Day One: June 16
I arrived at the front gate of the fort, as per the instructions in my acceptance letter. Fort William Henry is a curious anomaly, plunked-down amid hyperactive Lake George, among the miniature golf courses, amusement parks, wax museums, t-shirt shops, pubs and motels. This day-glo landscape surrounds the log fort with its stern bastions studded with cannon, an edifice also designed to lure summer tourists—the roadsign bills it as the Site of The Last of the Mohicans—as though a novel can be verified by a landscape. I know Cannery Row has suffered a similar fate, with eateries and scrubbed-up factories awaiting Steinbeck's fans, but Cooper's novel had no real setting beyond the north country forests roamed by his mythic Hawkeye. I wondered whether the new Fort William Henry was a replica of an historic fort or of a fort in an historical novel.
The volunteers warily eyed each other. When a group of strangers are thrown together in a crew, they are at first reserved and observant. After all, these people would be working together, all day and everyday, and everyone hopes the one practical joker or humorless fanatic has stayed away. A few were college students, some eager and some slouching with disdain. Others were veterans of past archeological digs and had brought their own gear: buckets draped with pouched tool belts.
I spied one young man, clearly experienced. He was lounging with a bandanna around his head, a trowel stuck in his jeans' back pocket, and a pair of rollerblades under his arm—stuffed with steel stakes for marking excavation quadrants. This was Andrew Farry, a crew leader freshly out of a masters program in archeology at Columbia University. The other crew leader, I soon learned, was Susan Winchell-Sweeney, an archeologist with the New York State Natural History Museum in Albany.
Finally David Starbuck arrived, walking straight to the front gate. It was locked. I knew he was the lead archeologist when he was approached by both Andy and Susan; he also possessed that firm sense of control only those truly in their element can exude. We were all dressed like people expecting to spend a day in the dirt; he wore a polo shirt and dress pants, and carried an aluminum briefcase which looked like either a miniature pop-up camper or space shuttle luggage.
Once inside the fort we assembled in the courtyard, some of us sitting on split-log benches and others on the ground. After we were greeted by Starbuck, Bob Flacke, CEO of the Fort William Henry Cooperation, a for-profit business, ostensibly gave us an overview of the place. He quickly told us how the site had changed hands throughout the 20th century, how resorts such as the Fort William Henry Hotel were owned by the railroads in the 1920s and ‘30s. Soon, though, he began a tirade about the Adirondack Park Agency and its “forever wild” policy. According to Flacke, the best way to manage the millions of public and private acres was clear-cutting; after all, he claimed, Native Americans used to burn the forests after each hunting season to ensure there would be plenty of game next year. “Those beautiful, uncut forests you see are empty. Nothing's living there. If it wasn't for private land and logging, we wouldn't have wildlife in the Adirondacks.” He also noted that this ersatz fort had been erected to preserve the historic site for others (at eight bucks a head) and that part of the grounds had been excavated in 1952 by Stanley Gifford, who also wrote a history of the fort, available in the gift shop.
Next, Starbuck explained that he had planned three different excavations: in the courtyard where the west barracks had been; outside the fort where they hoped to uncover Native American artifacts from 4-6,000 years ago; and the well. Now topped with a circular stone wall, the well was filled with coins and gravel. According to fort curator Mike Palermo, it was forty-feet deep. Some say when the British surrendered they pitched the payroll down the well; others claim the French threw a body down it to spoil it so the English could not return and use it. One thing was certain: Tour guides, in opening the fort each morning for forty years, have used the well as a repository for feces left by the night-time guard dogs. Starbuck would be excavating the well himself, lowered by a block-and-tackle hung on a wooden trestle.
