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East Aurora dig uncovers traces of an ancient culture

A few days ago I visited an archaeological dig near East Aurora. It was in an area that I thought I knew as I had visited it a number of times while birdwatching. But as I puffed up the steep hill to the site, it became clear that I had no idea how much history I had been walking over on those earlier hikes.

Dig is the operative word. I came upon Ammie Mitchell's fourteen busy University at Buffalo students, one wielding a pickax, further excavating a fire pit that was already two feet deep; others carefully scraping different pits with trowels or sifting dirt seeking artifacts; and a team of three working with a theodolite and a surveyor's measuring rod fixing the exact location of the excavations and uncovered materials.

Although Mitchell and her graduate student Meghan Ladolcetta are leading this activity, she is herself an advanced doctoral student supervised by the university's Prof. Douglas Perrelli. She brings plenty of qualifications to this task, however, having worked on archaeological projects throughout Western New York.

I had assumed, when I first learned of this dig, that I would be visiting an old Seneca Indian encampment, but it turned out I was off by many centuries. The Haudenosaunee tribes that organized themselves into the Iroquois nation lived here after about 1,000 years ago, but this site represents the Meadowwood Culture at least another 1,500 years earlier, from about 3,000 to 2,500 years ago, long before Native Americans even used bows and arrows. Any projectile tips this team found were for far more rudimentary tools.

This is not the first time this site has been studied. Completing his survey in 1970, an earlier University at Buffalo doctoral student, Joseph Granger, spent seven years working this area. He was able to establish that the site represented a very early use of pottery. He identified a number of shelters with fire pits by the fire-cracked rocks he found associated with them.

There is an interesting aspect of this kind of archaeology. If there had been yellow ribbons surrounding the area, it would have been an exact replica of a crime scene. Other parallels exist: the minute gleaning of materials, the tiny flags that identify where things were found, but most of all the necessity of creative interpretation of minute and possibly misleading clues.

There are, in fact, several mysteries that are being addressed by this site survey. Much chert is turning up here, yet there is no local source of this flint. The nearest flint stone is in the Onondaga escarpment miles to the north and a few chips have even been identified as coming from Ohio sites still farther away. Also, this year's survey is not uncovering any of the pottery shards that Granger found earlier.

There is a different kind of change from the earlier dig. Granger found about eight inches of topsoil at the site. Mitchell's team is finding only two. In less than fifty years three-quarters of the topsoil has been washed away, possibly due to site clearing and building that has occurred farther uphill. Whatever the reason, it seems evident that little or no evidence will remain on this rocky hillside in a few years.

Thus the current study takes on additional importance. Meanwhile, Mitchell is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in seeking to address this problem.

The erosion may also be a reason for Mitchell's failure to find pottery.

What remained from Granger's work may have washed downhill to be buried in the lake margins at its foot, or it may simply have turned to dust, which could be identified by later analysis.

This summer's activity has been completed and the site carefully returned to its earlier form, but the work associated with the project is far from done. Materials have been carried to the university's Marian White Museum, where artifact and soil analyses will be performed during the academic year. Then Mitchell will return to this site for two more summers of study.

One thing Mitchell and Perrelli stressed to me is the high level of cooperation they have received from homeowners near the site and from East Aurora village officials, including Mayor Allan Kasprzak, Administrator Bryan Gazda and Matt Hoeh of the Department of Public Works.