A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
What did you do on your first site visit?
Alyssa Loorya: I first visited as an archaeologist in 1997. Walking onto the site was like entering a jungle. In the eight years that the house had been empty, nature had really taken over the property. I could barely see the house from the street--only the roofline was visible. From certain points on the property, all I could see was more foliage. I pushed aside bushes, branches, and thorns to make my way through.
We entered the house through the basement, and it was pitch black. I smelled the mold the minute I entered. Some upstairs lights still worked, and I was awed by what I saw. Even though it was dirty and run down, the house was stunning. The central hallway was my favorite. A wide passage, it runs from the front to the back porch with original double Dutch doors at either end. There's a Georgian arch, and the parquet floor is bordered with inlaid oak and cherry wood. On each subsequent visit we noticed something new, some architectural detail or an object left behind. Once, we observed that what appears to be continuous carpeting is really matching strips sewn together--a true luxury for a time before wall-to-wall carpet. On another visit we noticed that the wooden post and beams in the attic--nails weren't used in the overall construction--had numbers carved into them. Walking from beam to beam, the numbers go in sequence, and I got a sense of how the house was built and the planning that went into it.
As wonderful as the house was, we were more interested in the surrounding property. Our work had only just begun. At first walking through the property was frustrating since we couldn't actually see the ground. There was a thick covering of leaves that had fallen over eight years. Even so we were able to identify some possible features--there were two circular depressions on the western side of the property. These may be indicative of a former well. On the eastern side of the property in the midst of berry and rose bushes we noticed stones protruding from the ground surface. From old maps and early twentieth-century photographs we knew there to have been a structure in that vicinity. Early histories (e.g. Keskachauge: Or the First White Settlement on Long Island by Van Wyck, 1928) referred to that building as the old stone kitchen. The stones protruding on the surface could possibly have been remains of the foundation to that structure.
Chris Ricciardi: The first time I visited the house, I just about cried. We had to crawl through a broken door that led into the dark basement, and we did not have flashlights with us; we hadn't intended to go in. The house was dark, cold, and drafty. Dead animals were littered through the place, and I half expected one of the vagrants who had taken up residence to leap out at me. Even in the dark, I walked around with my jaw dangling at my feet. It was like stepping through a time warp. That night when I returned home, I e-mailed Professor Bankoff, who is the chairman of the anthropology and archaeology department at Brooklyn College and would be the director of the project. He was in Israel, digging at beautiful Caesarea. But when I told him about our adventures, he was very, very jealous.
Arthur Bankoff: As a high-school student (sometime in the Late Bronze Age) I used to take bike rides all over Brooklyn looking for old Dutch houses, which I first saw described in Bailey's book, Pre-Revolutionary Dutch Houses and Families of Northern New Jersey and Southern New York (I think one of my aunts had a copy of this). I had seen the Lott House as well as other houses we were later to excavate (the Duryea House, the Pieter Claeson Wyckoff House) while it was still inhabited and in good condition. So the first official visit the three of us made together upon my return from Israel was not really my first visit to the site, although I had never been on the property before.
You know everything I knew on my first visit. So you tell me: what did I do?
a) I ran in and started digging immediately, gathering pottery for a study collection for the lab. With a few student volunteers, I put holes in those areas that looked richest. I figured that we might as well know right away what this site could give us, as it didn't look too complicated or need any fancy research design. It was, after all, an abandoned house, and nobody cared what we might do with it. We located what looked like a well and possibly a privy, and marked those off for digging first, since we know that those features usually provide the most and richest artifacts on historic sites. Click here to choose a.
b) I spent a day with Chris and Alyssa walking over the house lot and inspecting the house. We photographed the house from all angles, took pictures of the overgrown grounds, talked to interested neighbors, and generally soaked up the feel of the place. We made plans to come back and get the underbrush cleared so that we could map the site and plot any visible artifact concentrations and potential features. We talked over what kinds of information we might get from this place, and what sort of research we could do. We couldn't have picked up any artifacts even if we'd wanted to, since the ground was completely covered with weeds and brush. Anyway, we were in no rush--whatever was in the ground had been there for a while and was not in immediate danger of being disturbed--and it is always a good policy to think over your research design (and live with it for a while, if possible) before beginning the destructive process of archaeology. Click here to choose b.
Discussion Questions: How else might Brooklyn College's team have spent their first site visit?
Might there have been benefits to the course of action they rejected?
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