We formed work crews. Susan would lead the dig outside, while Andy had the excavation inside the fort, and we simply wandered over to stand by one of them, like choosing sides for a ball game. Twice as many people joined those looking for evidence of the battle as those searching for Native American artifacts. I joined the smaller group; whatever they found in the fort would reinforce what we already knew about a war which ended only two centuries ago, while outside lay evidence of a vanished culture which had hunted and fished along this storybook lake for millennia. Our team would be digging near Route 9, built on the trail used by tribes moving north each spring to hunt in the mountains, a road which turns into Broadway when it reaches New York City, 250 miles to the south.
Susan first asked Jay, a fort guide, to give our crew a tour. Jay dresses for work in a British uniform, as do most of the other guides (some were dressed as Native Americans). Jay, a member of a “British Regiment of Foot,” was shabbily appointed, his musket tarnished and scuffed, his grimy uniform frayed. On our tour, Jay eschewed the tourist routines, like firing his gun; instead he critiqued the authenticity of the museum, quipping that it contained 19th, instead of 18th century, objects. He showed us a display of marine life in the lake in the 1750s, a panorama with stuffed fish swimming around the legs of an Iroquois angler. “Six of these fish were introduced to the lake in the last fifty years,” Jay said, as though he'd been waiting a long time to expose these failings to someone. At another exhibit, Jay began, “Here is an 18th century cabin,” pointing to life-sized dummies of women in a kitchen. The younger woman was stirring in a bowl, while an older woman rocked a baby. “However, women never actually lived in the fort,” Jay remarked, “though some, camp-followers, lived outside. They were either the wives of men in the colonial militia, or what I would call, when leading a family-tour, seamstresses.” He chuckled all the way to the next exhibit.
Next, Susan led us to the excavation site where she taught us how to identify the artifacts we might encounter: glass, metal, charcoal, stone tools and bone. Then we were paired off and together assigned a square meter in which to dig, quadrants previously surveyed by the crew leaders. My partner was Steve Fuller, an electrician on a two-week vacation. There were five pairs of diggers in all, and by afternoon we broke sod.
We were working in the lawn between a log pavilion and a miniature golf course, “Fort Golf,”which Susan explained had been the garrison graveyard. The pavilion walls bore enlarged photographs of skeletons unearthed in the 1950s and 1990s—the last dig had revealed two African American Massachusetts soldiers. Photographs from that dig showed what a grave shaft looks like, a whitened rectangle, and we were told to dig around it if one turned up in our pits. Graves were too controversial. When the fort was rebuilt, a mass grave was uncovered—the remains were finally reburied in 1993 in a ceremony attended by representatives of the British military and the Onondaga Nation.
Day Two: July 17
Starbuck worked in the well filling buckets with coins; at the morning briefing, he joked about pocketing quarters. The coins were mixed with the crushed limestone which covers the courtyard. Children also toss in these stones; some on tour from a local elementary were seen throwing in handfuls today, even after the wooden trestle, like a swing-set brace, had been erected. The fort authorities also put a video camera in the well, feeding a monitor inside the museum, so tourists could watch the archeologist's Houdini-like descent—all very theatrical. Starbuck said he had contacted the Associated Press, which might be sending a reporter to the dig, and that later there would be a reception for the press, sponsors, and local hot shots. We were all invited. I was getting the impression Starbuck was quite the publicity maven, but it was all part of his job; visibility attracted funding.
Later, Steve and I began digging the top 40 centimeters in our quadrant, backfill laid down since the 1950s; Steve spaded up ten centimeters at a time while I took bucket loads to a screen stretched on a frame mounted on legs, and sifted the dirt. I began to find bits of ceramic, glass, and metal. These were recorded and bagged, even though they were found in modern backfill. Soon it began raining, so Steve and I covered the pits with tarpaulins and ate lunch at the Mt. Prospect Diner, a classic aluminum dining car in the village.
