Archaeology can help us uncover our past — but only if we preserve the sites

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

A large Colonial home and perhaps a blockhouse stood on Mill Hill where this senior facility is now; the Ballet Barn is in the background. 

Archaeology is important. Although it didn’t become a science until the 19th Century, humans since ancient times have been interested in their history.

As far back as the sixth century, Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, excavated and restored sites from more than a millennium before that.

Even earlier, Herodatus, the ancient Greek historian, studied artifacts to systematically explore the past. 

Around the world, various civilizations over time have sought to understand their history by looking to the physical objects from the past.

We’re writing about this now because earlier this year, we accompanied two Guilderland sleuths on one of their explorations of the past. Mark O’Brien and John McCormick were spurred by a question their middle-school history teacher, John Farley, had asked a half-century ago.

The pair, friends since boyhood, had frequently played together along the banks of the Blockhouse Creek.

“We frolicked in the woods,” recalled McCormick.

When Farley heard O’Brien say he crossed the Blockhouse Creek on his way to school, the teacher asked where the blockhouse is, recalled O’Brien, a question that has haunted the pair ever since.

Both men, each in their mid-sixties, are now retired. This past summer, they decided to answer their history teacher’s question from long ago and followed the course of the creek.

“We’re like the Hardy boys,” said McCormick, referencing the teenage sleuths from 20th Century childhood books who solved mysteries that eluded adults.

They thought they had found the blockhouse, hiding in plain sight on town property in what is colloquially called the Ballet Barn on Mill Hill. Jane DeRook, O’Brien’s doctor when he was a boy, had founded the Guilderland Ballet, which had held classes in the town-owned barn.

They saw fieldstone packed between the studs of the old barn and surmised it was a defense against musket balls or stone-tipped arrows.

O’Brien has since revised his thinking and now believes that the Ballet Barn was a colonial home with the blockhouse, as described in period accounts, further up the hill where a facility for the elderly now stands.

Based on period maps, O’Brien believes the original part of the town-owned barn was built between 1852 and 1853 and is the last freestanding Veeder building. John Bullock Veeder was the father of Peter, a member of Guilderland’s first town council, listed as living there in an 1866 map.

With his boundless enthusiasm for unearthing local history and literally mapping out the way Guilderland looked centuries ago, O’Brien has put together a group of residents who live now in houses built by the Notts more than two centuries ago: Normanvale, The Cooper House, and The Joel Nott House.

Together, with other advocates for preserving local history, they attended a Guilderland zoning board meeting March 6 to express their concerns about archeological sites that might be obliterated with a proposed residential subdivision northeast of Nott Road Park and south of Nott Road.

The developer, Jared George of JRG Builders, told the zoning board he was trying to be proactive in seeking a variance for the prospective buyers of the half-million-dollar homes he plans to build. On two of the four lots, to keep the houses away from busy State Farm Road, their backyards would be in the 100-foot watercourse buffer.

He sought a preemptive variance so that those homebuyers could build a pool or shed or deck in their backyards without coming before the zoning board. The board’s chairwoman, Elizabeth Lott, likened that to issuing a blank check, and the variance was unanimously denied. The developer dangled before the board a 30-acre property donation that “may” be made to the town, which Robyn Gray of the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth told the board sounded like quid pro quo.

Three streams run through the 35-acre property — the Kaikout Kill, Blockhouse Creek, and the Hungerkill — and the bulk of the discussion was about adequately buffering the streams. “A 100-year flood could be a 10-year flood,” said Lott, alluding to effects of climate change.

Jim Kelly, who lives in the historic Nott House bordering the proposed development, spoke of the importance of Normanvale and the need to “keep the history and continuity” for research.

O’Brien also spoke to the board about his research on the history of the area and said that, by using Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, he had found three dams on the property going back 350 years, and that the 35 acres owned by JRG Builders was the site of Volkert Veeder’s 17th-Century mill.

“You can just pick up artifacts,” O’Brien told the board.

Jessica Schreyer, the program coordinator for the Division of Historic Preservation, part of the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, is aware of archeological sites in the vicinity and has requested more information from the applicant.

“We haven’t issued recommendations yet,” Schreyer said in an email sent to The Enterprise on March 29 through Parks’ public-relations office. The Enterprise had first emailed questions to Schreyer on Feb. 9, which had to be handled through the public relations office.

Basically, we wanted to be able to explain to our readers how and why the state protects archeological sites and also why Schreyer had made this her life’s work.

