Losing Ground: Preserving New York’s Historic Battlefields

This February, a new documentary focusing on the War of 1812 airs on WCNY.  Entitled Losing Ground, the documentary will focus on the ongoing struggle archaeologists and historians face in New York State to preserve sites associated with the War of 1812.

From WCNY:

Walking past any patch of land along the shore of Lake Ontario, many would not immediately recognize the rocky coast as bearing witness to some of our nation’s most notorious conflicts. The depth of the Great Lakes and their wind-swept shores hold the memories of a war; waged between a young American republic, growing Canadian territories and a bruised British empire.

Many historians distinguish the War of 1812 as America’s second battle for independence. Trade embargos, sailor impressment and Indian land expansion were among the larger grievances that pitted the newly minted United States against a British Empire still wrapped up in the Napoleonic Wars. And although it is considered a minor engagement, the War of 1812 remains an important turning point in our nation’s history. It was the first war America would wage under its freshly printed constitution. The conflict ignited a fierce spark of patriotism and pride that would help usher the country into a new age of prosperity.

200 years later, celebrations across New York and Canada commemorate the veterans and battlefields of the War of 1812. But with each passing year, there is less and less physical evidence of this significant part of New York history. As the population grows and unchecked development expands, preservationists worry that the lands that played a vital role in U.S. history are disappearing at an alarming rate. Once they are gone, so too are the opportunities of enrichment for generations of future Americans.

Dear House, Continue to support publicly funded archaeological research

On September 30, 2013, Reps. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX) published an opinion piece in USA Today arguing for a reassessment of how the National Science Foundation (NSF) awards its research grants. Cantor and Smith questioned “why the NSF chooses to fund social science research including archaeology…over projects that could help our wounded warriors to save lives.” The Representatives argued that we must reprioritize “the government’s research spending in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life.” You can read The Society for Historical Archaeology’s President, Paul Mullins’ response here.

This attack comes at a time when funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), another source for publicly-funded archaeological research, is facing a proposed 49% cut in the House of Representatives.

The Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) is reminding our lawmakers about the economic, social, and cultural values of publicly-funded archaeological research. If you believe that Archaeology Matters and want to voice support for continued federal funding that supports archaeological research, please:

1. Sign this petition
2. Share this petition with your friends, colleagues, family, and the communities you work with through email, Facebook, and Twitter. Tell them #WhyArchMatters to you, and how it benefits them.

When you sign the petition, the following message will be sent to Representatives Cantor and Smith on your behalf:

To Representatives Cantor and Smith:

NSF funding for archaeological research currently represents only 0.1% of NSF’s budget. This level of funding is very small and has little or no impact on the funding levels for other types of NSF programs; however, this 0.1% funds a wide range of archaeological studies that directly benefit American citizens, both culturally and economically. NSF-funded archaeological research:

– Brings together the economic benefits of preservation, heritage tourism, and job opportunities in a variety of fields (cultural resource management, museums, academia, and others)

– Provides unique educational and enrichment opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds

– Encompasses a broad range of scientific research fields, making science interesting and relevant to elementary, middle school, and high school students. It is a platform for promoting science in American educational programs.

Archaeology matters. We urge you to support continued NSF funding for archaeological research.

Click here to continue to Change.org and sign the petition.

2012 New York State Archaeology Season

Today marks the official start of the 2012 New York State Archaeology season.

New York State has a rich and long history and prehistory. Each year new archaeological sites are discovered across the state. These provide important information for understanding human activity and interaction with the landscape over the last 12,000 years. However, all archaeological sites represent fragile, non-renewable resources that are in danger of being impacted on a daily basis. For more than a decade archaeologists across the state have worked together to help raise awareness of the archaeological resources of the state, as well as to encourage stewardship of these important pieces of our human history and to provide opportunities for the general public to become involved.  In recognition of the fact that important archaeological work continues throughout the year, the organizations involved have decided to celebrate Archaeology Season. Archaeology Season stretches from the Spring through the Fall and offers plenty of opportunities for the public to get involved through visiting excavations in progress, attending presentations on important sites, artifact identification days, and other events.  Events will be sponsored by many individuals and organizations and will take place throughout the season.  A list of events can be found here.

For the next five months I’ll be giving precedence to archaeological happenings in the Empire State.  Are you digging in New York?  Is your research based on the Empire State’s exciting history or prehistory?  Sexy Archaeology would love to help raise awareness!  Send your links, stories and photographs to sexyarchaeology@gmail.com, tag your tweets on Twitter with #NYSArch and #pubarch, and join our Facebook page.

Happy digging!

Urgent Call to Action: Help Oppose New Reality TV Series American Digger

This post comes courtesy of the North Carolina Archaeological Society (NCAS).  The Society’s most recent newsletter addresses the problem the archaeological community has with the American Diggers and Diggers television series.  It also provides a handful of talking points and the contact information for parties related to the production of both series.

Two main goals of the North Carolina Archaeological Society are to promote responsible attitudes toward archaeological resources and to discourage careless and destructive activities.  The Society relies on its members to help achieve these goals, and right now your help is urgently needed!

This spring, Spike TV plans to air American Digger, a reality series following native North Carolinian and former professional wrestler Ric Savage and his American Savage team as they plunder archaeological resources across America.  According to the show’s teaser, “Once the team identifies an area they think is ripe with high-value artifacts and relics, they’ll have to convince the current homeowner to give them permission to dig up their backyard. If American Savage is persuasive enough, they’ll get a chance to dig up the tenant’s backyard using their state-of-the-art equipment, and divide the cash they get from selling the artifacts they find there with the tenant.”

Last month, the National Geographic Channel (NGC) launched a similar show, Diggers.  NGC has already aired reruns of the first episodes, and Diggers has become a topic of discussion in online forums devoted to metal detecting and treasure hunting.

Both of these new reality shows encourage the destruction of archaeological resources for profit and rob current and future generations of opportunities to understand and learn from history.  The Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the Society for Historical Archaeology, and other professional and avocational archaeology societies strongly condemn the shows and have launched campaigns to raise awareness and encourage action.

In response, NGC has agreed to run a disclaimer informing viewers that there are laws protecting archaeological resources.  According to a recent memo sent to SAA members by president Fred Limp, NGC has also expressed willingness “to enter into discussions with the archaeological community to determine how to raise awareness of the impacts of the use of metal detectors for treasure hunting.

”As of this writing, Spike TV has yet to formally respond to archaeologists’ concerns.  However, the Huffington Post reported on March 2, 2012 that the station’s spokesperson Shana Tepper maintains that because American Digger is filmed on private property, Savage and his crew are “getting artifacts that are otherwise rotting in the ground.”

Please join NCAS board members in expressing your own concerns about the airing of American Digger by writing the companies involved. Contact information and talking points are provided below.

Talking Points:

  • Rather than encouraging a responsible attitude toward archaeological resources, this show encourages destructive and careless activities that will rob current and future generations of the chance to understand and learn from their shared past.
  • Archaeological resources are limited and irreplaceable.  They should be left in the ground until responsible and scientific methods can be used to ensure that important information is not lost during their removal.
  • Some states (including North Carolina) have laws protecting all unmarked human burials and skeletal remains, even those located on private property.
  • The methods and behaviors that American Digger promotes are not only irresponsible but also disrespectful toward descendent populations.  By normalizing and glamorizing such behaviors, the show may encourage viewers to imitate them.


Scott Gurney and Deirdre Gurney Gurney Productions, Inc.
8929 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 510
Los Angeles, California 90045


Kevin Kay President, Spike TV
1633 Broadway
New York, New York 10019


Stephen K. Friedman
President, MTV
c/o MTV Studios 1515 Broadway
New York, New York 10036


Shana Tepper
Spike TV Spokesperson


Philippe Dauman
President and Chief Executive Officer Viacom Inc.
1515 Broadway
New York, New York 10036


I highly suggest contacting your state, regional and/or local archaeological society and asking them to comment on the subject of these two series in their newsletter or at their next meeting.

89 years ago today

Remember the Golden Age of Egyptian archaeology?  Before everything came stamped with the face of Zahi Hawass?  If you do, you might be aware that today is the anniversary of the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

On Feb. 16, 1923, the burial chamber of King Tutankhamen’s recently unearthed tomb was unsealed in Egypt. The New York Times called it “perhaps, the most extraordinary day in the whole history of Egyptian excavation.”

King Tutankhamen’s tomb is situated in the Valley of the Kings, east of the Nile River in Egypt. In 1907, the English archaeologist Edward Russell Ayrton uncovered a pit in the area containing pots, dishes and other objects belonging to Tutankhamun, then a relatively unknown 14th-century B.C. pharaoh. Mr. Ayrton’s sponsor, the American Theodore M. Davis, proclaimed that he had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb and donated some of the objects to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. After years of study, Herbert Winlock, a curator at the Met, determined that the objects were left over from the embalming process and funeral, and that the pit was not actually Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Mr. Winlock theorized that Tutankhamun was likely buried nearby. The English archaeologist Howard Carter corresponded with Mr. Winlock and decided to search for the tomb. Funded by Lord Carnarvon, he began excavating the area in 1914 and found nothing for seven years. Lord Carnarvon considered giving up.

On Nov. 4, 1922, Mr. Carter finally uncovered the door of Tutankhamun’s tomb. After three weeks of removing stone and rubble from a corridor behind the door, Mr. Carter reached a second sealed door. With Lord Carnarvon watching, Mr. Carter opened the door slightly and held up a candle that revealed gold statues, beds and hundreds of other objects in the room behind the door.

Mr. Carter and his team spent nearly three months cataloging and removing objects from the tomb before he was able to reach the burial tomb. On Feb. 16, he began taking down the door to the burial tomb. “It finally ended in a wonderful revelation,” The Times wrote, “for before the spectators was the resplendent mausoleum of the king, a spacious and beautifully decorated chamber completely occupied by an immense shrine covered with gold inlaid with brilliant blue faience. This beautiful wooden construction towers nearly to the ceiling and fills the great sepulchral hall within a short span of its four walls. Its sides are adorned with magnificent religious texts and fearful symbols of the dead.”

Tutankhamun’s tomb was and remains the best preserved royal tomb ever discovered. Mr. Carter spent the next eight years removing objects from the tomb, most of which are now held at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or displayed on tours. He opened Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus in February 1924, revealing the pharaoh’s mummy for the first time. His mummy remained in the tomb until 2007, when it was removed from the sarcophagus, placed in a climate-controlled box and displayed at a museum in Luxor, Egypt. The mummy has since been returned to the tomb, where it is displayed on tours.

A Statement by Professor Mick Aston

The following was posted on the Time Team Facebook page tonight.  Seeing as I hate leaving things unsorted, or loose ends blowing in the wind, I figured I’d post Prof. Mick’s words.  If you’ve been following any of this, it is important you read:

A Statement by Professor Mick Aston. (13 Feb 2012)

As a result of my interview in British Archaeology there have been many comments and articles which misinterpret completely the points I was trying to make, which were about aspects of the television production side.

There is nothing that I have said in the interview with Mike Pitts that is in anyway to do with the archaeological side of Time Team.

Nobody should draw any conclusion from what I have been quoted as saying that I am at all unhappy with the standard of archaeological work that has been carried out over the last few series including last year.

I think the archaeology that was done this year, including the sites I was not on, was really, really good and this has been the case for several years now. 

I have complete confidence in colleagues like Francis, John, Jacqui, and the digging team.  People like Jim in development and Tim Taylor, as well as the post excavation work done by Wessex Archaeology, and these people will make sure that the archaeology is done properly, whatever happens on the TV production side.

I don’t think there has ever been a doubt that the archaeological work (the science and proceedure) performed on this series is anything less than exemplary.  Again, I think a lot of people have been up in arms about the way the program has been structured as of late and the very forboading words that network wants to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology.”  While I certainly think that Prof. Mick’s words offer a degree of clarification and take him out of the fray, I feel an aura of uncertainity still hangs about the show.

So if that’s settled, then the ball is in the series court now.  If quality televisions continues to flow from Channel 4, this will be nothing more than a footnote in the legacy of a legendary series.  But if the viewership continues to vent qualms about the current and future incarnation, this could be apex of a mighty terrible bell curve.

Time will tell.



Piltdown Man: British archaeology’s greatest hoax

In a few weeks, a group of British researchers will enter the labyrinthine store of London’s Natural History Museum and remove several dark-coloured pieces of primate skull and jawbone from a small metal cabinet. After a brief inspection, the team will wrap the items in protective foam and transport them to a number of laboratories across England. There the bones and teeth, which have rested in the museum for most of the last century, will be put through a sequence of highly sensitive tests using infra-red scanners, lasers and powerful spectroscopes to reveal each relic’s precise chemical make-up.

The aim of the study, which will take weeks to complete, is simple. It has been set up to solve a mystery that has baffled researchers for 100 years: the identities of the perpetrators of the world’s greatest scientific fraud, the Piltdown Hoax. Unearthed in a gravel pit at Piltdown in East Sussex and revealed to the outside world exactly a century ago, those shards of skull were part of a scientific scam that completely fooled leading palaeontologists. For decades they believed they were the remains of a million-year-old apeman, an individual who possessed a large brain but primitive jawbone and teeth.

The news of the Piltdown find, first released in late 1912, caused a sensation. The first Englishman had been uncovered and not only was he brainy, he was sporty. A sculpted elephant bone, found near the skull pieces and interpreted by scientists as being a ceremonial artefact, was jokingly claimed by many commentators to be an early cricket bat. The first Englishman with his own cricket bat – if nothing else it was one in the eye for French and German archaeologists whose discoveries of Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and other early humans had been making headlines for several decades. Now England had a real fossil rival.

It was too good to be true. As decades passed, scientists in other countries uncovered more and more fossils of early apemen that differed markedly from Piltdown Man. “These had small skulls but relatively humanlike teeth – the opposite of Piltdown,” says Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who is leading the new study. “But many British scientists did not take them seriously because of Piltdown. They dismissed these discoveries which we now know are genuine and important. It really damaged British science.”

In the end, the Piltdown Man began to look so out of kilter with other fossil discoveries that a team led by geologist Kenneth Oakley, anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark and anthropologist Joseph Weiner took a closer look and in 1953 announced that Piltdown’s big braincase belonged to a modern human being while the jawbone came from an orangutan or chimpanzee. Each piece had been stained to look as if they were from the same skull while the teeth had been flattened with a metal file and the “cricket bat” carved with a knife. As Bournemouth University archaeologist Miles Russell puts it: “The earliest Englishman was nothing more than a cheap fraud.” It had taken almost 40 years to find that out, however.

Since then, more than 30 individuals have been accused of being Piltdown hoaxers. Charles Dawson, the archaeological enthusiast who found the first pieces, was almost certainly involved. But many scientists still suspect he had the backing of experts who were the true guilty parties. Candidates include Arthur Conan Doyle, who played golf at Piltdown and had a grievance against scientists because of his spiritual beliefs; the Jesuit philosopher, palaeontologist and alleged practical joker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in Sussex at the time and who actually helped Dawson dig at Piltdown; Arthur Smith Woodward, the Natural History Museum scientist, who accepted Dawson’s finds as genuine and argued they belonged to a new species of early human; the anatomist Arthur Keith, who also passionately endorsed the discovery; and Martin Hinton, another museum scientist, whose initials were found, in the mid-70s, 10 years after his death, on an old canvas travelling trunk, hidden in a museum loft, that contained mammal teeth and bones stained and carved in the manner of the Piltdown fossils. When it comes to suspects, the Piltdown Hoax makes Midsomer Murders look restrained.

“The trouble is that after 100 years we still do not know the identities or motives of those responsible,” says Justin Dix, the Southampton University geochemist who will carry out much of the chemical analysis. “It is time we did.” Hence the new project, which aims to uncover the identities of the hoaxers. And key to that will be the uncovering of the exact chemical make-up of the forged mat- erial – and the precise sequence of events that led to their discovery.

On the morning of 15 February 1912, Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the Natural History Museum, sat down at his desk to open his mail, which included a letter from his friend Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur antiquarian. Dawson began with gossip about their mutual acquaintance Arthur Conan Doyle, who was completing his latest novel, the prehistoric adventure The Lost World. Then he dropped his bombshell. He had stumbled on a very old layer of gravel, near a village called Piltdown, where he had found some iron-stained flints and “a portion of a human skull”. This was the first mention, made to the outside world, of the fossil that was to be known as Piltdown Man.

During subsequent correspondence, Dawson – known as the Wizard of Sussex because of his skill at finding archaeological treasures round the county – revealed that during a dinner at Barkham Manor in Piltdown he had gone for a stroll and noted flints strewn around the grounds, the leftovers from gravel excavations used for local road building. Dawson asked the labourers to bring him any interesting finds and was rewarded when one presented him with “a portion of human cranium… of immense thickness”. The lawyer then found another piece of skull – though no specific dates were provided by him. Nor was the labourer ever identified.

In May, Smith Woodward took charge of the first pieces of Piltdown skull and concluded they belonged to a previously unknown early human named Eoanthropus dawsoni – Dawson’s dawn-man. Excavations continued at Barkham Manor and a series of flint tools were uncovered along with more bone pieces and animal remains, including the teeth of hippopotami that used to wallow around English waterholes in ancient times. On 21 November 1912 the Manchester Guardian broke the story. Under the headline “The Earliest Man: Remarkable Discovery in Sussex”, the paper revealed details of the skull, whose estimated age, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 years, made it “by far the earliest trace of mankind that has yet been found in England”.

A few weeks later, at the Geological Society, Smith Woodward outlined further details to general scientific approval. Only one scientist, anatomist David Waterson, voiced doubts. The cranium looked human while the jawbone resembled that of a chimpanzee, he noted. No one else appears to have agreed – for a very straightforward reason. Palaeontology in Britain was going through a lean time and its practitioners desperately wanted to believe that fossil gold had been struck. Digs in France, at Cro-Magnon, and in Germany, at Neanderthal and Heidelberg, had produced startling finds of early humans. Britain had nothing. One French palaeontologist had even dismissed his English counterparts as mere chasseurs de cailloux – pebble hunters.

The jibe hurt. Hence English researchers’ willingness to accept the Piltdown finds. They may have been crudely made but the finds gave scientists what they wanted: evidence that England had been an important crucible in the forging of our species. “No one did any scientific tests,” says Russell. “If they had, they would have noticed the chemical staining and filed-down teeth very quickly. This was clearly not a genuine artefact. The scientific establishment accepted it because they wanted it so much.”

There was more to this uncritical acceptance than mere jingoism, however. Piltdown also seemed to support the theory, then firmly upheld by English palaeontologists, that growing brainpower had driven human evolution. Our intelligence, above all, separated us from the animal kingdom. Thus our brains would have expanded early in our evolution and evidence for that should be seen in fossil skulls – like the one at Piltdown. It had a huge braincase but primitive teeth, suggesting – wrongly – that our cranial enlargement had happened early in our evolution. In fact, brains came late to humanity (see box below).

Excavations at Piltdown continued. In August 1913, Father Teilhard de Chardin, who went on to be one of the 20th century’s most influential Jesuit scholars and philosophers and who was then living in Sussex, joined in and found a canine tooth supposed to have come from the apeman – a discovery that has linked him ever since with Piltdown conspiracy theories. Finally came the discovery of the cricket bat. The Piltdown hoax was complete.

By 1915, Dawson’s dawn-man had become established scientific fact. The painting,A Discussion of the Piltdown Skull, by John Cooke, presents its discoverers in an almost holy atmosphere. Keith is seated while Smith Woodward stands behind him in front of a table with pieces of skull on it. Also standing, with a picture of Charles Darwin behind him, is the benign figure of Charles Dawson. “The way the painting is structured suggests Darwin is passing on his mantle to Dawson,” says Russell. “The former had the theory, the latter had provided it, it is being suggested.”

