Photos by Lauren Thomas
The Huguenot settlement in New Paltz dates back to 1678. But as long ago as that seems, archeological finds at what is now Historic Huguenot Street date occupation of the area back to circa 7,000 BC, according to Dr. Joseph Diamond, associate professor of anthropology at SUNY New Paltz.
Diamond has conducted archeological investigations on Huguenot Street since 1998. Every summer he directs the college-sponsored Archaeological Field School there for the department of anthropology at SUNY New Paltz, guiding a group of undergraduate and graduate students in unearthing historic and prehistoric artifacts.
The students are currently wrapping up another season of the program, following up their work on site earlier this summer by working in the laboratory at the college to curate and analyze what they have excavated. In addition to the hands-on experience of working in the field, the students received rigorous instruction from Diamond on mapping, recording data, classification and analysis of the artifacts found and environmental, cultural and historical reconstruction.
This is the Field School’s third year spent working on the church property. Diamond said he’s not yet sure whether they’ll return to that site again next year or not. On a visit last week during the final days of the dig, his students were divided amongst several large trenches they’d dug in the lawn outside the Reformed Church. The area was once the site of an earlier Huguenot church built in 1772, whose stone foundation was “robbed,” said Diamond, to supply materials to build the current church.
After the new church was built in 1839, the site became a horse stable — a parking lot for the church, if you will, to borrow an analogy from student Helen Curran — and in the middle of it all, a pigpen. “We found a pig bone here,” said Curran, “and believe it or not, it still smelled!”
Bones and other organic matter are more unusual to find, explained student Nathaniel Ogren, because the soil here is so acidic most bones dissolve after 300-400 years.
The students have uncovered items that date to widely ranging eras. “We’ve been finding a mixture of Native American artifacts like projectile points, pottery and beads,” said Curran, “along with historic things like nails and glass from the church. We found bricks, we found mortar that held the rocks together for the foundation, and just yesterday we found a coat button from the 1700s and a cross pendant from the same time. It’s really cool to see how many things are on this one piece of land.”
And it all gets mixed together, regardless of what era it originally came from, she says. “Obviously you’d expect to find the older things at the bottom and the newest at the top, but when the ground was disturbed for building, it gets all mixed together.” For example, Curran explained, the students are instructed to dig down ten centimeters at a time, and on their first day they found a piece from 1,000 BC that was close to the surface. Later, digging deeper, they found clothing from the early 1900s.
And the oldest thing they found this summer? Curran deferred to Tisa Loewen, who did the Field School last year and was back this year as a teaching assistant before going to NYU this fall.
“It was a spear point from about 3,000 BC,” Loewen said.
Curran explained that the students learned where to dig by differentiating between the soils. Yellow soil is glacial, untouched “never-before-been-dug-in” soil, while the dark brown soil was filler that had been added. When the soil is wet they can really tell the difference, she said.
Huguenot Street has always been a very busy place because it’s just several hundred feet uphill of the Wallkill — and historically people settle near the water — and it was occupied on this side, as Curran pointed out, because it floods on the other side of the river.
The artifacts the students found on church property remain the property of the church, although some will be housed at the college for an indeterminate time after they’re catalogued and curated, kept in a suitably controlled environment.
Most of the students working in the Archaeological Field School were either recently graduated and completing the course as their last class, like Curran (an anthropology major) and student Danielle Sweetser, a history major who was sifting objects and soil through fine mesh screening. A few of the students were undergrads with one or two years left in their studies, like Joe Bacci, an anthropology major going into his last year at SUNY and Nathaniel Ogren, entering his third year and declaring as an anthropology major.
Under professor Diamond’s guidance, archaeological studies at Huguenot Street have yielded evidence of a stockade built between 1678 and 1680 and earlier Huguenot houses predating the stone houses, built using sticks and clay.