Dig in: Urban Archaeology Corps helps young people explore New York’s past
Sometimes a pile of dirt is just that — and valid archaeology just the same.
Following the lead of Master’s of Anthropology in Public Archaeology (MAPA) graduate students Jacob Bouffard and Kristin Clyne-Lehmann, nine students from the Poughkeepsie area mapped several middens, or mounds, in what was once Martin Van Buren’s Kinderhook orchard. The former president had an interest in farming, and the National Park Service (NPS) plans to recreate his prized orchard.
But with 12,000 years of human history, setting a shovel into Hudson Valley soil can be a risky business, at least from an archaeological perspective. Dirt piles could contain Indigenous or historic artifacts.
This summer, the NPS offered the Urban Archaeology Corps (UAC) for the first time in the northeastern region, with the aid of Binghamton University interns. The opportunity came by way of MAPA alumna Lexi Lowe ’21, who decided to conduct a UAC pilot program while interning at the NPS’ national historic sites in Hyde Park. She suggested that Binghamton’s Public Archaeology Facility (PAF) would be a great fit, explained PAF Director Laurie Miroff.
“The National Park Service came to us; one of the reasons is because we do so much public outreach,” Miroff said. “That’s part of our mission at PAF.”
UAC teaches young people, ages 15 to 26, about archaeology, stewardship and career opportunities in the park system and beyond. The inaugural cohort were largely between the ages of 15 and 17.
Bouffard and Clyne-Lehmann both hail from the Poughkeepsie area themselves. For the first part of their eight-week internship, they designed the program in coordination with the NPS; the program itself lasted for three weeks.
“It was a great opportunity to work with the National Park Service and learn what their approach to archaeology is, and how I could be of service to them in furthering their goals of youth and public outreach,” Bouffard said.
‘Archaeology is for everybody’
During their first week, UAC participants received training in NPS’ volunteer archaeological monitoring program (VAMP). Archaeological sites require periodic evaluation for looting, vandalism or damage from natural causes, such as rodents or fallen trees; volunteers provide a necessary set of eyes to track such damage.
Students participated in excavations during the second week, at both the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site and the Van Buren property. The National Park Service plans to re-establish the Roosevelt house’s original rose arbor; students did shovel tests to look for the old posts that once supported it. They found one post mold, which appeared as a dark stain in the earth, Miroff said.
“It was one of the hottest weeks on record during the summer, and they were champs; they powered through,” Bouffard said. “We had the opportunity to learn some things while accomplishing some goals for the parks.”
“They will do hard work for popsicles,” Clyne-Lehmann quipped.
At the former Van Buren orchard, now a woodlot, the students mapped several mounds, recording their location and dimensions on grid paper, and conducted shovel tests. Both the NPS and the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Community, whose ancestral land includes the site, are going to great lengths to avoid soil disturbance there, Clyne-Lehmann said.
Some of the middens contained historic artifacts and didn’t require further investigation; in her report to the NPS, Clyne-Lehmann recommended that they be protected during the orchard restoration.
Excavation unearthed the mystery beneath the largest mound: a piece of plastic on the bottom.
The students were disappointed, but Clyne-Lehmann explained that their work still discovered something important: data. NPS officials now know they don’t need to go to great lengths to protect that mound during the orchard restoration project.
Participants took field trips throughout the three weeks to contextualize the importance of VAMP. The Hudson Valley has a large number of archaeological sites in various states of upkeep, ranging from well-preserved mansions to places connected with enslaved or Indigenous people.
“We were trying to present the students with a more diverse exposure to archaeological representation, because we were very aware that we were working with these affluent sites,” Clyne-Lehmann said. “Archaeology is for everybody.”
While this year’s UAC was the first such program in the Northeast, it won’t be the last. During the final week, this year’s cohort created training materials for future VAMP volunteers, including a PowerPoint, pamphlets and a time-lapse video of an excavation.
The UAC internship was meaningful for both Bouffard and Clyne-Lehmann as well, providing them with a chance to give back to budding archaeologists in their community. Growing up in Pauling, Bouffard didn’t learn about the career opportunities in archaeology and cultural resource management until he reached Dutchess Community College, he said.
“It was great to be able to foster that interest in the students and introduce them to the world that I’ve been so involved in now for the last three years,” he said. “It put them a little out of their comfort zone and also shifted the public perception of archaeology a bit. It’s not just something professors do in faraway universities; it’s in their own backyards.”