Starbuck had asked us to bring a bag lunch, promising noon-time speakers. But, as we had learned yesterday, the volunteers were expected to be the speakers, a diverse group to be sure, but uneven in their ability to deliver a good half-hour talk. On the first day Starbuck had chosen Bob from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, as speaker. Bob was a reenactor, one of those history buffs who don a costume or uniform and then act out a role. Bob acted as a colonial apothecary, and he looked the part even in civilian clothes. He was a huge man, pants held up by suspenders, with a silvered beard neatly squared off at his breast bone. At lunch he had circulated a bag of cracked corn he had made, 18th century trail food. He had seen the dig advertised in Archeologymagazine, and since he was going to “The Grand Encampment” of reenactors at Fort Ticonderoga in July, he decided to dig at Fort William Henry along the way. On the first day I nicknamed him “Oklahoma Bob,” and the moniker stuck.
Oklahoma Bob had been on an Anasazi dig in Colorado and he talked about what it was like to explore the remains of a culture from 1,000 years ago, how the stone buildings and round kivas contained thousands of artifacts, including basketry and textiles preserved by the arid climate. Some sites are privately owned, charging diggers a fee. “Hell, land is only 75 dollars an acre,” he said, “so you can buy some land and start your own dig.” A groan rose from experienced volunteers—this was simple pot-hunting, a polite name for looting.
When Steve and I returned from the diner, the rain had stopped, but the pits were still covered and everyone was listening to the day's lunch speaker, Gerry Bradfield, grandson of one of the men who had financed the rebuilt fort. Gerry explained how the finds from the 1950s excavations, kegs of musket and cannon balls and other military artifacts, had been pilfered by workers. Recently a sword had been returned by a guilt-ridden employee—he had worked there 25 years ago—and no one at the fort had noticed it had been stolen. Most of the museum records had been lost years ago, Gerry admitted, and much of what was now on display had been acquired in recent years.
This prompted Starbuck to ask what new curatorial procedures would ensure that artifacts we found wouldn't walk away. As though it hadn't occurred to him, Gerry said that it was “an excellent question” and that he would bring it up at the next trustee meeting. Again a murmur rose among the audience—the second noon speaker nearly had been booed.
Later that day, Jay the guide told me how they used to make lead musket balls and plant them for children to find. “You'll probably dig some up,” he said. “Kids would ask us if they were real, and we'd say 'Sure, they're real' And they were real; they just weren't old.” My face must have given me away, because he quickly added, “We did it to get kids interested in history. We don't do it nowadays.” This relatively harmless fraud is part-and-parcel of the new Fort William Henry, with its round, stained Lincoln-log walls (the original fort was built from raw, squared timbers), the hokey exhibits, even a “dungeon” where a dummy of a bloodied prisoner strained at his chains. Jay had said this underground place was not really a dungeon; prisoners were sent south to Albany. The lower floor was for storage.
This desperate fraudulence was summed up by one of the younger diggers. After lunch, students who were getting college credit for the field school attended an hour class with Starbuck. One, Dylan, was working at our site. When she returned at 2:00, lugging her black backpack adorned with a “No Master” patch, Susan asked what she had learned.
“Well, now I know why we're here,” she answered.
“And why is that?” Susan said.
“Don't you know?”
“Yes, but I'd like to hear you say it.”
“Because the people who own the fort don't want to lie anymore, telling people the stuff they have is real. They don't want to buy a lot of fake stuff, and say they found it here.”
That afternoon Steve and I broke through the backfill to what was thought to be an undisturbed layer, but much of our pit was over a trench cut in 1952 by Stanley Gifford. We had dug and sifted for two days, only to uncover the traces of another archeologist.
Day Three: June 18
At the morning briefing, the crew leaders had to report to Starbuck. This morning we heard that the site inside the fort had been unfruitful except for a few clay pipe stems and hand-forged nails; hardly museum-quality pieces, though Stanley Gifford's thin book claimed the ground brimmed with artifacts. Meanwhile, the fort geared up for the tourist season; musket firings on the tours began today, as did hourly cannon salvos.
