Stone houses, 350-year-old documents in old Dutch, even a wampum belt: The Hudson Valley doesn’t lack for history. But it turns out that human presence in the area goes back much, much further: to 10,000 BC, a few thousand years after the last ice sheet retreated. Dr. Joseph Diamond, professor of Archaeology at SUNY-New Paltz, is one of the few people who have provided the evidence, digging up and identifying fragments of stone tools of unimaginable age from sites beneath city streets and under riverbanks.
In 1998, Diamond set up a summer field school for his students at Historic Huguenot Street, which has been a rich source of artifacts, and he has worked on digs from New York City to Canada. A native of Ulster County who was been fascinated with archaeology since the sixth grade, Diamond recently spoke at Kingston’s Buried Treasures monthly lecture series and to Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods about his latest finds and what they tell us about life in the mid-Hudson Valley thousands of years ago.
Last summer Kingston installed new bluestone sidewalks and curbs on Abeel Street, located in the Rondout District along the Rondout Creek. Your field technician Frank Spade was on the site and discovered a trove of artifacts. What are the requirements to have an archaeologist on-site for a project?
Whenever an excavation project involves state and/or federal funding, as this one did, you need to have an archaeological survey or monitoring. Either an archaeologist is required to do a survey beforehand, or be at the site while the work is being done, as was the case at Abeel Street.
What did Frank find?
He started to find prehistoric tools in some of the fill the workers were moving around when they were putting in new water and gas lines and redoing the road and sidewalks. He came to one location that looked like the original soil and excavated 12 one-meter squares, where he got a nice group of artifacts dating from circa 6,000 BC to circa 800 AD.
Where exactly was this?
Across from the Armadillo restaurant, by the site of the former Forst Meatpacking Plant. That site, where he found projectile points, knives and other artifacts, was called Abeel Street Pre-Contact Site #1. A second site, called Abeel Street Pre-Contact Site #2, was on the eastern side of Abeel Street and uphill from Broadway.
Describe some of the major finds.
A nutting stone, used for cracking nuts, which was big enough to fit in your hand and was pitted on two sides. One hammerstone, which was used for making stone tools. It’s a round stone with battering on one end. Two scrapers. Probably around ten knifelike objects, which were used for cutting or were preforms for another tool such as a projectile point. We found nine projectile points, and point fragments. Also, one little fragment of reddish-brown prehistoric pottery, which was manufactured by the coil method.
Downtown Kingston was developed in the 19th century, so it seems amazing there would be undisturbed soil from thousands of years ago.
We were lucky to get that one section of soil that hadn’t been disturbed from the 19th century until the early 1900s. During construction episodes on Abeel Street they took off the dark soil on top but didn’t get into the yellow subsoil, where the artifacts were, which was about 20 inches down from the sidewalk. We were surprised to find anything at all stratified and still intact, which means there are probably other places in Kingston with a similar situation.
What do the artifacts tell us about the area?
We have a very early occupation right in the downtown Rondout area, dating from circa 6,000 BC to c. 800 AD. The climate would have been similar, with species such as chestnut, acorn, butternut, walnut and hickory providing food for people. We have all of those today, with the exception of the chestnut.
Native Americans of this time period would have had what we call a restricted or seasonal pattern of mobility. People were living all around the area, moving from one locale to another seasonally. They would have been moving from the Town of Ulster to Hurley, down to Rosendale, around Port Ewen and the Town of Esopus. They would have been along the Hudson and its tributaries when the shad and herring, striped bass and sturgeon were migrating in the spring and moved to the high locations along the rivers in the fall to harvest nuts.
They hunted for turtles, rabbits, squirrels, deer and probably elk, of which there was a decent population then, all year long. Also they would have hunted for bear, beaver and river otter, as well as migratory waterfowl in the spring and fall. They would also have gathered fruits such as berries when they became available in the spring and summer. All in all, they were hunters and gatherers who took advantage of all the food resources that the Hudson Valley had to offer.
When did farming start here?
By around 800 AD they would have had horticulture or agriculture, combined with hunting and gathering.
What were their houses like?
Back in 6,000 BC, circular or oblong houses made of saplings covered with elm bark. Later, the houses got larger and became long ovals or long rectangles constructed out of saplings with a covering of elm bark.