Digging the Past

Digging the Past

Posted: June 17, 2013

On Wednesday, June 19, anyone with Buffalo State ID can visit Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown for free. While touring the historic fort, first settled by Europeans in 1679, guests are welcome to visit Buffalo State’s 2013 Archaeological Field School.

Eleven Buffalo State students are taking part in a dig at Old Fort Niagara this summer, where they are excavating an American barracks that was built between 1807 and 1810. They are working under the direction of Susan Maguire, assistant professor of anthropology, who is continuing her work at the fort. Sean Johnston, ’13, is serving as teaching assistant.

“I’m interested in the intersection between archaeology and history,” said Maguire. The objects found so far this summer include a pipe fragment, slag from smelting iron (probably from a blacksmith’s work), trade beads of glass and bone, fragments of dishes, French flint, and a button from a naval uniform worn during the War of 1812. “We don’t know much about the lives of ordinary people from this time,” she said. “This helps us understand them better.”

Maguire used plans of the fort and GIS technology to locate the barracks. The team plotted out three pits, each three meters by three meters, along what they expected was the wall of the barracks. Sure enough, students uncovered the stones that served as the foundation for the walls.

A team of four students works on one pit for the duration of the six-week class. Each layer of soil is sifted to make sure that no artifacts go undiscovered. The ground itself tells a story: one pit contains a square trench with ash residue. Maguire and the students speculated that the trench once contained a burning square beam, perhaps ignited when the British forces recaptured the fort from the Americans in December 1813. The excavation continues until sterile soil—soil undisturbed by human activities—is reached, about three feet below the surface.

The students take turns serving as site interpreter by staffing a booth and answering questions posed by visitors. “That gives students a great opportunity to learn how to explain the work they’re doing,” said Maguire. “Being part of the dig and doing hands-on work brings out different skills than classroom work. You can see the light bulbs go on as students see the link between textbooks, research, and field work.”

Jerome Brubaker, assistant director and curator of Old Fort Niagara, said that it was helpful to have the class on site. “It gives our visitors an additional opportunity to understand the importance of the fort and to get answers to their questions,” he said.

As one of the students showed a piece of pottery, she said, “I like to imagine how many people handled these 200 years ago.” For student interpreter Matt James, who has been fascinated by the fort since he was a kid, this experience is simply “a dream comes true.”

Pictured: Students locate one corner of the barracks, built around 1808.

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