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.

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Douglas County’s Lamb Spring archaeological dig could rewrite human history

Molly the Columbian mammoth lived, grazed, and died, about 13,000 years ago near a spring in what is now a fast-developing chunk of Douglas County. Five thousand years later, early North American humans spent time at the same spring, where they killed and butchered bison.

We don’t know if humans visited the spring at the same time as Molly, but if the Lamb Spring site produces evidence that they did — and it tantalizes with hope — the site could rewrite the scientific and cultural history of North America. And perhaps offer the Denver area a new attraction.

Lamb Spring sits in the Chatfield Basin, between South Platte Canyon Road and Chatfield Reservoir. “Stand on that site (Lamb Spring) and look around. You realize you are in the middle of one of the fastest-developing areas in Colorado,” said Jim Walker, southwest regional director for The Archaeological Conservancy, an Albuquerque nonprofit that buys archaeologically promising land and safeguards it from development. The conservancy bought the Lamb Spring site in 1995. “The fact that we were able to find that site, buy it and preserve it, at the time we did, was a miracle. I’ll bet within 10 years that area is going to be covered in houses.”

Walker believes further excavation of Lamb Spring could show human activity between 13,000 and even 25,000 years ago, in which case “there would be a lot of rewriting of the peopling of North America.”

“I would place Lamb Spring really high, in terms of its importance,” he said. “If I were ranking Lamb Spring among the other 450 preserves we have, it would be in the top 10.”

Evidence of Pleistocene megafauna like mammoths makes the Lamb Spring dig compelling in its own right, but mammoth sites pepper the West. Early-human findings, in contrast, are rare. Placing both in the same location sets Lamb Spring — the largest “mixed dig” in the country — apart.

The findings may do more than just embellish what we already know: that humans roamed North America as far back as 11,200 years ago. Some archaeologists believe Lamb Spring could provide solid evidence, instead of just speculation, that people lived in North America much earlier.

Today, the Lamb Spring dig amounts to little more than a weed-choked and trash-sprinkled depression in the ground, a cavity surrounded by 35 acres of undulating, fenced-in prairie. An informational plaque sits beside the gated dirt path that leads to the site. Once a month for half the year, people can watch a video about the site andthen follow a tour guide to the swale to observe the grass.

If it weren’t for a rancher’s desire for a stock pond 50 years ago, the bones of Molly and 30 other mammoths — the largest find in Colorado, and the third- biggest in North America — would likely remain buried. But in 1960 Charles Lamb decided to use a spring on his land to make a fishing pond, and while digging he struck some big bones. Geologists identified them as mammoths.

In 1981, Smithsonian Institute archaeologist Dennis Stanford excavated the site and found many more mammoth bones, as well as camels, horses, sloths, llamas and wolves.

Stanford also found a 30-pound rock. Marks on the stone suggested it had been used as a butcher block. Geological forces could not have brought the stone to the site. Instead, Stanford theorized, early humans must have done it, and based on its location in the sediment, that could have happened 16,000 years ago. If the theory can be proved, it will mean humans dwelled at Lamb Spring at least that long ago.

For North American archaeologists, the faintest whisper of “paleo-Indian” usually sends hearts racing. Walker said he’ll “drop everything” if he hears of a site that could be purchased. Signs of early humans in North America are scarce, largely because the population was small and nomadic. Most evidence amounts to a scrap here, a smidgen there.

But in addition to Lamb Spring’s threat to upend the history of the peopling of North America, it also shows clear signs of a 9,000-year-old “Cody complex” bison kill, a site, similar to one found in Cody, Wyo., where humans camped, slaughtered buffalo, cut the meat, and hammered at bone with rocks to withdraw marrow. That alone makes Lamb Spring beguiling to archaeologists. But Lamb Spring, too, holds hints that the site was more than a quick way station for early hunters.

“I think Lamb Spring could yield what would be a jackpot — a campsite or village,” said Walker. “That would be incredible.”

“The site tells us about the ancient environment, about the environment of the Front Range and the foothills, what they were like in the past, how it has changed, how climate has changed,” said James Dixon, a University of New Mexico anthropology professor who has been active in Lamb Spring. “And it has the archaeological story, a later chapter. It has a lot of potential.”

That potential seems to spread beyond Lamb Spring, too. Just three-quarters of a mile away, archaeologists from the Denver Museum of Nature & Scienceare unearthing mammoth bones and signs of early humans at a site they call Scott Spring.

“It’s like a mini-Lamb Spring,” said Steven Holen, curator of archaeology for the museum. “At Scott Spring we are seeing bones even older (than at Lamb Spring) that appear to have been broken by humans. That’s what we are doing there — looking for evidence of humans older than Clovis (11,200 years ago).”

The team began excavating the site in 2010, and dug a test bed where a prairie dog had burrowed down into a mammoth tusk.

“There was ivory lying all around,” Holen said. So far, they have identified a mammoth, a camel and a Pleistocene horse.

“These spring sites have great promise,” he said. “They used those springs and hunted around those springs for thousands of years.”