Steve and I continued to dig in pit S1/W17 (pits are labeled by their south and west coordinates) in what is called “the culture layer.” Darker brown than the sandy backfill, this is the original topsoil, only ten centimeters thick—the very ground over which the French and English fought. Archeologists refer to two measurements: layers and levels. “Layers” are strata of earth which are quite visible when cleanly excavated. “Levels” are arbitrary depths set for the purposes of study. On this dig, the levels were ten centimeters deep, but the layers ranged from 40 centimeters of sand, 20 centimeters of cobblestones (called “back-run”), and even four centimeters of asphalt. Learning these terms, and recording what was found in each level, is what separates a scientist from a pot-hunter. “Your most important tools are pencil and paper,” Susan said.
After we hit the culture layer, Susan had us remove the backfill from the part of Gifford's trench in our pit. Those 20 centimeters produced no bits of glass and metal, and Susan concluded that it was indeed part of the old archeologist's diggings. Then it began to rain, and we covered the pits.
During the rain break, I decided to help Starbuck, who was still bringing up buckets of coins and gravel from the well. The well had been last emptied of wishes several years ago, but only the top few feet. Starbuck was currently sixteen feet down. He was unsure what he might find at the bottom, besides water.
By the time I got to the well, the rain had begun in earnest, and Starbuck was calling to be pulled up. I lowered a hook to retrieve his tools, then pulled the block-and-tackle chain to raise him, another volunteer taking turns. Starbuck was stoic as he inched out of the well, but his silence, as the rain soaked him and fogged his glasses, was tinged with impatience. By the time we got him to the top, the entire dig was shut down by the deluge; even those in pits covered by tents had to quit.
I went home early and later attended a meeting of the Adirondack chapter of the New York Archaeological Association in the library of a local middle school. Susan and Andy were there, as were a few volunteers. Starbuck introduced the speaker, Carolyn Weatherwax, who owned several acres in nearby Wilton, the site of an early 20th century graphite mine. She had surveyed the area and had begun digging around overgrown foundations. As she showed us slides, I wondered if we need to study everything, if much could be learned from this abandoned industrial site, now a second-growth forest.
According to Weatherwax, the fledgling graphite industry is poorly documented. However, are we too fixated on the past? Does our culture need a perfect memory about even the humblest places? As Weatherwax discussed the mine, opened in 1908 and abandoned in 1929, she described the industrial archeologists who had helped her, those committed to researching such long-gone enterprises. As I looked at the slides I was reminded of the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, where my father had worked, where thousands worked. Now the mill buildings have been razed. Perhaps they will be excavated someday, I thought, when the last steel worker has died and those times become hearsay.
Later, in a Lake George bar, I brought up how it seems easy to forget the most commonplace histories. I was sitting with Gerd Sommer, a retired mechanical engineer from Vermont, and crew leader Andy. “When archeologists are puzzled by a site or an artifact, they always call it ceremonial,” he joked. I immediately liked Andy's breezy style. Pretty soon the three of us were laughing over what future archeologists would make of our leavings. We made up archeological interpretations for a site called “Sun-o-co,” where fan belts were seen as sacred necklaces, while gas pumps as vessels for ritual libations. In a thousand years, even our car keys will become amulets and charms.
Day Four: July 19
I volunteered to work in the laboratory, recording artifacts in the “bag book” with Betty Hall, a delightfully absorbed technician from New Hampshire. She was frightfully exact, but I was able to satisfy her in recording the where, when, and what of each bag. Once the bags were recorded, I had to ask the diggers for missing data; even if we knew the omitted detail, Betty said it was a good reminder for both veteran and new volunteers.
Usually, when Betty would come around in the morning with incomplete bags, diggers would be either be irritated or guilty about not having met her expectations. Betty had long white hair tightened into a bun, and glasses which rode low on her nose—having to answer for a mis-marked bag was like being scolded by your grandmother. When I asked the diggers for information, I tried to be easy-going; if I had to get a date or site number from seasoned diggers, they could be pretty gruff—who was I to question the accuracy of their bags?
