The Schoharie Archaeological Field School at the Pethick site in Central Bridge, New York is a long-term collaborative project between the University at Albany (UAlbany) and the New York State Museum that exemplifies positive community service through public outreach events. The project and its hardworking crew deserve commendation for cultivating a beneficial synergistic relationship with the public, addressing a pressing civic responsibility to the past that affects both the general public and UAlbany undergraduate students, and committing to a long-term, sustainable program that continues to improve community understanding and involvement.
Dr. Sean Rafferty of UAlbany and Dr. Christina Rieth of the New York State Museum, co-Principal Investigators for the project, run the field school during two UAlbany Summer Sessions. Dozens of undergraduate students get the opportunity to contribute to this prehistoric research site under their supervision. Field Director Steven Moragne joined the project in 2005 and has been an integral part of its success ever since. Moragne assisted Drs. Rafferty and Rieth in expanding the research potential of the site through comprehensive teaching practices and his original approach to public outreach. In 2012, Field Director Jessica Watson joined the team, serving as teacher and researcher both in the field and the lab. Their public engagement and mentoring styles expanded the project beyond UAlbany to nearby public schools, local Boy Scout troops, Schoharie County historical societies, and other area colleges.
…I had the privilege of taking the University’s archaeology field school at the Pethick site during May through July of this year, and I know that I would not be as prepared for graduation as I am today if it were not for my experiences at Pethick and the New York State Museum. Emily Williams, Student Participant
One of the key strengths the researchers bring to the program, beyond their mentorship to undergraduate students, is the unique public engagement and community service opportunities that go beyond the course requirements. Each season, the program dedicates two full days to public outreach and invites the local community to witness archaeology in action. The program encourages community members to bring personal artifacts to the site for identification and to assist program students with excavation. These open houses are a major event for the field school, drawing in diverse crowds that include students’ families, local residents of all ages, and even the former Commissioner of the Education Department and Deputy Secretary of Education, John King. During her 2014 visit, State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher praised the program, stating “this is what we should do in every domain, work with our partners to advance knowledge, prepare professionals” (Bazille 2014, in Supplemental Materials). Since 2006, over 2,000 people have visited Pethick during the public days, and many others visit throughout the season, providing abundant public outreach opportunities.
Numerous newspaper articles and online blog posts cover the open houses each year, boosting attendance and awareness. The project leaders exemplify excellence in public engagement and concern with civic responsibility through their dedication to educating the public about the importance of preserving our past through careful cultural resource management. Archaeological remains are a finite resource and, when managed properly, can help answer countless questions about our past, such as the development of large-scale agricultural technologies or the environmental impact of expanding human populations. These academic queries enhance public knowledge, and the staff at Pethick prioritizes building rapport with local community members to enhance public dialogue about this knowledge. The strong support and cooperation with the state museum reinforces these public presentations. The archived objects at the museum serve as a local example of the global nature of archaeological material that we must preserve. These interactions foster reciprocal exchanges of ideas, encourage non-specialists to learn about the importance of studying our past, and generate trust in the program’s goals.
As the field school progresses each year, the commitment to incorporating public tours, presentations, exhibits, and activities strengthens the program’s community involvement. The crew and field students regularly visit public groups throughout the year to present ongoing research and interesting artifacts. In 2014, Laura Gagnon, the librarian at Cobleskill-Richmondville Elementary School, invited the field team to speak with the town’s Boy Scout troop and over 20 additional members of the public. Three university graduate students from the site presented about the tenets of archaeology and its application at the Pethick site, leading to a lively discussion led by audience questions and interactive displays of artifacts from the recent excavations. More recently, two undergraduate students from the 2015 field season presented the results of their independent research at the Undergraduate Research Forum at UAlbany, bringing archaeological knowledge and internship awareness to the attending students.
All of these community service activities—open houses, research forums, public talks—have created a well-informed local community that actively defends its history. Over the past semester, local historians, museum directors, and Schoharie community members raised concerns about the possible destruction of the Pethick site by the proposed Constitution Pipeline. This led to a series of legislative appeals and newspaper articles that argued strongly for the preservation of the area’s history. These impassioned arguments utilized knowledge gained from the past decade of active community involvement by the Albany archaeologists and illustrate how important public engagement truly is for archaeology. The Pethick Site staff’s commitment to a long-term, interactive educational program has created a sustainable program that is projected to expand in the next few years. The field school will positively impact members of the academic community and residents of Schoharie County as it continues both in its current form and as it is broadens to include a river valley survey. The researchers also impact audiences nationwide through their work at the state museum and peer-reviewed articles in national journals. The conclusions from this research affect members of the broader public sphere as the data is disseminated and used to inform our conception of Native American lifeways.
The Schoharie Archaeological Field School exemplifies outstanding community outreach, public service, knowledge sharing, and sustainable local research and has proven that its directors are exceptional candidates for recognition from the University President. Dr. Rafferty, Dr. Rieth, Mr. Moragne, and Ms. Watson are committed to maintaining this exemplary project and, given their talent for public engagement and interactive teaching, will be assets to the Capital Region’s community for years to come.