Monday, December 12, 2005


Army archaeologists discovering history at Fort Drum

By William Kates
December 10, 2005

FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Building for the future at the U.S. Army's Fort Drum is helping unveil the past.

The newest discovery at the northern New York Army post is a prehistoric boat-building site near what would have been the shoreline of Glacial Lake Iroquois.

A team of Fort Drum archaeologists surveying a wooded hillside near where the Army is putting a new National Guard training site unearthed an unusual looking stone tool.

With the help of a U.S. Marine archaeologist, the team was able to identify it as a triangular-pointed reamer, a typical prehistoric boat-building tool.

They also found a punch and other three-dimensional blade tools. The discovery was made half way down on a sloping wooded hillside that ended with a sharp 100-foot plunge.

"At that time, it would have been a bay or inlet. It would have been a perfect beach for building and launching boats," said Dr. Laurie Rush, Fort Drum's chief archaeologist.

With the help of other experts, Rush has estimated the site is about 11,000 years old about the time Indians first arrived in what is now upstate New York.

Rush has found two other sites to strengthen the theory of a prehistoric maritime culture in upstate New York. Two hills once islands in Lake Iroquois have also yielded stone boat-building tools.

Rush will present her findings on the islands in the spring at an annual archaeology conference.

Rush works as the Army's cultural resources program manager at Fort Drum, a sprawling 107,000-acre installation near the U.S.-Canadian border in northern New York that serves as home to the 10th Mountain Division.

Any time the ground of a federal installation is disturbed, archaeologists must first survey the site to make sure no historical artifacts will be lost or imperiled.

With Fort Drum building living and training quarters for a new brigade of 6,000 additional soldiers, Rush and her staff of three are nonstop busy. Each summer they get help from a cadre of 20 or so college students. Since 1998, the team has dug more than 138,000 holes around the post.

Amy Wood, a Colorado State University analyst who is part of Rush's staff, keeps track. "You're just never sure what you might find so you have to pay close attention every time you look somewhere new," Wood said.

Army archaeologists already have identified a major Iroquois village in the middle of the post with dozens of lesser sites scattered around the installation. Rush said nearly 200 significant sites have been located on post.

Among them: Near the boat-building site, Rush and her colleagues have marked out a 5,000-year-old Indian village. Here, numerous groupings of fire-cracked rocks indicate cooking areas.

Two important discoveries were a grindstone and a clay-fired storage pit in the ground that was littered with burnt phenopodium seeds (a grain resembling a poppy seed).

There also were tools made from stone found in Ohio, indicating an expansive trading network, Rush said.

In the middle of dense underbrush and a thickly packed forest, one of Rush's crews came across a sandy, rock-strewn clearing that appears to have been a French Jesuit trading site with the Iroquois from the 1600s.

Besides fire pits and stone tools, the site has yielded two French gun flints. "The clearing was likely on a prehistoric trail. It looks like it was an encampment for traders. There were signs that animals were being rendered and skinned at site.

We've brought Mohawk elders to the site and they almost instantly recognize these places," Rush said. However, because the Army currently has no development plans for the site, there's no reason for any further study, one of Rush's few frustrations. So the site will remain a mystery unless Rush can get some of her summer help interested in investigating it in their spare time.

In the middle of the post, archaeologists have found a major chert quarry where Indians mined stone for tools. The site sits next to the Fort Drum Inn and was picked for a parking lot expansion until scientists realized what they had found, Rush said.

She recommended moving the parking lot entrance to save the site and the Army was willing. It also saved money since the Army didn't have to blast through rock to expand the parking lot.

A large earthen works standing about five feet high and stretching more than 200 yards runs along the edge of a post housing development, next to a playground with tennis and basketball courts.

The structure has a serpentine shape and scientists initially thought it might have been ceremonial. However, they now believe that because of its positioning on a hillside, it was a fortification, Rush said.

Evidence suggests the structure is possibly 1,500 years old, she said.

In another part of post is the site of one of the six North Country communities erased by the federal government in 1941 so it could expand Fort Drum. Sterlingville now sits at a backwoods crossroads, in the middle of a training zone. Stone ruins reveal there once was a general store, a hotel and a school at the intersection.

The town was first settled in the 1850s and at one time boasted a thriving iron operation. Rush said the 10th Mountain Division uses the site to teach its soldiers how to identify and protect archaeologically important sites when they are deployed overseas.

"The U.S. military is often criticized for destroying cultural sites. Here, they get practice on how to occupy a cultural site without damaging it. If nothing else, it increases their awareness about history and different cultures," she said.

Soldiers have capped part of the site with geotextiles and recycled tank treads to protect it.

The ruins are marked by blue-white signs carrying the international designation for archaeology site.


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