Next Betty put me to work sorting coins from the well, clearly a job she thought the laboratory should not have to do—it did not involve records or washing, after all. I was simply plucking thousands of cents, nickels, dimes and quarters, U.S. and Canadian, and some German pfennig and Italian lire, from the gravel which did not screen out. Starbuck had filled every available bucket with coins—35 gallons in three days; I was trying to empty enough buckets so he could continue on pace. He was nineteen feet down, but by day's end, the earliest coins were still from the 1970s; however, according to fort authorities, visitors have been throwing coins and other items down the well for two hundred years. Other items had arisen: sunglasses, keys, fake musket balls, soda cans, costume jewelry, flash cubes, toy sheriff's badges—even a plastic Batman. Mike Palermo planned an exhibit, an erstwhile history of tourism. They were dying to have something new for the shopworn museum.
At our pit, Steve was working in the 19th century layer. At first, parallel lines appeared, traces of furrows which archeologists call “plow scars,” and here the pit yielded more bits of metal, pottery and glass. Then a crushed metal container surfaced. It was either a food tin or an old drinking cup.
The diggers entertained a steady stream of tourists today—we had been told to stop and answer their questions. Steve told one man visiting our pit to check out the excavations inside the fort. “I'd have to pay to get in,” the man said. He would content himself with gazing at our plow scars. Earlier, Andy had told me the fort authorities had originally balked at digging outside the walls, where, they argued, “tourists can watch you dig for free.” When I told Steve this, he recalled seeing advertisements: “Visit Fort William Henry. See Archeologists Uncover New Artifacts for the Museum.” We were part of the show.
Day Five: June 20
I returned to digging outside the fort today. Steve was “trowel skimming,” removing a centimeter at a time, stopping to drop plumb lines to plot the location of nails or pottery sherds. The metal container was sent to the laboratory, but we never learned what it might have been. In two pits northwest of ours, Dylan and her partner uncovered two parallel discolored patches. One appeared to be part of the old archeologist's trench, but the other area was a mystery. Susan feared it was a grave, though she publicly attributed it to Gifford as well. Luckily it was in the wrong orientation for a Christian burial, north/south instead of east/west, and the soil was darker than a shaft should be. Still, hushed rumors circulated.
The graves were problematic. For forty years the fort had displayed five skeletons in an underground chamber called “The Crypt,” probably badly wounded soldiers left behind when the British surrendered to the French and their Native American allies. One of the bodies was headless, and eyewitnesses on the day of the retreat recounted a warrior proudly carrying away a head—the wounded were among the first massacred. These remains were reburied on Memorial Day, 1993.
I was starting to discern that the fort authorities might have another agenda for the dig, one which expanded what they meant by “replenishing” the artifact supply. They wanted to get the kind of publicity they garnered when digging up skeletons in 1993—when The Discovery Channel taped a sequence on Fort William Henry. As Frank Schlamp, a retired game warden and a seasoned digger remarked, “they want us to find a skull with a tomahawk sticking out of it,” putting the edge of his hand on his forehead. However, any “features,” discolorations in our pits, were evidence of Native Americans or part of “Gifford's Trench”—at least that was the official line.
Frank is a so-called “avocational” archeologist, a self-educated, field-trained digger and researcher. As Andy Farry explained their role in the larger picture of the science, these informed amateurs are valued volunteers, and many scientists use them as skilled workers, even as supervisors. However, a quiet tension exists between them. Academically trained professionals believe avocational archeologists lack a firm theoretical grounding, and sometimes can be irresponsible pot-hunters. Self-educated diggers, however, think scientists lack the hands-on knowledge years of digging can provide. It's an argument which will never be settled between intellectual snobbery and anti-intellectualism. Andy, yet to earn his own PhD, gave a lot of credit to the skilled amateur, though I wonder if his opinion will change as he earns his full academic credentials.
The reception for the press and public was held at the end of the day, the end of the first week, catered with free Pepsi and Coors—two other sponsors of the dig, I was told. The diggers, grimy and disheveled, coagulated in little cells in the courtyard while the fort authorities showed reporters the results of our work. One digger was in real demand: Oklahoma Bob. In the afternoon, Bob had found a well-preserved British penny from the 1730s; he was excited, as it was the first significant find, but the archeologists were miffed when he did not map it before picking it up. Throughout the day, diggers wandered over to Oklahoma Bob to see the coin.
Tourists were also alerted, and when I had walked over to Bob's pit, he was plucking the coin from the pill bottle the lab workers had given him to protect it. Two women had asked to see it, and Bob was teasing them about charging them five dollars each. “Got your fives ready, ladies?” he said as he pulled out the copper. He was simply getting into the spirit of the place.
Now Oklahoma Bob was showing the coin to journalists, while a dais was set up for speeches. Soon Brenda Baker, an archeologist from the 1993 excavation, summarized what the now-reburied skeletons had revealed. Then Flacke repeated the spiel we had heard on the first day, minus the anti-environmentalist rant. He kept looking over his shoulder at the well, where a volunteer was furiously pulling on the block-and-tackle.
They were waiting for Starbuck, who, inexplicably, was still 20 feet down. While Flacke spoke, the chain rattled and the crowd watched it raise Starbuck no more than a foot a minute. Then the crowd murmured as the top of Starbuck's hard hat finally poked over the edge of the well. Relieved, Flacke gave up the podium to Starbuck, and, hard hat still on, the archeologist greeted the crowd.
Day Six: June 23
I dug alone as Steve was at a job interview. We were at the critical point, below the plow scars and into the thin layer where traces of Native American life would be. So I scraped and brushed all day, turning up two dozen chert flakes—evidence of toolmaking; as a result, Susan planned to open pits immediately adjacent to ours. This is one way archeologists determine where to dig. A scientific blindman's bluff.
Finally I hit yellow glacial sand, the end of the culture layer. While I straightened and smoothed the pit walls, a visiting avocational archeologist stopped by and identified the dark gray flakes I had found as “Fort Anne” chert, named after a town to the south near a known prehistoric quarry. When he left, Frank told me that this visitor, whose name I never learned, was very knowledgeable, but a notorious pot-hunter. “He digs all around Lake George, and they don't know how to stop him.”
At the briefing, Starbuck showed us the press coverage of the reception in The Saratogian and Post Star. Aside from his own work in the well, each article focused on Oklahoma Bob; his picture, holding the penny, had made both papers. Then Starbuck complained that the papers had reported different dates for the artifact: 1730 and 1736. “Which date is correct?” he asked. Without the coin in hand, neither Bob nor Palermo could say, though both had been asked by the reporters.
I was not sure if Starbuck was blaming them for the mix-up, but he was irritated, as the newspapers had made it appear that archeologists could not be relied upon to accurately date a coin.
Day Seven: June 24
Rain prevailed again, so I cornered David Starbuck inside the laboratory for an interview. So far I had managed only a brief conversation with him. Our chat had been wide-ranging, as he explained terminology (a “shard” is the British term for a “sherd,” for instance) and commented on his passion for making people interested in the past when they watch “history come up before their eyes.” I also asked him about his predecessors, especially 19th century archeologists who used crude methodology or looted sites to fill European museums. Though Starbuck condemned treasure hunters, he was more forgiving of past methods; after all, he knew his own methods would seem primitive in the future.
I also asked how much of his job as lead archeologist involved public relations. “One hundred percent,” he said frankly, explaining that without full institutional backing he did not have the luxury of doing “pure research.” He admitted to frustration over his professional status, but said he had “grown to accept it.” However, it limited him; he cited a number of intellectually and historically important projects he could not begin without a sponsor. Most scholars are “solitary,” unlike archeologists, who are always subject to public opinion.
Starbuck is a Harvard-trained, Meso-American specialist, and at first worked in Mexico and Peru. Now he is an “historical archeologist,” searching for artifacts from the recorded past. I asked him if it bothered him not to be working in his original field.
“We all re-invent ourselves professionally,” he said. Aside from not being associated with an institution, other obstacles have conspired to make Meso-American archeology difficult. Starbuck said that unscrupulous archeologists have so exploited these ancient ruins, carrying off precious artifacts, that Latin American governments have shut down the best sites. So he has changed his focus several times. He has excavated Shaker homesteads, and was once “a leading industrial archeologist.” But he now does military archeology, finding it has “the biggest constituency.” More public interest brings more funds and volunteers, neither of which he can do without.
Starbuck relies on avocational archeologists, whom he called “remarkable sources of information.” On this point he was surprisingly earnest. “They are infinitely better [as diggers] than college students,” he said. “They have all the necessary skills.” But that was their greatest asset. They were able to map artifacts and keep a level pit floor; as long as they left the interpretations to the professionals, they were valuable. However, he was less kind to historical reenactors. “They do not live the lifestyle of the times,” he said, adding that the hardships of the periods they reenact would be more than they could bear, even for a couple of days. “But,” he said, “some of the most serious are very good students of history.” Even what he called “weekend warriors,” those who dress up as “an excuse to drink beer with their buddies,” provide an audience for the books of scholars, and contribute to the general awareness of history.
After the interview I talked to Susan, comparing her views to Starbuck's. She was a little more generous to reenactors. Once, she said, while digging on Roger's Island, she identified a button by comparing it to those on a Roger's Ranger reenactor's outfit; some of their equipment was museum-exact. Frank was pleased to hear Starbuck's praise for “avocationals” like him, though he remained skeptical about the professor's sincerity.
Steve was back and had been digging in our pit. Together, we “finished” it, digging another ten centimeters into the pure glacial sand. We had found fifty chert flakes, and Susan was optimistic, though most of the volunteers, after over a week of digging, were disappointed. Our stone chips were the only sign of Native American life—that and the traces of fire rings: heat-cracked rocks, burnt sand, and charcoal. Frank had been with the 1993 team that had uncovered the graves, and had found a “Fox Creek” projectile point here, so he remained enthusiastic.
Day Eight: June 25
Today, Steve and I opened up a new pit. The work was easier because we could dig while standing up in our old pit, shoveling layers of backfill. With this advantage, we'd be able to finish this pit by the end of the week, accomplishing in three days what it had taken us the last seven days to do. We also knew what we were doing. We were better diggers. Now, when we hit the next layer we were expecting it, and knew what was coming next. So we made good progress. Then the heat and humidity started to mount; it had been uncommonly cool for late June, but now the summer was finally upon us. It started to take its toll, and by 3:00 we were slowing—then we hit the bank-run layer, and it was packed with stones. Now the shovel was useless; we had to pry out the rocks by hand. By the end of the day we were still pulling rocks from the south end of the pit, at a much deeper level than we had found them in our first quadrant.
Susan examined the pit, and said we had found another “intrusion,” a place where someone had dug before, probably a utility ditch. We had learned one thing: This patch of land had seen many uses. Not only was it a cemetery, but a fake Mohawk long house exhibit had sat here. Later, tennis courts were built here, adding a layer of asphalt to the backfill; these were replaced by a storage shed. Finally, a reconstructed 18th century block house occupied the lawn—it had been moved to the other side of the parking lot. All of these uses contributed to the layers we were removing.
Day Nine: June 26
Steve had another job interview, so I was expecting to work alone, pulling out cobblestones, and then trowel skimming.
That and the humidity and heat would make slow-going through the culture layer. Then ten Connecticut high school seniors arrived to volunteer for two days. Five were assigned inside the fort, five outside at our site. For some reason, I had three of them. One worked in the pit, and two screened. I had more help than I could use, but they were conscientious and easy to teach, so before long I was buying sodas and cheering them on.