“I was attracted to archaeology because of my interest in learning about the past,” wrote Schreyer, who has been with the Division of Historic Preservation since 2020. “I appreciate the archaeology field’s blend of history, science, writing, and being outdoors. I hold a master’s degree in anthropology. All of my colleagues in the archaeology unit have either a Ph.D. or a master’s degree.”

Her division divides the state into four sections “based on the number of projects that are submitted to us,” Schreyer wrote. “More densely populated areas often have more development and therefore more projects come to us for review from those areas.”

Asked what triggers an archaeological review by her unit, Schreyer responded, “The archaeology unit is assigned to projects submitted to our office where soil disturbance is proposed.”

“We don’t know about a project until it is submitted to us,” one of the members of Schreyer’s team told us earlier.

Asked about how archeological sites are protected, Schreyer responded, “When an archaeological site is identified that can provide important information about the past, we first recommend that the archaeological site be avoided by all project impacts. Many archaeological sites are preserved because the developer or applicant agrees to avoid and preserve the site.”

Asked about protected sites in Albany County, Schreyer said, “It is our policy that we do not share archaeological site locations with the public. This protects the interests of both landowners and the descendants of the site’s inhabitants.”

She added of the places in Guilderland that O’Brien and his friends are excited about, “Our office is aware of the Blockhouse Creek Mill Sites and the Veeder Mills Site, but they appear in our files to be on private property, not town property.”

The outbuildings of the former Guilderland Ballet Barn, which are on town property, have not been individually evaluated for National Register of Historic Preservation eligibility, she said.

Finally, we noted that the sites O’Brien and his band of historic homeowners are concerned about is near the town’s Nott Road Park, and we asked Schreyer if it would be good to have an archeological site in a town park, so it won’t be developed, or bad because the public may disturb it.

“Archaeological sites in parks,” she responded, “are often better protected because communities tend to value their parks as natural and conservation areas.”

With only this limited information at hand, we would still like to propose that this developer as well as other developers in our rapidly developing town consider donating land, if it is determined to have an archeological site, to the town.

The town could encourage this by offering incentives to developers.

We learned much from an anthropologist last year, Thomas W. Plummer, who was eager to share his work with us in an Enterprise podcast.

Plummer, an anthropology professor at Queens College who grew up in Guilderland Center, is the lead author on the study that was published last year in Science. The discoveries he made in an archeological dig at Nyayanga on Kenya’s Homa Peninsula could change our understanding of the origins of toolmaking. Plummer posits that early humans may not have been the only ones making and using stone tools.

“Humanity is a technologically dependent species …,” Plummer told us. “Our survival is dependent on technology.”

Having stone tools was “a huge breakthrough,” says Plummer. “I don’t think we’d be here today talking on computers if this technology hadn’t come about because what you see during the course of human evolution is an increase in brain size over time. And that’s being fueled by changes in the diet and the dietary improvements you get.”

While the tools being uncovered in Africa used by ancestors of humans may seem to have little relevance to protecting an archeological site in Guilderland, what they share is both provide the ability to learn about our past, our evolution, from objects that are left behind.

One of the things O’Brien and McCormick found with their sleuthing along the Blockhouse Creek was an experimental wheel from the 1800s invented by Joel Benedict Nott to help the mill run more efficiently. O’Brien looked up Nott’s 1852 patent for the “water wheel,” complete with a sketch.

Another aspect that the archaeology in Africa shares with the archaeology of local sites has to do both with the tedium of the work and at the same time with the leaps of imagination that are required to understand the past.

Plummer said that, as a boy, working his family’s land in Guilderland Center, the tedious work outdoors prepared him for work as an archeologist.

“I was used to being out in the sun, doing kind of mind-numbing work, which is what a lot of archaeology is,” Plummer said. “When you start out, right, you’re just digging. You don’t know what you’re going to find … So it’s the treasure-hunting aspect of it — but sometimes you find nothing.”

At the site in Kenya, local excavators are hired who are “interested in what’s going on and help protect the sites,” Plummer said, much as locals here might become protective of sites once informed of their worth.  

At the same time he does tedious work, Plummer can vividly imagine a world from millions of years ago where human ancestors were creatures like any other.

He said he’s had a good imagination since he was a kid.

That helps him as an archeologist, he said. “You’re thinking about places that may not look exactly like anywhere that exists today. So you need to sort of use the evidence you have in front of you from the geology and the plant remains and the animal remains and the stone tools — and try to put it together in a way that is as true as you can make to what existed in the past.”

That’s the same sort of reconstruction that O’Brien and his friends are trying to do in Guilderland, imagining life here from centuries ago. We hope others see the value in preserving the sites that hold these clues to our past so that future generations will know from whence we came.

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