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Anthropology Class Touches the Past at Old Fort Niagara

Posted: June 20, 2017

Under a bright June sky, with Lake Ontario shimmering nearby, it’s easy to forget that Old Fort Niagara was the site of deaths from disease, harsh weather, and bitter battles from 1678 through the War of 1812.

Eleven students participating in Buffalo State’s archaeological field school, however, are holding the past in their hands as they uncover artifacts at this year’s dig. Sue Maguire, associate professor of anthropology, explained that the students were looking for the foundation of a British barracks from the Revolutionary War period. “We used historic maps and records from previous excavations to find the location,” she said. “Kevin Williams [associate professor of earth science] used ground penetrating radar to help us pinpoint the location of the barracks.”

Maguire, who leads the archaeological field school at Old Fort Niagara every other year, works closely with the Old Fort Niagara Association to identify relevant research questions to be investigated. This year, the fort is focusing on the Revolutionary War. “This excavation site is an active part of the fort's interpretive program," she said.  "I work with Jere Brubaker, assistant director and curator, to develop background material from which the students can create their own narrative to use when discussing the project with the public.” Every day, a designated student is available to share information and artifacts with interested visitors.

A musket ball, white earthenware from the early 1800s, and buttons worn by American soldiers from the First Regiment of Artillery just prior to the War of 1812 are on display. Among the oldest items are a King George II half-penny from about 1759 and an Archaic period stone knife blade.  As the students excavate—carefully, layer by layer, with trowels—more evidence of occupation is discovered.

Three test units, each two meters square, were marked off along the lines where the barracks once stood. After removing the sod, the excavation begins in earnest. Students learn to identify layers by the changes in the soil’s composition and to look for artifacts by sight and touch. They put all the soil in buckets to be sifted and shaken through screens, so that any artifacts missed during excavation are found. All the artifacts from a layer are placed in a carefully labeled bag for transport to the Old Fort Niagara Association’s Collections Care Center, where they will be cleaned, analyzed, and retained for future research and/or exhibit.

Among the artifacts are bones—not human remains, but remains of meals eaten long ago. Melanie Mayberry, a physical anthropologist and adjunct professor of anthropology, helps with field identification of the animal bones. “We might have a bone from a bear paw,” she said.

Cynthia Lopez, one of several criminal justice majors participating in the project, said the work is very engaging. “I’m enjoying the contact with the public, too,” she said. “It’s helping me a lot with my public speaking.”

“Being part of the dig and doing hands-on work brings out different skills than classroom work,” said Maguire. “You can see the light bulbs go on as students see the link between textbooks, research, and field work.”

The students’ stories and the progress on the dig are reported daily on the Facebook page maintained by Mayberry. On Wednesday, June 21, the Anthropology Department will host Buffalo State Day from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Buffalo State students, anthropology alumni, faculty, and staff can visit free of charge with a valid Buffalo State ID card.

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