An archaeology dig is different than digging for treasure, but 11 SUNY Oswego students found great value in participating in the return of the Archaeology Field School over the summer.

Led by anthropology faculty member Alanna Ossa, the students unearthed plenty of items and experience in excavating a midden (trash heap) at the historic Richardson-Bates House on Oswego’s east side.

“We found a lot more than I expected,” Ossa said, saying the final count included around 440 pieces of ceramics and 164 faunal (animal-related) pieces.

I took away a lot from this experience that I wouldn't have gotten in a classroom,” anthropology major Amanda Cali said. “For example, the other students and I were able to dig and screen for real historical artifacts. Definitely not something we could do in a regular classroom setting.”

Ossa will lead a public presentation of their findings at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Oswego Public Library, 120 East First St. in Oswego.

The main unexpected findings include a privy (external restroom) dating from between the 1830s and 1870s, before the current house’s construction –- with five bathrooms –- completed in 1872.

“It’s not a pit privy. It was a room,” Ossa said, explaining it included curtains and a foundation. “We dug through a layer of what could be called suspicious-smelling dirt. In the dig of that layer, we found a large penny, and we know the large penny stopped being made in 1857.” That penny gave a range of likely dates, although it was too worn to find a specific year.

Past to present

As an intact 19th century Victorian-era house, with a significant part of the current structure built in the 1860s and kept within the same family for almost a century, the Richardson-Bates House represents a unique piece of Oswego’s local history. The house retains many original furnishings and interiors and includes its associated yard. The Oswego County Historical Society owns the house after its donation by the original family and operates it as a museum to showcase the history of the era in the context of greater Oswego.

In the mid-19th century, Oswego was a bustling, fast-growing transportation hub with many goods and people moving through its port, often starting via the Erie Canal, into the expanding United States.

Discoveries often mirrored developments that impacted wide ranges of society.

“You also see the rise of the middle class with their acquisition of tablewares,” Ossa said. “With the tableware, you can see elements and styles that can help researchers interpolate more specific dates.”

As far as favorite discoveries are concerned, the amount of bone found in the units I dug in was impressive,” Cali said, noting these tended to be animal bones. “I also enjoyed finding ceramic pieces with beautiful patterns! Some types of ceramic were tied to the Victorian period, so they were a great find. Other pieces were hand-painted beautifully.”

Anthropology major Nerissa Conklin –- who is drawn to archaeology after taking classes and interned at the Richardson-Bates House the previous semester –- also said ceramics that created a literal puzzle for her group marked one highlight.

In Unit 2, my dig team and I discovered two small ceramic fragments that we later discovered during our analysis fit together, and created a small scene depicting a sailboat on the water!” Colkin recalled.

“My favorite discovery from the experience was uncovering the privy and underlying rock structure,” anthropology major Maxon Ali said. “We even found metal wall ties used as support for the structure that we dated to the late 1800s!”

Supporting skillsets

“Until you can physically dig into the ground and learn how to analyze and organize it, you can’t really know what working in this field is like,” Ossa said. “These students are now trained in excavation, analysis, cataloging and other relevant skillsets.”

Conklin agreed that while classrooms and on-campus labs help, nothing can simulate live fieldwork – as an experience or for building a resume.

“This opportunity allowed me to actually use and develop those skills we learn about in the classroom, and experience what it is like to work in a professional archaeological setting,” Conklin said. “As far as impacting my future goes, I think that having this experience under my belt could potentially give me an advantage over other candidates applying for the same positions, because while they might need to develop professional skills on the job, I would already have an abundance of them at my disposal.”

“Since this experience required me to be hands-on, I feel like I grasped more information performing the work than I would have in a classroom setting where I am just sitting and listening,” Ali said. “This hands-on experience also made me realize how much I enjoy the processes involved and could see myself taking up more field camps and schools in the future.”

“As far as my future is concerned, the field school is already impacting it!” Cali said. “I plan to do an internship with the Oswego County Historical Society this fall, which I don't think I would have thought to do if it wasn't for the field school.”

The field school fulfilled requirements for specific types of jobs that ask for a six-credit field-school experience, Ossa said, in addition to showcasing the work and teamwork people would find in a professional field setting. 

The project also supports the college’s digital humanities lab, a place to digitize records, maps and other elements supporting access to content as well as student skills in geographic information systems (GIS).

“This provides great training in GIS and can help create a better map of how Oswego used to be,” Ossa said. “We think it’s important to put this on the cultural resources inventory of New York state and provide public access.”

The Shineman Foundation was the primary source of equipment funding with an additional generous donation from Vincent D'Ambrosio. Materials recovered are cleaned, analyzed and curated for the Richardson-Bates House museum’s permanent collection.

Looking forward to the Sept. 24 presentation and other opportunities to share information, Ossa is thrilled to see how this activity dovetails with increased campus-community collaborations.

“We’re really excited about partnerships with the Richardson-Bates House,” Ossa said. “I think college-community partnerships are very important. It’s great that the local community is really interested in their own history.”