Twice a week this summer, I volunteered with a team of archaeologists in Setauket and Old Field, NY. The project was part of a larger group/mission called “A Long Time Coming,” which describes itself as a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and preserving the history of the Setauket, NY area. I’ve posted before about my foray into the field of archaeology, but this was far more advanced and intensive. Working on the Silas Tobias Site and the Hart Site, we excavated a few dozen 1x1m pits, finding some remarkable artifacts and reaching some significant conclusions.
The Tobias Site was a nineteenth-century property owned by Silas Tobias, a free black. The site is located on a wooded hill that descends into Conscience Bay, only meters away. The first day, I was paired up with a graduate student from Montclair University who was incredibly knowledgeable and willing to help a newbie like myself. Her specialization is in bones, specifically human, although her expertise definitely carried over as we found numerous bones from fish, poultry, and livestock (which told us a lot about the diet and economy of the Tobiases). We were excavating the area closest to the ridge that marked the steepest gradation into the marshy tidal area below, and our pit quickly helped orient our understanding of the rest of the site. When we started digging, we found countless numbers of shells….and it took nearly 60 centimeters of digging to get through them. At times I wondered whether there was more dirt or shell in our pit. We also found nails, broken glass and ceramics, broken pipe stems, animal bones and teeth, and what appeared to be a shovel head. Most of all, though, it was shells. The archaeologists were able to infer that this was the Tobias house’s midden, or garbage heap. This made sense- they would likely have built the house slightly higher on the hill, probably with a small kitchen extending from the downhill side of the house, from which they would have simply thrown their refuse into a heap near the water. They clearly ate a lot of bivalves and discarded the shells into the midden. This area was tough to excavate because of all the shells, but it was also one of the most exciting because of all the other pieces of refuse that we found. What was most interesting was watching the understanding of the site slowly develop with each new find. In one pit, large flat rocks were slowly uncovered. In another, a line of bricks. In another, a cow leg. In another, a barrel stay. The leading archaeologists used their experience and expertise to determine where the wall of the house was, where the fireplace was, where they stored goods, etc.
Thinking about it, my experience with the archaeologists and the sites was very literary. It was much like reading a mystery novel and watching as new clues help the protagonist make sense of everything. I, of course, was only a reader- knowing as much (archaeologically) as anybody told me, but watching as each character with his or her own strength helped unfold a narrative that led to a final conclusion.
One of the most interesting finds was an eel spearhead. At first, only one of its prongs was discovered, and nobody was sure what it was. The popular hope was that it would turn out to be a harpoon head, but that didn’t seem like it would pan out. Then, after finding the base of the spearhead, and after some online investigation, it was determined that we were looking at an eel spearhead. This is particularly significant because of William Sidney Mount’s famous 1845 painting, “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (here is a link to more information on the painting). The painting looks as though it were painted from the exact perspective of the Tobias property overlooking Conscience Bay. The eel spear, by the way, looks just like the one unearthed just meters away. Here is a picstitch of the two perspectives: