During the rebuilding of its elementary school, officials from the Owego Apalachin Central School District brought in the Binghamton University Public Archaeology Facility (PAF) to help examine the school grounds. During the excavation, the BU team unearthed Native American artifacts that are over 3,000 years old.
After the building was destroyed by flooding during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, the BU PAF was hired by the district in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as they rebuilt the school.
According to the act, if construction is to be done on public land, a section of the area must first be examined to determine if it meets one of the criteria for a historic site. These criteria include the site having significance to the formation of the United States or native populations, importance to cultural foundations of the nation and the preservation of the area in a way that benefits the public’s understanding of history.
In its excavation, the archaeological group found over 500 prehistoric artifacts, including multiple projectile points from spears or darts. The dating of the artifacts placed them around 1,500 B.C. before the invention of the bow and arrow. In addition, researchers were able to determine that the artifacts were likely left by a nomadic group during a nut collection based on hickory and butternut shells preserved in the area.
The funds and permits for the excavation were provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which also provided assistance in the area following the tropical storm. The BU PAF was called in because of their prior relationship working with the school to put on different educational programs for elementary school students and their proximity to the site.
According to Nina Versaggi, director of the PAF and an associate professor of anthropology, the facility moved through a three-phase process while in communication with both FEMA and district officials.
First, they determined if there was an archaeological site at the elementary school by examining the soil for artifacts. Next, the site was considered according to the guidelines put out in the National Historic Preservation Act to determine if it had historical significance to Native American tribes. After the excavation, FEMA communicated with Native American groups, from the Onondaga and Seneca Nations, so that their wishes for the preservation of the artifacts could be taken into account.
Versaggi stressed that even though the artifacts may be from a time before the United States was founded as a colony and then a nation, preservation of the artifacts is still important to the commemoration of the development of the United States.
“When the federal law comes out and says that preservation is in the public interest it takes on a much higher avenue of respect for preservation and heritage,” Versaggi said. “So, the process the law spelled out was to satisfy that very important principle that whatever you do, you shouldn’t be destroying the heritage that makes us Americans.”
Among the requests from the Onondoga representative was to put on a program, with the PAF, for the children who attend Owego Apalachin Elementary School about the artifacts found beneath their school.
Andrea Kozub, the project director and faunal analyst for the PAF, helped work on-site in the discovery of the artifacts. She felt that smaller archaeological sites had not been properly utilized in understanding prehistoric life.
“In the past, the importance of smaller encampments the Owego Elementary School were overlooked or the sites were dismissed with little investigation, and yet we know that people were not living in big villages all the time,” Kozub wrote in an email. “They used the whole landscape in a variety of ways. So preserving the information about these sites before they are impacted by construction is essential to having a three dimensional understanding of how people lived.”
Versaggi hoped that the discovery of prehistoric artifacts locally could help remind people that even though they can feel very far from the prehistoric past, it is still an important part of human heritage.
“You and I do not have to be related to the past that we’re involved in, the land that we’re standing on, but we have a stewardship responsibility,” Versaggi said. “And that is to others that have come before us.”