Artifacts from upstate NY Indigenous towns digitized, repatriated

Artifacts from upstate NY Indigenous towns digitized, repatriated

Artifacts from upstate Indigenous towns digitized, repatriated


Unearthed, digitized and soon to be repatriated, artifacts from two Native American towns are beginning to share their rich stories online thanks to a collaborative project by anthropologists, librarians and Indigenous community members.

The recently launched digital collection – Onöndowa’ga:’ (Seneca) Haudenosaunee Archaeological Materials, circa 1688-1754 – features two historical locations – White Springs and Townley-Read, both near Geneva, New York – which were inhabited consecutively by members of the Onöndowa’ga:’ (Seneca) Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) after they fled the French military destruction of the town of Ganondagan in 1687.


A glass bead found among other artifacts at two historical locations near Geneva, New York.

Various cultural artifacts and the changing layout of the towns show how the communities adapted and thrived in their new environments, according to Kurt Jordan, anthropology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Jordan led archaeological work at the two locations.

“There’s a misconception common among scholars until recently that, as soon as Europeans arrived, Native people went on a long, slow slide into disappearing and irrelevance,” he said. “But you can really see that there is a ton of Native technology and local plant and animal species that were being used alongside European imports.”

In 2017, Jordan partnered with graduate student Dusti Bridges to highlight these discoveries by starting an online collection, supported by the Grants Program for Digital Collections in Arts and Sciences at Cornell University Library and with earlier seed funding from the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRASAC).

The collection, which focused on domestic spaces and does not include sacred objects, is a vehicle for descendant communities to virtually connect with their cultural heritage, according to Bridges, who is completing a Ph.D. in anthropology.

Cornell impacting New York State

The project will also physically reunite descendant communities with their heritage objects when the original physical artifacts are transferred from Cornell’s Department of Anthropology to the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, New York. The transfer of materials is scheduled to start next summer.

“Bringing the materials back empowers the Seneca community,” said Joe Stahlman, director of the museum and a consultant on the project. “This becomes an opportunity for the Seneca to contribute to the research but also to show themselves as knowledge holders.”

Community involvement has always been essential to the project. Jordan and Bridges gathered initial feedback from Seneca partners during a meeting at Ganondagan and through consultations with Indigenous colleagues from GRASAC. Questions about language emerged as a major consideration.

“We took out the specialist archaeological language, which could be alienating,” said Bridges. “So instead of using ‘structure’ we used ‘house.’ We used ‘town’ instead of ‘site.’”

Bridges and Jordan are now inviting Indigenous community members to share Onöndowa’ga:’ language terms, and other information about the artifacts, via the feedback forms in the online collection.

To present and collect this abundance of information on the website, the project has depended on the expertise of library staff like Jasmine Burns, visual resources metadata librarian and a proponent of a movement known as critical cataloging practice.

“Institutions are becoming more reflective about the way that they’re describing their collections,” she said, “particularly collections that represent marginalized communities and a diverse audience.”

Burns customized the standard metadata template used for image collections in order to replace colonially tinged terms (such as “discovery site” which was substituted with the neutral term “former site”) while also adjusting the metadata vocabulary so that Indigenous-language terms can be further added, linked and easily searched.

The digitization and the transfer of the physical artifacts are steps toward healing a deep divide, according to Michael Galban, curator for the Seneca Art and Culture Center at Ganondagan State Historic Site and an expert on Native American material culture who also served as a project consultant.

“The unethical practices that took place in the earliest days of archaeological science – including the desecration of burials and the removal of ancestors’ remains – have so damaged the trust between Native peoples and archaeologists in universities and museums,” Galban said. “Kurt and Dusti have been very diligent in repairing that relationship. Every time that a successful project like this is responsibly brought into fruition, it not only helps Native people but also the science of archaeology.”

Jose Beduya is a staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.

Papscanee Island: Sacred Land of the Mohican Nation

Stockbridge-Munsee Community

The Indigenous peoples of the upper Hudson Valley are the Mohican people, derived from their name for the Hudson River, the Mahhicannituck, the “waters that are never still.” Today known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, the Tribal Nation is based in Wisconsin, far from their original homelands. However, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community maintains a close connection to its cultural sites.

One such important site is Papscanee Island, an island in the Hudson River just south of Albany. The entire island is nominated for the National Register of Historic Places due to its Mohican cultural significance.  It is perhaps the best preserved known late woodland Native village site in New York.

Installation of the National Grid E-37 Pipeline threatens to negatively impact the rich historic and cultural resources that Papscanee Island represents for the Tribe today. The Stockbridge-Munsee Community Tribal Historic Preservation Office is concerned about this rapid development and how it may impact the Island’s rich cultural heritage.

