Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NY historic site's skeletons still hold mystery

They ranged in age from 20 to 45, stood between just over 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 9 inches tall, and most of them were male and intact, except for the one missing its skull.

Five years after human skeletons were uncovered on a historic island in the upper Hudson River by a husband-and-wife team of amateur archaeologists, New York state officials are revealing what professional archaeologists learned from the remains.

archaeology excavations

Evidence found in seven unmarked graves unearthed on Rogers Island in 2006 suggests the site was a military cemetery during the French and Indian War, according to archaeologists at the New York State Museum, which was contracted by the property's owner to examine the remains. The state Department of Education, which operates the museum, recently released the archaeologists' findings to The Associated Press.

Christina Rieth, the state's chief archaeologist, believes the site in the village of Fort Edward likely contains a large cemetery dating back to the 1750s, when Britain established its largest fortification in North America on the east bank of the upper Hudson, 45 miles north of Albany. Lisa Anderson, one of the state archaeologists who examined the remains, agreed.

"There's clear evidence of additional burials nearby," she told the AP.

That view supports the belief of JoAnne and Richard Fuller, the Fort Edward couple who discovered the graves on the property of Long Island businessman Frank Nastasi, a history buff who had hired the Fullers to take care of his 34-acre wooded parcel, once part of a frontier outpost that was home to thousands of redcoats and American provincial troops, and the base of operations for the famed Rogers' Rangers.

While searching the property for remnants of a colonial-era barracks, the Fullers found human bones on the ground. In the spring of 2006, they discovered seven graves containing human skeletons. With Nastasi's approval, they used ground-penetrating radar to search for other graves and identified what they believe are about 250 other burial plots spaced 4 feet apart and arrayed in rows. JoAnne Fuller believes many of the undisturbed graves contain more than one body, a common burial practice on the 18th-century frontier.

The Fullers' discovery was the first evidence of mass human burials on the island, despite extensive amateur and professional archaeological excavations conducted in recent decades.

"There was never a map showing that burial ground," Richard Fuller told the AP recently.

After the Fullers uncovered the graves, archaeologists from the State Museum in Albany spent several weeks at the site in 2006, taking measurements of the skeletons and looking for artifacts. The scope of their work was limited by the stipulations of Nastasi's contract, which didn't allow additional grave archaeology excavations or the removal of the uncovered remains. The agreement also prohibited the state from releasing the archaeologists' findings, according to Education Department officials.

The agency released the information earlier this month under a Freedom of Information Law request from the AP.

Several buttons found in two of the graves resemble Colonial-era uniform buttons unearthed on other parts of the island during earlier digs, leading the state archaeologists to believe the graves date back to the French and Indian War (1755-63).

Their examination of the seven skeletons revealed that the average age at death was 33 and the average height just under 5-feet-7. Five were male, while the gender of two others couldn't be positively determined. Fragments of an eighth skeleton were also examined.

None of the skeletons showed obvious causes of death, disease or trauma, although one set of remains was missing its skull. Rogers Island was home to a British army smallpox hospital during the war, but some potentially fatal diseases such as smallpox don't leave traces on human bones, Anderson said.

The archaeologists still don't know the identity of the skeletons the Fullers uncovered. They could be some of the hundreds of soldiers known to have died at Fort Edward between 1755-59, when some 15,000 troops occupied a sprawling complex that included barracks and huts on Rogers Island. Most of the deaths were caused by illness or disease, others from wounds suffered in skirmishes with French and Indian forces near the fort and farther north in the Adirondack wilderness.

The burials could include members of Rogers' Rangers, frontiersmen who served as the British army's main scouting force in the Lake George-Lake Champlain corridor. Led by Maj. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire, the Rangers were skilled in the hit-and-run tactics favored by their Indian foes. In 1757, Rogers wrote his "Rules of Ranging" while at Rogers Island.

His list of wilderness combat do's and don'ts has been used for decades as a small unit catechism for U.S. commando training, including the Army Rangers.

Upon Nastasi's death in 2007, ownership of the Rogers Island property passed to his son, Anthony, a Long Island contractor. The younger Nastasi has said he plans to honor his father's wishes that the property become a public park. After the state backed off from buying the site because of budget problems, the village and town entered the picture. Local officials have applied for a state grant that would enable the village and town to purchase the land, with the intention of turning it into a tourist attraction.

"We always suspected there were graves there," said Neal Orsini, a town board member in Fort Edward, long known for yielding 18th-century military artifacts. "You never know what you'll find. Everywhere you stick a shovel, something comes up."

After the state archaeologists finished their work in 2006, the skeletons were reburied where they lay. There are no immediate plans to search for more graves at the site, state and local officials said. Anthony Nastasi said he wouldn't object to more extensive excavations at the cemetery site.

"I'd love to see what's there," he told the AP.

If the local governments succeed in obtaining the Nastasi property, officials will have to decide how best to preserve the site, another archaeologist said.

"It potentially could be one of the most significant cemeteries of the period," said David Starbuck, a New Hampshire college professor who has led several archaeological digs on Rogers Island and in Fort Edward.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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