Certainly, the Wizard of Sussex had come far. He was now feted as one of the world’s greatest archaeologists and would have been knighted, as were Keith and Smith Woodward, had he not died of septicaemia in 1916. Kindly and rotund, the figure of Dawson looks the acme of Edwardian rectitude, a successful solicitor and expert antiquarian. But he had secrets that only came to light decades after his death. In fact most of his “wizard” finds turned out to be frauds, recent investigations have revealed. He was, quite simply, a serial forger, says Russell. “I have counted 38 hoaxes or dodgy finds made by him before Piltdown,” Russell states. He forged axes, statuettes, ancient hammers, Roman tiles and a host of other artefacts – trickery that earned fellowships of both the Geological Society and the Society of Antiquaries. “Piltdown was not a one-off. It was the culmination of a life’s work,” says Russell in his book Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson.

And that looks pretty conclusive. The man had more form than Professor Moriarty. There would be no need to look any further, were it not for some nagging doubts – including one of Chris Stringer’s. It’s the cricket bat that gets him. “It was huge but apparently everyone missed it until the end of the dig. Until then everything had been carefully engineered: the skull fragments and artefacts, all made to look alike. And then the cricket bat turns up. It is bizarre and only makes sense if you conclude someone wanted to alert the authorities that fraud was going on, but did not want to do so publicly, perhaps to avoid bringing disgrace to the museum. So they planted something so ridiculous that everyone would surely realise it was a fake, a laugh. Unfortunately, everyone took it seriously.”

And the second hoaxer? Who better than Martin Hinton, the Natural History Museum scientist who possessed that bag, discovered after his death, containing incriminating dyes and chemicals, and who worked with Keith and Smith Woodward? Thus there may have been two hoaxers working independently: Dawson and Hinton.

Or consider Teilhard de Chardin, a religious philosopher and expert on human evolution, who was involved in making finds at Piltdown. His guilt has been forcefully advocated by the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and more recently by the South African palaeontologist Francis Thackeray. “I think Teilhard did it as a joke,” says Thackeray. “Just after Piltdown’s first announcement, he wrote to a colleague to say he thought palaeontology deserved to be the subject of jokes. He was also known to be a joker.” Teilhard probably expected the prank to be spotted straightaway, but was horrified to discover it had taken root in scientific thought. So he stayed silent.

And then there is Conan Doyle. A former doctor and fossil collector, he had the expertise to create forged skull fragments. One of his characters, in The Lost World, published in 1912, even states: “If you are clever and know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph.” He also had the opportunity. He played golf at Piltdown, after all. As to motive, his spiritual beliefs had brought him into conflict with science and he may have wanted to humiliate its practitioners. “But if that is the case,” says Stringer, “why didn’t he announce his triumph after so convincingly fooling the world of science? That doesn’t make sense.”

As for Smith Woodward and Keith, both were keen advocates of the theory that humans had big brains early in their evolution and could have procured these bits of skull – using Dawson to deposit their handiwork – because they were convinced they represented the truth. But if Dawson was just a stooge in this business, why did the uncovering of finds at Piltdown stop immediately after his death? People went on looking for years, but never found a thing after 1916.

It is a perplexing mix of suspects, which the new research hopes to unravel by studying and measuring the skull carefully and by analysing every chemical present in the stains and chemicals used in the different pieces. Do the dyes match those in Hinton’s trunk? Does the canine found by Teilhard contain chemicals not found in the other pieces? Or is its staining unique? “We are going to fingerprint all the material found at Piltdown and unravel how many patterns of interference have occurred – and how many individuals were involved,” says Stringer. “We might get our hoaxer or hoaxers that way.”

As for Piltdown, there are few signs left around the village today to show this was once thought to be one of the most important sites in human evolutionary history. The Manor is locked and gated and the plinth that marked where the first find was uncovered is out of sight of passers-by. Even the local pub, which until last year revelled in the name of the Piltdown Man, has now changed its name to the Lamb. As Joseph Weiner, who helped reveal the hoax, once noted: “Piltdown Man has lost his place in polite society.”