By mid-morning I was joined by Louise Basa, a state archeologist. Louise took over the training of these young people, indeed took over the pit, so I had a chance to visit the other sites. Near the north end of the courtyard, Oklahoma Bob and his partner, “Charley” Brown, had found some flints used on rifles to ignite gunpowder. One was an English flint, and the other, which had turned white, was French. Frank explained how the stones were shaped by different methods, leaving tell-tale marks. According to him, gun flints were only good for 20 shots or so, then were discarded. The whitened flint, Frank said, had been burned, perhaps inside the blazing fort—even modest stones contain a narrative. He also explained how a fort site in Michigan had yielded thousands of flints of both types. There archeologists had set up an apparatus to test which style worked best, and declared the French flints superior, though I don't know whether the rating was based on the quality or quantity of sparks. Someone has even written a book solely on gun flints.
While we contemplated the technical minutiae of the 18th century, the 20th century bullied us for attention. The fort fired a cannon every hour. An out-of-tune calliope played on a paddlewheel steamboat called the Minne-Ha-Ha; most of us caught ourselves humming “New York, New York,” Or “Don't Go Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me.” And the tourists persisted, with the same question: “What are you looking for?” Though we would explain how people had been living along Lake George for thousands of years, we had nothing to show them but chert flakes which, I'm sure, looked like ordinary bits of stone to them. Likewise, children playing miniature golf often shouted over the fence: “Are you looking for dinosaurs?” When we called out no, they turned back to their game, unaware that the brightly painted pigs, bears and windmills through which their balls careened were the only markers for the British soldiers beneath their feet.
Day Ten: June 27
This was the last day of my shift. The entire crew had spent two weeks digging and so far had turned up very few artifacts for the fort museum: two gun flints, some musket balls, clay pipe pieces, and a coin. Likewise no prehistoric artifacts had appeared on our site, not in all nine pits.
But incongruities were plentiful at Fort William Henry. Inside the courtyard stood stocks, pillories, and a whipping post with irons—over the two weeks I'd seen dozens of families clown around them, fathers and sons imprisoned in penal devices while mothers took their picture. They were here to be entertained, not to learn. They were here to see a cement Native American skinning the cement carcass of a deer, to view skeletons in a “crypt.” There's nothing wrong with being entertained by a silly, ghoulish version of the colonial era. Though the real past was buried here, the public wanted The Last of the Mohicans. “We're on vacation,” they seemed to say, “and all we want out of Lake George is fun.” Genuine history will never be good enough. Starbuck was right; we wouldn't be able to stand the real thing. If we could visit the 18th century, we wouldn't last a week.
But archeologists can be too serious. That's what Oklahoma Bob was showing us at the morning brief on this last day by putting a pair of plastic, rotting teeth in his mouth and drawling: “Two weeks ago I couldn't even spell 'archilologist.' Now I are one!” We groaned, but at least Bob had a sense of humor about himself. On this last day in our second pit, in a mere ten centimeters, we pulled out 83 nails and 40 fragments of glass and pottery, but no chert flakes, no evidence that a people once made implements for hunting and fighting where later people would bury their dead.
The dig continued for another month, so I visited during the last week. Andy's crew had found charred timbers, probably pieces of the original fort, and a large number of small artifacts from the 18th century, even a leather blanket which they reburied because Fort William Henry lacked the means to preserve it. Starbuck hit water in the well at 30 feet, and with the aid of pumps, managed to go down another five. Eventually the walls threatened to collapse; he turned up only a few period artifacts. Susan's crew continued to dig at the prehistoric site, and though inside the fort they found projectile points, scrapers, even pottery sherds thousands of years old, the crew in the old military cemetery found little. After a month and a half of digging, not a single stone tool came to light.
Gifford, Stanley M. Fort Wm. Henry: A History. Lake George, NY: NP,
Randall, Thom. “Secrets Below The Fort: Archeologist Will Delve Inside
The Walls Of Fort William Henry.” The Post-Star 5 Mar. 1997, A1, A6.
Steel, Ian K. Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the “Massacre.” New
York: Oxford UP., 1990.