STILLWATER, N.Y. (AP) – Archaeologists are digging for artifacts in a battle-scarred and history-rich stretch of the upper Hudson River where thousands of Europeans, Americans and Native Americans fought and died during more than a century of sporadic warfare, culminating in the Americans' defeat of the British at Saratoga.
“This area served as a continual frontier battleground for 150 years before the Revolutionary War,” said Joe Finan, superintendent at the Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater, site of the Battles of Saratoga.
The archaeologists are hoping to complete their task ahead of a different kind of dig along the river for something more recent occupants left behind: polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The work by the National Park Service is part of a two-year program to identify “high-fertility areas” on park-owned lands within the river's floodplain where 18th-century artifacts could be found, Finan said. The study coincides with the federal government-ordered dredging of PCBs from the river bottom at Ford Edward, 20 miles north of the battlefield.
The EPA has ordered General Electric to remove PCBs the company dumped into the river at Fort Edward and neighboring Hudson Falls for 30 years, ending in 1977 when the practice was banned. Dredgers are expected to reach the national park's stretch of riverfront in 2014.
That gives the parks service time to dig around its 2,800-acre battlefield property for any artifacts missed by previous sanctioned excavations or overlooked by “pot hunters” who loot historical sites, Finan said.
Area historians support the archaeological project and note the potential damage dredging poses to historical objects that may lie along the shore or on the river bottom. Two years ago, a dredging crew working close to shore accidentally ripped away some of the riverbank timbers from the original Fort Edward, built by the British during the French and Indian War.
“Concerns? Oh yeah, big time. Especially from Schuylerville down,” said Linda Palmieri, historian in Stillwater.
The park service and EPA are aware of those concerns.
“We learned a lesson from that,” Gary Klawinski, EPA's dredging project manager, said of the Fort Edward incident, which occurred around 2 a.m. in August 2009.
He said the incident led to two changes in dredging procedures: EPA staffers are now aboard dredging barges whenever sediment removals are being conducted in historically sensitive areas, and no nighttime dredging is allowed in such areas.
Plus, Klawinski said, the agency is well aware that every dip of a dredger's scoop into this stretch of the river has the potential of bringing up something that belongs in a museum.
“You can pretty much go anywhere on the Hudson and find something,” he said. “We're just being very careful.”
The search for historical remnants from the Saratoga battles, fought in September and October of 1777, is being conducted in an area that traditionally has yielded a wealth of artifacts, from Indian arrowheads to military items left over from the thousands of soldiers who passed through or fought here in the 17th and 18th centuries.
While sizable British and Colonial American armies used the Hudson corridor during the French and Indian War (1755-63), the highest concentration of military forces occurred during the Revolutionary War, when the Americans defeated the British at Saratoga in what many consider one of history's most important battles.
The ground on and around the Saratoga battlefield has yielded so many artifacts, it's not uncommon today to see people with metal detectors trailing behind farm tractors plowing local fields, Finan said.
The history-changing fight here in 1777 was actually two battles, the first one fought in September, followed by a second in October. When the October battle was over, the victorious American forces still blocked the British advance toward Albany, while Gen. John Burgoyne's defeated and demoralized redcoats and their German allies retreated a few miles north and eventually surrendered in what is now the riverside village of Schuylerville.
The American victory at Saratoga persuaded the French to join in the fight against Britain, and France's contribution of soldiers, ships and money to the young United States was a major factor in England's former colonies gaining their independence.
Because Saratoga holds such a special place in American history, it's important to find and document as much of the evidence of the battles as possible, Finan said.
With that in mind, archaeologists are concentrating this year's two-week dig on several spots where Route 4 parallels the river and cuts through portions of the park's eastern riverside edge. Using contemporary maps drawn by a British officer and maps produced from recent aerial photography and other high-tech tools, the team is digging in an area where several British encampments and a hospital were located.
Although no noteworthy artifacts have been found so far, the first week of digging uncovered evidence of one of the fortified positions held by the British 47th Infantry Regiment, Finan said.
Digs are also planned on park property that abuts the river's west bank. Finan said artifacts could turn up near the British line of retreat north along the river, given the natural tendency of soldiers to lighten their load whenever possible.
“We know from other archaeology work done at other locations that during these kinds of retreats a lot of material was scuttled in the water,” Finan said.
“That floodplain area has always been an archaeological hot spot,” said Sean Kelliher, historian for the neighboring town of Saratoga, just north of the battlefield. “I think they'll end up finding some very interesting things.”
Plans call for any battle-related artifacts found during the park service's digs to be put on public display, if possible.
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