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The Belfast Dig

Transcribed by Crist Middaugh

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Belfast Dig

By John Arden-Hopkins

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Belfast - Four thousand years ago, a group of people camped here.

In what is now the stubble of a wind-swept cornfield, archaeologists dig to find what remains of these long-forgotten people.

The cornfield itself is meticulously staked in a grid, and by digging and sifting the soil in the blocks of this grid, the researches attempt to learn more about the people who once lived here.

They were members of what are called the Lamoka people, a Stone Age culture that flourished along the banks of the Genesee at the time of Abraham in the Middle East.

“They were your basic hunter-gatherers,” explained Todd Koetje of the Department of Anthropology at SUNY Binghamton.

It is his department that is conducting the archaeological survey, and Mr. Koetje is directing the student crews who are doing the actual digging. Most of the crews are archaeology graduate students, excited to be unearthing remains of early people.

Others are just working their way through school, doing the hard physical labor that is sometimes needed to acquire knowledge.

WHY THE DIG

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State Department of Transportation plans will require disrupting the site where the crews are digging.

State law requires that a survey for antiquities be done anywhere public works projects are undertaken. The Genesee River valley is a well-known source for evidences of early North American cultures, and therefore the site, near Belfast, was a prime candidate for a survey.

It is that law that brought Mr. Koetje and his crew to Belfast.

And the antiquities are there - three feet below the surface. After the survey is complete, and whatever can be recovered from the site is collected and catalogued, the road work can go forward.

WHAT THEY FOUND

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According to Mr. Koetje, the findings in the Belfast site are pretty much what they expected - remains of charcoal from fires, flint points (commonly called arrowheads) and flakes and other evidence of habitation visible to the trained eye.

At a couple of points crews found disturbances in the soil that marked the spot where a stake was driven into the ground to support a tent or other temporary shelter - erected there at about the time Stonehenge was being built.

The remains are at a depth of about a meter (approximately 39”) from the surface, and in the excavations can be clearly seen as a darker band of soil separating two more normally-colored soil areas.

Above that band, the soil has been repeatedly disturbed by plowing and it offers little information to the researchers.

Below the band, the soil is “sterile” of any evidence of people, Mr. Koetje said.

Which means that on this site at least, this narrow band of color and artifacts is the earliest record of human habitation.

There are few evidences beyond the charcoal coloring and the stone tools, he added, because the highly acidic soil destroys bone, wood and other organic material.

The few artifacts that they have unearthed have been carefully packaged and taken back to the college.

“We found projectile points for hunting, net sinkers for fishing and a couple of post molds, which might have been from a structure,” Mr. Koetje said.

Belfast Dig 8No ground stone artifacts have been found, not have any shards of pottery.

And that is exactly what they expected, he explained, because such remains would not be made by these people.

“Agriculture and pottery are the big differences between Lamoka sites and Iroquois,” he explained.

While the Lamoka people did exploit wild plants, they did not cultivate food, nor did they have the technology to make pottery.

THE WORK

Unearthing what is left of long-forgotten cultures is a painstaking process. The muddy soil is first staked into a grid, then pits are dug, each about a meter deep and a meter and a half square.

The soil is slowly stripped away, layer by layer, and then screened for remains of ancient people.

The start eyes of the students scan the brown and ochre mud, looking for bits of stone or lumps of charcoal left by the Lamoka people.

When a flake from the making of a point or a lump of charcoal from a campfire is found, it is placed in a plastic bag.

Later laboratory analysis of the finds can determine even the species of the tree that was burned in the campfire, Mr. Koetje explained.

But in the field the prime things are locating the artifacts and clearly labeling their point of origin, depth and other factors that will allow for complete analysis of the findings at the site.

It is the screening that takes the time, the slow sifting of the soil, looking for little shreds that the ancient people dropped on the ground millennia before.

Twenty-four pits will be dug and their contents sifted before the job is complete.

The dig itself would be complete by the end of the month, all the holes will be filled, and the site will fulfill the destiny decided for it by the Department of Transportation.

But the fund of knowledge about the people who long ago walked the valley of the Genesee will be a little bit larger as a result of the efforts of these archaeologists standing in the md in an Allegany County cornfield.

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