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Archaeology as Advocacy

Written by Charles Kahan '10

Excavating at the Levanna site. Photos courtesy of Professor Jack Rossen

Histories of past cultures have always interested me, but I was drawn to Professor Jack Rossen’s Archaeological Field School at Levanna, near the shores of Cayuga Lake, because I’d get to work alongside the descendants of the Cayuga people who had lived there more than a thousand years ago.

The Cayuga from the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario who joined our class in the excavation shed light on a multitude of topics and controversies, past and present: the current border and native passport recognition rallies; land ownership claims; the repatriation of skeletons, artifacts, and sacred objects from museums and private collections; and fulfillment of that which was promised in treaties that had been broken.

Throughout the six-and-a-half-week course, we implemented the archaeological techniques and methods that professionals use to obtain their information.

We started by clearing and surveying the site, marking out one-meter-by-two-meter plots for excavation, dividing them then in half. Each team of two would have a one-by-one-meter section to work on. Next we began precise excavation with trowels, brushes, and fine-hair combs.

Sifting dirt through screens to find small artifacts

Sifting dirt through screens to find small artifacts

It was a very National Geographic experience for me: While excavating we ran dirt through screens, collected dirt samples to float for seeds and charcoal, and marked out and mapped features such as storage pits, fire hearths, and trash piles.

The density of artifacts was so high that the whole crew kept busy the entire time -- we retrieved about 1,000 per day!

Not only were there an amazing number of artifacts, but the variety was astounding: grinding stones, grinding palates, stone hoe blades, stone knives and scrapers, arrowheads of two distinct kinds, clay pipes, broken ceramics and pot rims, bone fish hooks, stone jewelry, animal bones, and preforms.

These artifacts, along with other clues gleaned from the excavation of Levanna, help build a history that can benefit the Cayuga cause.

In the courts, Native Americans are attempting to repatriate artifacts and skeletons that are locked up in museums or on display in private collections, returning these sacred objects to their rightful descendants.

There are also many land-claim issues circulating the court system. In dating the site, we can give a time period during which this culture thrived, securing in history that the Cayuga are in fact the original inhabitants of this land.

I hope this new knowledge will have a profound effect in deciding the court cases and resolving the controversies currently surrounding the Native Indians.

Not long after the course ended, the skeletal remains of nearly 200 Indians were turned over to the Onondaga.

A federal review board had decided a case in favor of the Onondaga, who were seeking repatriation of the remains, along with funerary objects, being held by the New York State Museum.

Unearthed in 1967 during the construction of the Southern Tier Expressway south of Ithaca, the remains date from 1000 to 1550.

In a recent ceremony on the Onondaga reservation, those bones were once again put to rest.



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