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Digging deep into local history

YOUNGSTOWN – The group of students huddled over one of two square pits they painstakingly excavated in the shadow of the 1726 French Castle at Old Fort Niagara, eager to talk about the small, buried items they had recently unearthed, dating back centuries.

They were participants in the Archaeological Field School taught by Susan E. Maguire, assistant professor of anthropology at SUNY Buffalo State, just wrapping up a six-week field project.

They were excavating a site believed to be in the area of the “Yellow Barracks,” officers’ quarters dating from the War of 1812. Among the items they found were a straight-razor case, probably made of ivory, which will soon be verified under microscope in the lab, and a copper alloy button with a beautifully scripted letter “A,” signifying that it belonged to a member of the U.S. Army’s Second Regiment Artillery during the War of 1812 “in fabulous condition,” according to Maguire.

They also unearthed shards of Chinese export porcelain; a lead flint wrapper; a lead musket ball the size of a marble; and some stone beads, indicative of trade with Native Americans.

Once the students uncovered these tidbits from history, they were cleaned up, catalogued, sorted and stored at the fort, in special climate-controlled surroundings. Often, they are also displayed in the fort’s visitors center, Maguire said.

Maguire said that archaeological digs have been conducted at the fort since 1979 and that she has been offering this experience every two years since 2004.

“The students really undergo a transformation in a lot of ways in this class,” she said. “They learn new skills; they are involved in a real research project; and they learn how to be interpreters for the public – because they’re the ones telling the story. It’s a new responsibility. They get involved and excited about their finds.”

Robert L. Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, said, “Research archaeology is extremely important to Old Fort Niagara because it provides hard evidence about how people lived at the site centuries ago. The archaeological program began in 1979 under the direction of Pat and Stuart Scott.

“In more recent years, archaeology continues through collaboration with the anthropology department at SUNY Buffalo State. The project director, Dr. Maguire, has a long-term relationship with the fort, and we benefit from her extensive knowledge of the site and its history.”

Emerson continued: “We also take advantage of access to Buffalo State’s conservation program to stabilize and restore many of the recovered artifacts. It’s truly a synergistic relationship that benefits the fort, the students involved in the program and, ultimately, the public’s knowledge of Fort Niagara’s past.”

During Maguire’s first field school experience at the fort in 2004, she recalled, the students were excavating near the “Red Barracks” site, or War of 1812 soldiers’ quarters, when they came upon a “huge trash pit.”

“We found cast-iron skillets, 30 gun flints, 20 musket balls and several animal bones,” she said.

“It was exciting. It gave the students a glimpse into what people were doing at this time and many of those things are on display in the visitors center, but each year, we find things.”

Leslie Crane, of Amherst, who is entering her senior year at the University at Buffalo, said she and her fellow students should be sporting shirts emblazoned with “This is what patience looks like.”

She was peering down into a pit where Wendy Borrelli was wielding a trowel – one of the excavators’ most important tools.

Borrelli, also of Amherst, will soon graduate from Buffalo State. She has worked as a critical care nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Learning about the military culture has been very interesting to me,” she said of her experience at the fort.

Rounding out the group were Krystal Norman, of the Bronx, a Buffalo State senior majoring in forensic chemistry, with a minor in forensic archaeology; Aaron Toussaint, of Medina, a recent Canisius College graduate with a degree in anthropology and criminal justice; and Michael Barone, of Silver Creek, also a recent Canisius grad, with a degree in anthropology and art history.

It was a first dig for all of the students.

Barone explained that “the soil feels different, and you see the colors change” as each layer of soil is excavated and a “soil profile” is put together.

“This indicates different kinds of (countries’) occupations,” Maguire said. “Some might have put in fill, some put in sand for foundations, a layer of mortar could be related to walls – so you get different surfaces.”

When objects are found, they are sifted through a process using a dry screen or a wet screen on site. The wet screen permits the location of tinier items, such as small glass trading beads, Maguire said, evidence of the Native Americans’ trade with the French, British or Americans.

The students refer to a large “map table” – with small models of the fort’s structures. It’s set up at their digging site, drawing visitors to ask questions. Maguire said a different student mans the table each day to field inquiries.

“They talk about where we are digging and why and show people some of the things we’ve found,” she said.

Maguire will teach an independent study class this fall at Buffalo State, called “Niagara Lab Methods,” where her students will learn how to process and catalog items recently found at Old Fort Niagara.