Campus News

Public digs connect amateur archaeologist with the past

A day at the McKendry dig site. Photos: Douglas Levere

By ROBBY JOHNSON

Published July 18, 2018

“There’s a lot of people who really like that feeling of finding something that hasn’t seen the light of day in 4,000 years, and being the first to touch it. To have that connection to a person from that far in the past is an amazing feeling.”
Kathryn Whalen, project director
UB Archaeological Survey

Bob Graves likes to dig in the dirt.

Graves says scouring for archaeological finds has been a hobby of his for some 40 years. So the blazing sun and near-record temperatures a few weekends ago didn’t bother him and fellow retiree and longtime friend Jim English as the pair sifted for artifacts at the UB Archaeological Survey’s McKendry site in the Town of Irving.

McKendry is unique among the Archaeological Survey’s public digs in that visitors can actually dig and sift, rather than just watch the professionals at work, said Kathryn Whalen, a project director for the Archaeological Survey who received her PhD from UB in 2017. And, Whalen said, volunteers like English and Graves are among the best things these digs have to offer.

“It’s an amazing group of people,” she said of the volunteers. “There’s a lot of retirees who come out every dig, and they’re super reliable and knowledgeable. One of the really fascinating things for me is learning what non-professionals know and seeing that passion that a lot of people in this area have for prehistory,” she said.

“There’s a lot of people who really like that feeling of finding something that hasn’t seen the light of day in 4,000 years, and being the first to touch it. To have that connection to a person from that far in the past is an amazing feeling.”

Whalen explained that some of the artifacts that have been unearthed at the McKendry site are from the Archaic period about 8,000 years ago.

“We’ve found a lot of neat arrowheads, projectile points and some ground stone tools on the site in the past,” she said. “Some of the earliest Native American pottery in Western New York was also found there in the ‘90s.

“There’s such a wide range of material cultures because it (the site) was occupied continually over that 8,000-year span,” she added. “It was definitely a place where people were living in the long term for a season, as opposed to making a weekend campsite.”

The largest current dig site at McKendry is now several feet deep. Whalen estimated artifacts uncovered from that level date back 6,000 years.

“That site is interesting because it was exposed right after the glaciers melted and that landform has been building over 10,000 to 12,000 years, with people continually occupying the ground surface,” she said. “We plan on getting a geomorphologist to come out this summer to date some of the stratigraphy. We’re looking to get even deeper because we’re still finding artifacts in it.”

With work on that specific site on hold pending the visit by the geomorphologist, this UBNow writer joined Graves, English and English’s grandson, Colin Sischo, on a recent Saturday at a smaller, shallower site about 10 feet toward the north. Sischo, a junior in high school, said he loves the outdoors and was interested in learning what archaeology is all about, particularly because he isn’t yet sure what career he wants to pursue.

We quickly got to work; I handled one of the soil sifters, while some of the others started digging with shovels.

Throughout much of the day, we found many jagged flakes of flint, which Graves pointed out were the byproducts of Native Americans making the tools necessary for their day-to-day lives. He also estimated from the current depth of the soil that these flint shavings were close to 2,000 years old.

Every time Sischo and I found something that was out of the ordinary, English and Graves paused from cracking jokes to explain what it was. What appeared to be a normal rock was identified as an anvil stone. We were ready to toss a piece of red clay until the men said it likely was used for war paint.

Public digs like McKendry offer an enjoyable experience for people of all ages and interests, Whalen said, and can be invaluable for those, like Sischo, who may be interested in pursuing a career in archaeology.

Participants “really get a hands-on experience and we encourage people to come,” she said of the digs. “We have kids that are in elementary school that come out with us, and we also have octogenarians. It’s a great range of knowledge, curiosity and passion.

“Definitely come out and bring your curiosity,” she urged members of the UB community. “It’s a great group of people, and we’re willing to host anyone who wants to come.

“It’s also a great experience for students,” Whalen noted. “Archaeology is a lot different than what you think it is from pop culture, and I always encourage students to try early and often. We’re more than happy to see whoever wants to come out and help dig.”

UB’s Archaeology Survey will hold a few more public digs at the McKendry site this summer. The remaining dates are July 28, Aug. 11 and Aug. 25. All ages and skill levels are welcome. The site is located at 12682 Beebe Road, Irving, N.Y., in the grass lot behind the Burger King on Route 20, near the exit for the New York State Thruway.

More information on the public digs can also be found on survey’s Facebook page.