NYS Museum – Women of Science:Non-Destructive Archaeological Surveys, Susan Winchell-Sweeney & Kristin O’Connell

Women of Science: Non-Destructive Archaeological Surveys, Susan Winchell-Sweeney & Kristin O’Connell

Archaeology is an important tool when investigating the lives of enslaved people living in the Hudson Valley. Discover how the archaeological remains of a house constructed by Volkert P. Douw, a prominent politician during the mid- to late- 1700s, provide insight into the individuals that may have occupied the site including people enslaved by Douw in the 18th century. As part of a larger project to study the impact of slavery in the Hudson Valley, the New York State Museum, in collaboration with the Open Space Institute and Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribal Preservation Office, undertook both a controlled surface artifact collection and a magnetic susceptibility (MS) survey at the Douw Site. MS is a non-invasive geophysical technique that is becoming increasing more popular for archaeological investigations in the United States

Women of Science: Non-Destructive Archaeological Surveys, Susan Winchell-Sweeney & Kristin O’Connell

NPR Connections Podcast : Historical Discovery in Ontario County

From the NPR archives –  MAY 28, 2015

Sometimes a small archaeological discovery can tell us more than we first realize. We’re digging into the dirt of South Bristol, Ontario County, where just such a discovery is a window into our history. It’s a preview of the ongoing “Science on the Edge” lecture series at the Rochester Museum and Science Center with Ann Morton of Morton Archeological Research Services.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day….

…But it is making great strides forward

MARS is working with the city of Rome to help complete a multi-million dollar downtown revitalization project that includes re-watering the old Erie Canal and much more.


130k-Year-Old Arch Site with Dr. Steven Holen

From the Archaeotech podcast:

An in depth conversation with Chris Webster and Dr. Steven Holen, we would love to hear your thoughts regarding this topic

Dr. Steven Holen, the primary author on a letter in Nature at the end of April, 2017 detailing a site from San Diego, CA with an apparent 130,000 year old archaeological site. It’s a controversial find and we try to get into the science and figure out what’s going on and where we go from here.

Check out the Archaeology Podcast Network for a wide variety of great topics regarding archaeology and the cultural resource management industry


Critics attack study that rewrote human arrival in Americas

Mounting skepticism challenges report that put hominins on continent more than 100,000 years earlier than most scientists accept.
Drawer full of Cerutti Mastadon site fossils at SDNHM

Markings on fossils from an extinct elephant relative called a mastodon are at the centre of a row over when humans reached the Americas.Credit: Kate Johnson, SDNHM

Archaeologists are taking aim at a controversial study that claimed to rewrite theories about when humans first reached the Americas, one of the biggest questions in palaeoanthropology.

When researchers made the astonishing suggestion last year that early humans settled the Americas 100,000 years earlier than thought, they asked doubters to keep an open mind and consider the evidence backing their claim. But their study1, which proposed that mastodon bones from California were broken by an as-yet-unidentified group of early humans 130,000 years ago, was instantly questioned by archaeologists. Most researchers agree that humans settled the Americas around 15,000 years ago.

Nearly a year later, the sceptics are still not convinced. In a rebuttal to the work, published on 7 February in Nature2, archaeologists say that modern construction equipment better explains the mastodon bone damage than does the handiwork of ancient hominins. They present an analysis of mammoth bones from Texas that, they say, have similar-looking damage, which was caused by natural wear and tear and heavy equipment.

“It calls into question the basis for their paper,” says Joseph Ferraro at Baylor University’s Institute of Archaeology in Waco, Texas. He says his team began their critique soon after the original claims were published in Nature in April 2017.

Telltale signs

In the original study, a team co-led by Tom Deméré, a palaeontologist at the San Diego Natural History Museum in California, examined bone fragments of a mastodon (Mammut americanum), an extinct relative of elephants, that had been found during roadworks in suburban San Diego in the 1990s. Deméré and archaeologist Steven Holen at the Center for American Paleolithic Research in Hot Springs, South Dakota, contended that the remains bore telltale fractures seen in bones struck by the stone tools of early humans. No obvious stone tools or human remains were found at the site.

Deméré’s team also established that the mastodon bones were around 130,000 years old, and suggested that an unknown hominin species had reached California by that time. Current scientific consensus on settlement of the Americas is that early humans from Asia crossed the Bering land bridge into Alaska around 20,000 years ago, a theory based on archaeological research and studies of modern and ancient DNA.

To rebut the mastodon claim, Ferraro’s team examined a site in Waco containing the remains of at least 26 mammoths that died about 60,000 years ago. Archaeologists have previously looked for evidence of humans at the site and found none. According to Ferraro, some of the mammoth bones were battered and broken in the same way as the bones from the San Diego site.

Ferraro thinks that construction work — some of the Waco mammoth bones were found during a building project — and natural wear can explain the similarities. One type of bone break found at both sites, a spiral fracture, has been seen as far back as the Triassic period. “A dinosaur would break a leg. It happens. There are natural processes that could reasonably explain spiral fractures,” says Ferraro.

Damage questions

In a response published3 alongside the critique, Deméré and his colleagues stand by their assertion, and say the resemblance between the bones from the sites is merely superficial, and that comparing the sites is not appropriate. “We’re really quite familiar with what kind of damage is caused by heavy equipment,” Deméré adds. He asks doubters to come to San Diego to look at the material in person before making a judgement.

David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, who co-wrote an earlier critique4 of the 2017 study, is glad to see other groups questioning the strength of the evidence. Meltzer says that he is open to the idea that humans reached the Americas more than 100,000 years before he thought — just not on the basis of such equivocal data.

“Given everything we know, it makes no sense,” he says. “You’re not going to flip people’s opinion 180 degrees unless you’ve got absolutely unimpeachable evidence, and this ain’t it.”