Archeology is the study of the past through the material remains that people have left behind. While New York State's historic built environment records almost 400 years of non-native development, its archeological resources represent 12,000 years of human activity. Archeological sites yield important information about the state's pre-European contact and historic populations, documenting various cultures, traditions, and human interactions with the environment. In many cases, archeological data is the only information available about the state's early peoples and places.
New York possesses a diverse collection of archeological resources. Some significant examples of Native American sites include the Dutchess Quarry Caves in Orange County, which have produced some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in the western hemisphere, Lamoka Lake in Schuyler County and the Oberlander and Robinson Sites along Onondaga Lake, important Archaic period sites (4500-2000 BC), and Ganondagon State Historic Site, a well-known Late Woodland and historic period Seneca village site in Victor. Some important historic archeological properties include the site of Fort Orange in Albany, which is associated with European exploration and settlement in the New World, the non-extant site of the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, Crown Point State Historic Site, a strategic military fortification near Ticonderoga, and Browns Race Historic District, the remains of an early industrial complex in Rochester. Material from many archeological sites are displayed and interpreted at various locations across the state.
Archeology is also a key component of historic preservation environmental review. State and National Registers listed and eligible resources receive a measure of protection whenever state and federal agencies fund, license or approve projects in New York State. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and Section 14.09 of the New York State Historic Preservation Act, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) strives to ensure that effects or impacts on eligible or listed properties, including archeological sites, are considered and avoidance or mitigation measures are developed during the project planning process. The SHPO also provides archeological assistance to numerous state and federal agencies and offers archeological guidance and recommendations to local municipalities upon request.
Archeological sites within the state date back as far as 12,000 years and are located in a wide variety of settings, from forests and flood plains to waterways and mountain tops. Pre-European contact archeological sites range from temporary fishing encampments to large permanent villages. There are also many "resource procurement sites" or areas where the activity appears to have consisted of a single action lasting for perhaps just a few hours, such as hunting sites that typically identify where animals were killed and butchered or well-established waterfront locations where groups of people gathered for a limited amount of time on a regular basis to catch and prepare fish.
Most archeological sites are found in relatively shallow deposits, within one to two feet of the surface. However, in some cases, natural factors have caused sites to be buried beneath multiple layers of sediment, such as the deeply stratified floodplain deposits often found along streams and rivers. These deposits can be anywhere from one foot to more than ten feet below the current surface. These sites often have multiple layers, with older sites lying in the deepest sediments and more recent deposits being closer to the surface. Recent work in a number of urban settings (for example, New York City, Albany, Kingston, Elmira, and Buffalo) has revealed significant early archeological deposits that remained intact within areas that are now densely developed. Archeological sites discovered in urban areas have strong potential to yield important information about a community's settlement and growth.
Post-European contact sites can be found throughout New York and document practically every aspect of the historic period, from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Native American and early European settlements to twentieth-century Cold War military installations. Many of the most prominent historic period sites are associated with colonial America and the Revolutionary War. New York also contains thousands of cultural landscapes, village sites, and industrial complexes that help to increase our understanding of New York's development and expansion during the nineteenth century. Examination of these sites has led to a greater understanding of technological advances as well as providing new insights into the lifestyles and working conditions of our ancestors.
New York's impressive collection of historic maritime resources includes a large number of archeological sites, such as the remains of early waterfronts, docks, and shipwrecks. The identification, recognition, and interpretation of these significant yet often-overlooked resources is helping to ensure their long-term protection.
New York's extensive network of waterways has resulted in an extraordinary legacy of submerged archeological sites ranging from underwater Native American sites to historic shipwrecks spanning almost 400 years of commerce, technology, and naval history. The SHPO is concerned with the preservation of these resources and works closely with other government agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and academic institutions to identify, evaluate, protect, and interpret significant underwater sites. In addition to the provisions of the State and National Historic Preservation Acts and the Archeological Resources Protection Act, submerged archeological resources in New York State water are protected under Section 233 of the State Education Law. Section 233 states that it is unlawful to disturb archeological resources (including most shipwrecks and underwater archeological sites) on public lands without first obtaining a permit from the New York State Museum.
Additional research and public education are helping to safeguard underwater archeological resources. For example, recent projects studying pre-glacial occupation sites in tidal areas are providing a better understanding of archeologically sensitive areas in Long Island Sound and the lower Hudson River estuary. A number of not-for-profit organizations are surveying inland waterways to identify historic shipwrecks and nominate significant sites to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Almost 1,000 historic shipwrecks have been identified across New York and are included in a statewide database, which was established to record critical information about these sites. Furthermore, the SHPO routinely reviews state and federally funded dredging, pipeline, cable laying, and other underwater projects to determine if significant archeological sites are likely to be impacted and, when appropriate, to develop appropriate avoidance or mitigation measures. The SHPO also cooperates with regional organizations and other state agencies to create Submerged Heritage Preserves, such as the underwater site of the 1868 steamer CHAMPLAIN II near Westport in Lake Champlain. These preserves offer recreational diving opportunities while assisting in the preservation and interpretation of these sites.
In considering the preservation of archeological resources, it is important to understand the delicate, nonrenewable nature of archeological sites and associated materials. While some sites may reveal beautiful artifacts or fascinating ruins, the fundamental value of archeology lies in the information that sites and artifacts offer about the way humans have lived in the past. Once archeological material has been removed from the ground, whether through excavation or as a result of looting, development, erosion, or other processes, the site is destroyed forever. When investigations are conducted properly, the information from the site is preserved through collections, records, and reports that are used to analyze and interpret the past. When sites are excavated improperly, information is lost and the value of the archeological deposits is greatly diminished. Through its programs and services, the SHPO hopes to promote the responsible stewardship of archeological resources in order to help preserve these valuable but fragile pieces of human history.
Some of the hallmarks of responsible archeological stewardship include thorough research and scientific methods, well-organized information collection and analysis, and public education and site interpretation. Professional archeologists are some of the most important stewards of New York's archeological heritage; however, members of the general public can also be effective stewards. For example, landowners who have archeological sites on their properties are encouraged to preserve and protect them and to register the site with the SHPO. For more information, see Frequently Asked Questions or contact the State Historic Preservation Office.
Archeology is an interdisciplinary endeavor, often-drawing on information and expertise from a variety of fields, including anthropology, biology, chemistry, geography, geology, linguistics, photography, physics, satellite imagery, and other remote sensing techniques. It is often necessary for professional archeologists to work closely with other professionals on specific projects. While archeological work can at times be highly technical, there are many opportunities to learn about archeology without in-depth technical training. Various colleges, universities, and schools in New York State offer programs in archeology and closely related fields. Learning about archeology increases our appreciation of the value of these cultural and historic resources and strengthens our sense of responsibility for protecting them. There are also opportunities to use the vast record of archeological and historical resources to help teach other subjects, such as history, architecture, mathematics, computer science, and language arts. A number of programs have been developed that provide educational tools that can be applied to various ages and levels of interest, including: