For the third year in a row Dr. Phil and I have just had a great time participating in the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology (SPA) field trip. This annual road trip over a long weekend in early June is an opportunity for SPA members and their guests to see some of the fabulous archaeology excavations, sites, and museums within driving distance of Pennsylvania, while also getting to know other professional and avocational archaeologists from across the state. Dr. John Nass of California University of Pennsylvania and I have done the planning and leading of each field trip, while Dr. Phil has been one of the van drivers. This year we loaded up two vans and headed north to New York state to visit several museums and their archaeological collections. There was an emphasis on the Iroquois Indian nations of New York although we also learned about other archaeological and anthropological topics and research as well as saw some fabulous contemporary Native American art.
This year’s field trip started with an orientation and social time at our hotel in Binghamton, NY on the evening of Thursday, June 8. Early Friday morning, June 9, we headed for Albany and the New York State Museum. This is a museum I feel like I know because of research collaborations, especially the Ripley Archaeological Project, which was an IUP/NYSM project in the 1980s and 1990s. Dr. Phil and I have been to NYSM many times for research purposes and visited the exhibitions several times. Nevertheless, the tour organized for our SPA group by Dr. John Hart, Director, Research and Collections Division, gave us a much better sense of the vast collections held by the museum as well as of the variety of archaeological research going on there today. The NYSM holds more than 16 million objects, specimens and artifacts and its research staff is active in the areas of archaeology, ethnology, paleontology, geology, botany, and history. On this trip, we were privileged to see specimens and artifacts and hear about research on Paleoindians in New York State, on Iroquoian and Algonquian groups, on historical archaeology done in New York City, on the Albany Almshouse cemetery including the facial reconstructions done for skeletons, and more. We saw a great many really cool artifacts as well as some of Louis Henry Morgan’s ethnological collection, but my favorite thing might have been the huge quantity of maize kernels recovered from a single feature (see photo below) because it really underscores how central maize must have been in people’s diets in Late Pre-Columbian times. The only downside of our trip to the NYSM was that the Research and Collections staff gave us such an interesting and thorough tour that there was limited time to see the exhibits. A more complete viewing of these will have to wait for another visit to this great museum!
After NYSM we went to the much smaller Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, New York, a private non-profit educational institution that promotes understanding of Iroquois culture. It was started by an avocational archaeologist and has large archaeological collections, but it also displays a comprehensive collection of contemporary Native art, a children’s area featuring the Iroquois Creation story, and nature trails, which we did not attempt. We did, however, get an introduction to the museum from their Archaeology Department head, Fred Stevens, who happens to be a long-time SPA member.
Friday evening we stayed in Schoharie, NY and had an thought provoking lecture on New York State archaeology and the limitations of the culture history approach by Dr. Hart of NYSM. The second day of our fieldtrip, Saturday, June 10, was a little less hectic although we did a lot of driving across much of New York State from Schoharie to Rochester, NY. We did break the trip with a stop for a picnic lunch and a wine tasting at a winery in Seneca Falls, but before mid-afternoon we arrived at Ganondagan State Historic site and the Seneca Arts and Culture Center in Victor, NY. This museum is at the site of one of the last large settlements of the Seneca, which was burned by the French early in the historical period. Here we were given a tour by a young Mohawk interpreter of the newly built center which has fabulous exhibits about the site and traditional Seneca culture, before we were taken to tour the bark longhouse reconstructed on this site. This is one of the best longhouse reconstructions I have seen with the interior as well as the exterior creating a real sense of these multifamily structures. Saturday evening in our hotel in Rochester, we had an eye-opening talk by Jay Toth, archaeologist for the Seneca Nation of Indians, about recognizing past cultural landscapes through the plants encountered while surveying.
Sunday we wrapped up our trip with a visit to the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC), another New York Museum with extensive Iroquoian collections. Unfortunately, the museum was experiencing a serious water main break when we arrived, and was in the process of closing. However, our tour went forward in abbreviated form, and we were very ably led by George Hamell, a noted Iroquoian scholar. George took us through the exhibits of the Rock Foundation collections displayed at Rochester and into some of the laboratory and collection space. Here too we saw fabulous collections representing early archaeological and ethnological acquisitions. George also shared with us the Rock Foundation’s position that it does not have to comply with NAGPRA because it is a private, non-profit entity. Some of the objects they hold certainly are sacred objects and objects of national patrimony. Though technically correct, there are ethical issues related to cultural sensitivity posed by our even being able to view these items, and we had some discussion about this aspect of our visit including that we should be mindful of the privilege we were granted.
By the time we finished our tour, we were the only visitors remaining and even the lights were shutting down; it was actually slightly spooky. We had a quick picnic lunch in the cafeteria area and left the museum to struggle with its water issues as we headed home to PA. As you can tell, like each previous field trip we have done with the SPA, this year’s trip was full of chances to see and hear about lots of cool archaeology and artifacts as well as to learn from scholar experts and think about topics relevant to archaeology, anthropology, history, and science. The part that is harder to convey is the fun and camaraderie that developed within the group. There really is nothing like a road trip with other people interested in similar things, especially when they are archaeologists! So we recommend that you keep your eyes open for next year’s SPA trip – destination to be determined. Even if this is not possible, keep in mind that the museums we went to are great places to visit individually as well, so add them to your itinerary when you are in New York State.