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Students And Volunteers Dig In At Lake George Battlefield Park

Since 1991, Dr. David Starbuck, an archeologist and associate professor at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, has been supervising an Archeology Field School through SUNY Adirondack.

Over the years, Starbuck has led groups of volunteers and students to historic sites across the region, including Fort William Henry, Fort Edward, and this summer, the Lake George Battlefield Park. Starbuck says he’s practicing what he likes to call “community archeology” – something different than what people usually think about the field.

“And the image that archeologists have is that we take 10 or 20 students, often in the middle of nowhere, dig for six or eight weeks, and then come fall we publish the results…that’s old fashioned archeology,” said Starbuck.

On this day, there are first-timers and others with decades of practice. Before we begin digging, Lyn Hohmann, one of the more experienced volunteers and president of the Lake George Battlefield/Fort George Alliance, takes me on a walk through the battlefield park on a road that passes several picnic areas.

“I’m going to start showing you the treasures in our park that people don’t see,” said Hohmann.

Hohmann points out rock walls once part of buildings used during the French and Indian War and a rocky pit in the ground that she suspects was once a limestone quarry. We come upon what I think looks like an ordinary ditch.

Hohmann said we were looking at what was once a sally port, a hidden exit dug behind what was once an entranched camp on the battlefield in the 1750s. She said the trick is looking for things that aren’t where they should be.

Today the students and volunteers are digging where officers’ huts once stood. 

Susan Leslie, who has been digging for more than two decades, offers some advice as an odd-shaped piece of iron is pulled out of the ground.

"That was definitely on a door because it's bent over. A door or a chest, because there it is - it's a piece of a lock," said Leslie.

But, she said, it likely isn’t something left over from a military building. Leslie explained that before the property was purchased by New York State in 1898, it was privately held farmland, which explains why much of it is so well preserved. We were digging in what was likely a burn pit.

“This was a dump of a mixture of periods," said Leslie. "We did have some 18th Century ironwork come out of here but I believe that was off of whatever was burned."

But digging down a little further does reveal something special.

While sifting through soil, volunteer Don Thompson makes a discovery.

"A button! It looks like a coin but it's a button, you can see the reverse side of it," said Thompson.

Throughout the morning, the group shows me more recent finds. Pieces of tobacco pipes, fragments of pottery, a musket ball, and, curiously, lots of animal bones. I’m told the soldiers ate a lot of pork.

All of the objects are sent down the hill to the laboratory, at the Fort William Henry museum, where they are cleaned, identified, and sorted.

“In this particular dig because it is on state property, all of the artifacts will eventually end up at the New York State Museum in Albany, so there's a certain way of doing things that we have to follow," said Kennedy.

The work draws curious visitors. Patricia Khalaf was with her granddaughters at the fort when they found out there was an archeological dig happening less than a mile away.

"Archeology and digging for different for artifacts was interesting to them so  we thought we'd go to the dig site and take a look," said Khalaf.

For many of the volunteers, the summer digs are more than just a summer hobby. Frank Bump says the digs are something personal.

“I had ancestors that fought here in...the 1750's, " said Bump. "So I just started coming to get closer them or sense what they did and where they were."

For Dr. Starbuck, it’s the opportunity to tell the story of people missing from the history books.

"It's the ordinary folks on ordinary days - it's the stories of camp life that I think we can tell better than everybody else," said Starbuck. "So as visitors walk by and visit our pits and ask us what we're finding, I think we almost have an obligation to describe what we're learning about the ordinary soldiers who were here, and what their lives were like. And that is a real addition to American history."

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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