An Archaeological Critique of Watertown, New York – Part 2

Amidst the hustle and bustle of Watertown’s Washington Street, tucked behind a short sprawl of well manicured lawn, sits an ornate red brick estate.  This is the Paddock Mansion, home to the Jefferson County Historical Society.  A combination of Tuscan villa and Swiss chalet design elements make the Paddock Mansion an abnormal landmark.  It was constructed in 1878 and transformed into a museum in 1924 through the kind donation of Olive Paddock.

I’ve been here many times throughout the course of my life, starting with visits in grade school and culminating with a volunteer opportunity in 2010.   Today happens to be one of those rare days when the halls of the Paddock mansion are not bustling with visiting school groups.  The silence allows one to immerse themselves in the elegant parlors and fully enjoy the historic treasures that adorn them.  Its summer; the museum is hot and full of rich musty smells.  History is (literally) in the air and I am itching to explore.

During my visit, the museum is hosting a special exhibition: Presidential Papers and Historic Documents.  The exhibit showcases some of the museum’s historic national documents, including two recently discovered George Washington papers, two appointments signed by Abraham Lincoln, and an 18th century land contract detailing the sale of what is now the Ohio River Valley between two Continental Congress delegates.  It is an impressive collection to say the least and displayed at a level that puts it in line with most national museums.

But this isn’t archaeology.  Nor is the beautifully decorated parlor on the first floor, or the massive wrought iron stoves or industrial equipment that occupy the lower levels.  But upstairs, I find a room dedicated to the Iroquois tribes of New York.

Within the walls of this small parlor I find projectile points in a variety of shapes and sizes, turtle shell rattles, and pieces of beautifully decorated pottery.  I’m thrilled to see “old stones”.  I appreciate the focus on Iroquois culture, religion and society within the museum’s literature, but, during the course of my forty-five minute long visit I never once encounter the word archaeology in any of the museum’s literature.

In my opinion, The Jefferson County Historical Society has mastered historic preservation, but sadly, turned a cold shoulder to archaeology within the North Country.

My phone rings and I soon find myself heading off to lunch with a group of friends.

I meet my mates at a local chain restaurant.  On the table is a video monitor where patrons can pump quarters in and play a game while they wait for their food.  I scroll through the menu and find an Egyptian themed game called Luxor.  The game description reads as follows:

The pyramids are in peril, and only your quick wits and quicker reflexes can save Egypt from certain doom! Colored spheres roll relentlessly along a convoluted track; your objective is to remove them all from the screen before they can enter your pyramid. Do you have what it takes to protect this mystical land?

I’m nearly certain that this game could take place under the guise of any ancient civilization, but popular culture has this profound hold on ancient Egypt that I could never hope to explain.  While we wait for our foods, I take the time to ask my friends if they encounter archaeology in their daily routine.  Most scratch their heads and answer ‘no’ and I’m quick to admit that I’m not blaming them for missing something that isn’t there.  I ask them to fill me in on archaeological related stories they may have heard in the news in the past few months.  They rattle off few lines about early humans remains being found in Africa.  The specifics are scant.

“How old are these remains?” I ask.

I get a variety of responses ranging from a few thousand years to 200 million years old.  I’m unsure which hominid story they are referencing, but I can easily point out that 200 million years old is off of the chart.

I head to the gym afterwards where one of the exercises on the list is referred to a Persian Pushup.  I’m not sure if the Persians actually designed them or not, but they hurt and they do conjure up the image of ancient warriors training for battle.  There’s talk amongst myself and the other gym members about the Paleo Diet, essentially a diet based off of what human beings were consuming before the advent of agriculture and processed foods.  Finally, some archaeology!  My friends don’t realize it but their participation in this dietary path is actually experimental archaeology (at least from my perspective.  I’ve written about Paleo Diet before- see previous post: Why the switch from foraging to farming?)

At dinner, my girlfriend and I share a glass of Stone Age Winery’s blush.  Unfortunatly, neither the grapes nor the wine itself comes to fruition through any special Archaic process.

The day is drawing to a close.  Alas, as the sun sets over Watertown, I must now turn my eye towards the TV.  I could spend days commenting on the number of cable television series that attempt to incorporate archaeology as a buttress for supporting some pseudo-scientific agenda, but I’ll limit myself to just the 8 -11 prime time slot and the local stations.

Surprisingly I find nothing.  I think back to Karol Kulik and her observational study of archaeology and British Television and wonder what has happened since then.  By the furthest stretch of the imagination, you may be able to relate the Fox show Bones to the field of archaeology (I believe the main character is an anthropologist).  Even networks with a higher likelihood of airing such archaeological themed programming, like PBS, are empty houses this weekend night.  Dissatisfied, I flip off the television.

My day is at an end and it’s time to award Watertown its archaeological GPA.

Conclusion

If Watertown were a college Freshman wrapping up its semester in ANTH 204 (Introduction to Archaeology), it would be carrying a shameful D average.  Watertown is severely lacking an archaeological presence.  The physical process of archaeology is all but absent from the public view.  Historic preservation, while an active process, is still lagging behind the rest of the world with several of the city’s historic landmarks falling to shambles and/or absent from the National Register.

I started this journey to become more self aware of the presence of archaeology within my hometown.  With any luck, I’d hoped to find something to build upon.  What I did not expect to find was a gaping void.  It’s apparent that any sort of public outreach program could only have a positive effect on the population’s perception of archaeology.

My observational endeavor has been an interesting experience.  I encourage other archaeologists to take a long, scrutinizing look at their own stomping ground and evaluate the presence of archaeology.  Like me, you may be surprised (and slightly disappointed) by what you find.

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