Follow-up: Military vets help DOI play catch-up

You may recall this posting from a few weeks ago involving the Department of Interior and some 78 million uncatalogued items in its collection.  Here is an update:

Some U.S. military veterans are finding work helping sort through a massive government archaeological collection that has been neglected for decades.

The collection dates to the 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started building dozens of locks, dams and reservoirs, and the ground beneath them was excavated for archaeological treasures.

In recent weeks, U.S. veterans — many disabled — have begun processing, cataloguing, digitizing and archiving the collection as part of a one-year $3.5 million project, funded with federal stimulus money.

It’s part of the corps’ effort to find American Indian cultural items and return them to tribes or their descendants — something all federal agencies must do under a 1990 law.

From The New York Times

Why preservation is important…

NASA could put a man on the moon but didn’t have the sense to keep the original video of the live TV transmission.

In an embarrassing acknowledgment, the space agency said Thursday that it must have erased the Apollo 11 moon footage years ago so that it could reuse the videotape.

But now Hollywood is coming to the rescue.

The studio wizards who restored “Casablanca” are digitally sharpening and cleaning up the ghostly, grainy footage of the moon landing, making it even better than what TV viewers saw on July 20, 1969. They are doing it by working from four copies that NASA scrounged from around the world.

“There’s nothing being created; there’s nothing being manufactured,” said NASA senior engineer Dick Nafzger, who is in charge of the project. “You can now see the detail that’s coming out.”

The first batch of restored footage was released just in time for the 40th anniversary of the “one giant leap for mankind,” and some of the details seem new because of their sharpness. Originally, astronaut Neil Armstrong’s face visor was too fuzzy to be seen clearly. The upgraded video of Earth’s first moonwalker shows the visor and a reflection in it.

The $230,000 refurbishing effort is only three weeks into a monthslong project, and only 40 percent of the work has been done. But it does show improvements in four snippets: Armstrong walking down the ladder; Buzz Aldrin following him; the two astronauts reading a plaque they left on the moon; and the planting of the flag on the lunar surface.

Nafzger said a huge search that began three years ago for the old moon tapes led to the “inescapable conclusion” that 45 tapes of Apollo 11 video were erased and reused. His report on that will come out in a few weeks.

The original videos beamed to Earth were stored on giant reels of tape that each contained 15 minutes of video, along with other data from the moon. In the 1970s and ’80s, NASA had a shortage of the tapes, so it erased about 200,000 of them and reused them.

How did NASA end up looking like a bumbling husband taping over his wedding video with the Super Bowl?

Nafzger, who was in charge of the live TV recordings back in the Apollo years, said they were mostly thought of as data tapes. It wasn’t his job to preserve history, he said, just to make sure the footage worked. In retrospect, he said he wished NASA hadn’t reused the tapes.

Outside historians were aghast.

“It’s surprising to me that NASA didn’t have the common sense to save perhaps the most important historical footage of the 20th century,” said Rice University historian and author Douglas Brinkley. He noted that NASA saved all sorts of data and artifacts from Apollo 11, and it is “mind-boggling that the tapes just disappeared.”

The remastered copies may look good, but “when dealing with historical film footage, you always want the original to study,” Brinkley said.

Smithsonian Institution space curator Roger Launius, a former NASA chief historian, said the loss of the original video “doesn’t surprise me that much.”

“It was a mistake, no doubt about that,” Launius said. “This is a problem inside the entire federal government. … They don’t think that preservation is all that important.”

Launius said federal warehouses where historical artifacts are saved are “kind of like the last scene of `Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ It just goes away in this place with other big boxes.”

The company that restored all the Indiana Jones movies, including “Raiders,” is the one bailing out NASA.

Lowry Digital of Burbank, Calif., noted that “Casablanca” had a pixel count 10 times higher than the moon video, meaning the Apollo 11 footage was fuzzier than that vintage movie and more of a challenge in one sense.

Of all the video the company has dealt with, “this is by far and away the lowest quality,” said Lowry president Mike Inchalik.

Nafzger praised Lowry for restoring “crispness” to the Apollo video. Historian Launius wasn’t as blown away.

“It’s certainly a little better than the original,” Launius said. “It’s not a lot better.”

The restoration used four video sources: CBS News originals; kinescopes from the National Archives; a video from Australia that received the transmission of the original moon video; and camera shots of a TV monitor.

Both Nafzger and Inchalik acknowledged that digitally remastering the video could further encourage conspiracy theorists who believe NASA faked the entire moon landing on a Hollywood set. But they said they enhanced the video as conservatively as possible.

Besides, Inchalik said that if there had been a conspiracy to fake a moon landing, NASA surely would have created higher-quality film.

Back in 1969, nearly 40 percent of the picture quality was lost converting from one video format used on the moon — called slow scan — to something that could be played on TVs on Earth, Nafzger said.

NASA did not lose other Apollo missions’ videos because they weren’t stored on the type of tape that needed to be reused, Nafzger said.

From NewsWatch

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If you are going to comment, don’t waste people’s time with conspiracy theory bullshi* please.  We landed on the Moon.  There is no conspiracy.  Full stop.