ICQ 2003/1



Digging up the Past

Since May 2000 assistant professor of anthropology Jack Rossen has been working during the summers at a spot in the Cayuga heartland area of Union Springs and Aurora, along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. He has been excavating settlements of the Native American tribe that were destroyed by the Continental Army in 1779. One goal of the research, which was supported by an IC Summer Research Grant, is to recapture the grandeur of the landscape at the center of the Cayuga homeland.

Researchers at work in the Cayuga long house, now in a backyard

Students Moragne, Briseno, Strigel

Anthropology professors Rossen and Olson

Making sure nothing is overlooked

Rossen has help from students every year. This past summer the volunteers were current students Jennifer Botto '03, Adriana Briseno '03, and Jeffery Gates '04; recent graduates Steven Moragne '01, David Strohmeier '02, and Jody Struhz '02; and Wells College senior Kirsten Strigel. The entire project is being guided by Birdie Hill, Cayuga Heron clan mother, who counsels the investigators to ensure that areas important or sacred to her people are not disturbed.

"I hope this work will build bridges, including more friendship between local nonnative and native people," says Rossen. "Many local residents have visited the site. They are amazed to learn that the Cayuga lived, literally, in their backyards."

The excavations have so far revealed a portion of the midden (refuse debris) of an 18th-century Cayuga long house behind an Aurora Village home owned by Wells College. The long house was about 90 feet long and was oriented precisely east-west. The dwelling may have belonged to the settlement known to American soldiers as Chonodote or "Peachtown," which was renowned for its 1,500-tree peach orchard on the unusually warm Aurora Basin lakeshore. Information gathered at the site, such as the existence of several fire hearths at different levels, suggests that the house was in use for a relatively long time, up to 30 years. The students uncovered some 20,000 artifacts that illustrate French and British trade relationships with the Cayuga, including pottery sherds, glass trade beads, brass bells, "tinkling cones" (small bells from a woman's dress), a leaden "bale seal" from a bolt of cloth, gun flints, and the base of a brass oil lamp. These items suggest more friendly times and active trade before the Revolutionary War.

Two years earlier Rossen excavated a pottery manufacturing area one mile to the north, also in the Village of Aurora, that appears to be related to the Peachtown settlement. Only large, thick, poorly fired sherds from storage vessels were found at that location, perhaps suggesting that these pots were made hurriedly, just before or after the destruction of the area, to hide or salvage food. Excavations of sites in the Finger Lakes area thus can give an idea of the preparations and reactions of the Cayuga people living during this turbulent time, because Peachtown was one of the last of the 43 Native American settlements to be burned in this area during the Sullivan campaign. In contrast to this site, the Aurora backyard site excavated last summer contained only smaller, thinner pottery shards of cups, plates, and bowls, in addition to the variety of European-American traded goods.

The excavations will continue this summer with another Ithaca College–Wells College cooperative archaeological field school. In addition, a new archaeology lab has just opened on campus, where artifacts from the excavations are being washed, catalogued, and analyzed by students.

Rossen's research complements his work with a local nonprofit organization, SHARE (Strengthening Haudenosaunee American Relations through Education). SHARE operates a 70-acre organic farm in Union Springs as an educational center and aims "to promote opportunities for education and mutual respect between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and American people, communities, and governments." On SHARE's board of directors are Rossen and his IC colleague Brooke Olson. Rossen's archaeological work helps provide the historical backdrop to the educational programs conducted at the SHARE Farm, while Olson works on native health projects at the farm, including a medicinal herb garden.

You can read more about the SHARE organization and its projects at the Share Homepage.

Top and bottom -- Jack Rossen
Center -- Ernie Olson

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 25 April, 2003