century date, dating to the period when Stephen and Harriet Myers used this home as a nucleus for Abolitionist and Underground Railroad activities. The cistern was infilled with mid-19th century artifacts, including whole bottles, plates, and jugs, that represent consumer goods of this household.

Analysis of materials is an ongoing process. Currently (Fall 2017), eight UAlbany students hold internships in Marilyn Masson’s on campus lab, helping to analyze artifacts for a master inventory and eventual publication. While many important objects were recovered, some in particular stand out. At each site, one hand-made metal ornament was recovered of the sort that is associated with African American enslaved persons in the eastern U.S. Such adornments re-utilize pieces of scrap metal and are embellished with perforated designs.

One rewarding aspect of the summer field school was the opportunity for public outreach, with daily visitors to the sites, the media, and through public open house events. The team is particularly grateful to Paul Stewart, Mary Liz Stewart, and Thearse McCalmon of the Underground Railroad History Project and Jillian Altenburg at the Ten Broeck Mansion, whose support added an invaluable layer of meaningful discussions regarding the project’s findings. The Department of Anthropology will offer the historical field school again in the summer of 2018.

Additional Pictures click to enlarge

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