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Dig It! Anthropology Students Unearth Cayuga Nation History

My classmate Charles and I were on the first day of excavations and had been working for less than half a day when we made the find: a beautifully incised 1,100-year-old decorated pipe bowl. The thrill of discovery is exactly why I am an anthropology major, which combines academically based education with hands-on experience.

This summer I took my second Archaeological Field School course at Ithaca College, led by Professor Jack Rossen, head of the anthropology department.

On an unplowed and undisturbed piece of farmland in Levanna, New York, near the northeast side of Cayuga Lake, 11 students mostly from IC and Tompkins Cortland Community College (which cosponsored the course) helped Professor Rossen unearth a Native American village dating from the 900s.

The 2009 Levanna team. Photo courtesy of Professor Jack Rossen

The 2009 Levanna team. Photo courtesy of Professor Jack Rossen


Amazingly it was well preserved just a few inches under the forest floor. Levanna, as the site is called, was a Cayuga village. The Cayuga are part of the Haudenosaunee, better known as the Iroquois Confederacy. One thousand years ago the Cayuga dwelled on the land surrounding Cayuga Lake, including modern-day Ithaca.

Digging in a 2-by-1-meter hole might not sound exciting, but I loved it, and with the approval of the Cayuga Nation, our class helped to reshape and reclaim their past, which has up until now been told primarily from a Western perspective.

Students working at the Levanna site. Photo courtesy of Professor Jack Rossen

Students working at the Levanna site. Photo courtesy of Professor Jack Rossen


Professor Rossen has been at the forefront of restructuring relations between Native Americans and archaeologists, working to bring direct involvement with the descendant community, in this case the Cayuga, into the archaeological investigation.

That first pipe bowl and the more than 100,000 artifacts subsequently recovered help to piece together a new understanding of the Cayuga history and the roots which connect Cayuga people today to their ancestors who lived in this area over a thousand years ago.

Professor Rossen invited two Cayuga natives from the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario to return to their homeland and excavate alongside us. They brought great insights to our daily discussions on the site, the Cayuga past, and native life today. I learned that the Cayuga community is organized today as it was at the site 1,100 years ago: around the longhouse. In fact, Haudenosaunee means “people of the longhouse.”
   
Meeting chiefs and clan mothers, who share equally in the leadership of the Cayuga Nation, taught me of the undying respect the Cayuga hold for their past and emphasized the importance of our excavations.

It also showed me how much more advanced Cayuga culture was than Western culture in terms of gender equality. Long before American women had the right to vote, Cayuga women were equals within the Nation, and the clan mothers hand-selected chiefs to represent their clan within the longhouse.

The Native Americans visiting the site during excavation led me to understand not only the historical significance of the site, but also the spiritual power embodied within it, and the powerful entities held within the artifacts that were being uncovered daily.

As I was working one day, an Onondaga faith keeper toured the site, then sat on a log in long silence next to my excavation square. What became obvious to me through his reverence of the site is that the artifacts are not solely artifacts but are messages from the Cayuga past working to teach us what has been lost to time.

Now I see that the innate winged design fragments of herringbone ceramics that I unearthed so often are a cultural transmission from mother to daughter that has carried on to Cayuga potters of this day.

Now, Levanna has been backfilled, and all there is to see are patches of grass. Yet the learning and discovery continue.

After the dig, I worked on soil flotation to identify the plant remains at the site. And in last fall’s Archaeology Laboratory course, Professor Rossen taught us a variety of techniques to use in analyzing the Levanna artifacts.

Given the vast number of artifacts and the different avenues that will be explored, the analysis is likely to continue for several years to come.




Originally published in Fuse: Dig It! Anthropology Students Unearth Cayuga Nation History.


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