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Placing Themselves within Civilizations

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 9, 2019) — In the hands of the young archaeologist, the detritus of a civilization offers pearls of enrichment, culturally and educationally.

It is for this reason that Associate Professor Sean Rafferty of Anthropology has teamed for 13 years with New York State Archaeologist Christina Rieth to offer a field school at the Pethick Site in Schoharie that explores four Native American cultures — the oldest extending back to 4,000 B.C., the most recent to the mid-19th century.

Rafferty estimates more than 100 students have conducted archaeological study in these field schools, with most from UAlbany, but several from other schools as well. Together, they have uncovered nearly 500,000 artifacts and more than 1,000 soil features. They’ve excavated, learned to process artifacts in the lab and practiced real-life skills of mapping, making public presentations and developing research questions.

UAlbany students generally agree that these are necessary skills for entry-level work into archaeological grad school programs and eventually the archaeology profession.

“The amount of experience we get, and how active a site this is, is unique,” said Gavin Maguire, an incoming senior who participated in the May 28 – June 1 session, working four seven-hour days at the site — rain or shine — and one at the State Museum laboratory. “Being able to put skills into practice is really useful.”

Fellow incoming senior and anthropology major Toba Rasoli said the finds at Pethick establish a human connection across millennia. “You realize what you’re holding is something that somebody maybe 10,000 years ago made — made this, held this,” she said. “It’s more than an artifact — it’s part of somebody else’s life.”

You can see and hear more of Gavin and Toba’s Pethick experiences in this “Unearthing History” video.

 “The artifacts we find are the trash left behind by prehistoric Native Americans, so you get lots of debris from stone tool making, sometimes the tools themselves, and broken pottery, plus animal bone,” said Rafferty. “We've also found some copper, glass beads, stone and pottery pipes, and various objects made from grinding stone.

“Much of what we find aren't artifacts, but features of human occupation in the soil, patterns from posts that held up buildings, charcoal and fire cracked rock from fires, or various storage or refuse pits. We get a lot of info from these features. They tell where people lived, how their houses were organized.”

Students have a full schedule, learning all the technical skills of archaeology and, most importantly, how to record everything for the future, for research and publication. They also acquire knowledge of much of the archaeological and cultural history of the region, “Finally,” said Rafferty, “we put a lot of emphasis on public outreach and how to interact with the public in an appropriate and informative way.”

The field school was born out of an academic relationship between Rafferty and Rieth that goes back to their being in same graduating class at Hartwick College and then creating their own field school. Along with Project Manager Jessica Watson of UAlbany, they’ve found the overall response to it from students to be extremely gratifying.

“The word that comes to mind for the student's enthusiasm is ‘breathtaking,’” Rafferty said. “To watch, year after year, a group of young people bond over real research-oriented excavations, cooperating towards common goals, forging new friendships and taking their first professional steps in archaeology, is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

“It's one thing to be cheerful when the weather is nice and you're finding cool stuff, but we've been out in 100 degree heat or pouring rain too and I have rarely seen an unhappy face among our classes.”

Photographs by Brian Busher

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