Potsdam, N.Y.—From an early age, Dr. Hadley Kruczek-Aaron was surrounded by local history. She grew up in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, not far from Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum where costumed historians recreate daily life in early–19th century New England. While studying as an undergraduate at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, her interests turned to the much more ancient past: to art history and to ancient Greece. After her junior year she wanted to study abroad in Italy but ended up not being able to afford it. Hoping to explore her major further and to learn firsthand the methods of archaeology, she decided to attend a local field school instead, at Brook Farm, a failed commune outside Boston dating to the 1840s.
“When I took this field school, I thought…I could do archaeology here, in my own backyard, in my own state?” Kruzcek-Aaron said. “I felt much more of a connection to the history that I was digging up in that experience and it changed my life. It changed my direction. I knew that I wanted to do that for a living, and that set me on the course to doing what I’m doing now.”
While earning her Ph.D. at Syracuse, Kruczek-Aaron pursued further her interest in historical archaeology, or archaeology of the modern world, approximately the past 500 years. She is now an archaeology professor and chair of the anthropology department at SUNY Potsdam in Potsdam, New York, where she teaches classes on historical archaeology, archeological research and procedures, the archaeology of New York, African-American archaeology, and more. She has directed several field schools in the area, including one at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site outside of Lake Placid, New York, and one at the nearby Timbuctoo Settlement, where African-American farmers in the mid-1800s worked land given them by the North Country abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Last month she led a group of twelve SUNY Potsdam archaeology students during a three-week dig in Potsdam at the former site of Camp Union, a Civil War training camp where hundreds of soldiers lived and trained under Col. Jonah Sanford during a five-month period from 1861 to 1862.
At the Camp Union site Kruzcek-Aaron’s team found multiple postholes, along with cut nails, brick, and flat glass, indicating a structure had once been located there. They also found burned animal bones, burned ceramic, and melted glass, which suggested someone might have been burning trash, possibly to cut down on the amount of refuse produced by the camp’s inhabitants. Yet the function of the structure remained unclear, in large part because the landscape was so “clean,” Kruczek-Aaron said. Two major challenges presented themselves during the dig: first, after the closing of the camp in 1862, its buildings were auctioned off and salvaged, meaning far fewer architectural materials have remained at the site than if the buildings had remained intact for some time. Second, at some point in the 150+ years since the camp’s closing and subsequent salvaging, the area became a plow zone, which has disturbed the original context of the various soil strata, along with any artifacts one might find therein.
Despite these challenges, Kruczek-Aaron said the Camp Union dig provided valuable field experience for her students, many of whom were participating in their first field school. She said she valued having the opportunity to work on a project so close to home.
“I’m really taken by the notion of doing archaeology of the more recent past and also archaeology of our own communities,” she said. “I think there’s something really compelling about living and researching in the same place. To feel more grounded, quite literally, by going into the ground. I think there’s a power to that. Of staying and learning more about where you live.”
She added that doing archaeology close to home was also valuable from a teaching standpoint. “There’s a power in communicating to students that archaeology happens here, [while] also giving them a chance to explore local history.”
Emily Willis, a senior at SUNY Potsdam and one of Kruczek-Aaron’s teaching assistants, said participating in field schools in the North Country had definitely enriched her experience of the area.
“Coming in here, a total stranger, I’d never heard of a Potsdam before,” she said. “It’s made it a much more magical place for me… How cool is this? Right in your own backyard.”
Last year Willis participated in a field school near Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks with Dr. Tim Messner, associate professor of archaeology at SUNY Potsdam, where the discovery of a five- to seven-thousand-year-old projectile point helped to dispel the long-standing myth that no one had inhabited the land before the arrival of white settlers.
“History’s written by the winners,” Willis said. “That’s true for the most part, but then archaeology comes in and it gets to add another layer of truth, and it gets to check these narratives that we’ve accepted for so long.”
“History’s written by the colonizers,” added Tara Stern, a junior at SUNY Potsdam who also participated in the field school.
“History’s written by the oppressors,” Willis said.
Both spoke of the power of handling an object that has remained underground for so long.
“This is the closest you can get to time travel,” Willis said. “You’re the first person in decades or centuries or millennia to hold this object. Your eyes are the first eyes to lay upon it in all that time. I get chills every time I think about it.”
Willis said Kruczek-Aaron’s enthusiasm was palpable both in the classroom and at the dig site, as was her dedication to social justice. She said learning about post-processual archaeological theory in the classroom was one way her instructor got students thinking about the many ethical considerations necessary in the work.
“[Post-processual archaeology] basically says, no matter how hard we try, there’s always going to be bias in there from us. Because we can’t talk to the past peoples, so we can’t say for absolute certain what happened or how they used things or how they viewed the world. One of the tenets of post-processual archaeology is archaeology is a political act. You can’t direct how it’s going to be received or interpreted by the public or by anybody… So you always have to come at archaeology with that in mind. That your actions are a political act and they are going to be interpreted in many different ways.”
Archaeologists take great care to keep detailed records and to preserve as much as possible the original context of their findings. Historical archaeologists use whatever written materials they can to flesh out a portrait of the people they study: maps, drawings, newspaper records, personal accounts, etc. But those materials can only tell archaeologists so much about who might have lived or worked in a place.
“The papers that are left behind are only written by people who are literate,” Kruczek-Aaron said. “Those are the things that end up in the archives. And then it’s filtered even further because only the ‘important’ people –and important people are in air quotes here—their materials have been selected to be archived. So all of the archives that we have have been filtered, and it’s often those who have the power whose records have been preserved and whose perspectives have been preserved in the historical record,” she said. “That certainly has changed in the past few decades as social history has become more dominant and certainly historians have been able to mine these records for different perspectives. But there are these major filters on what has been left and recorded that has limited what has been written, certainly. And certainly there has been an evolving notion of who’s worth writing about, and whose experience matters. I think the kind of work that I do allows us to get in the cracks, to approach history from different perspectives, often from perspectives that haven’t been included in narratives before.
Here at the Civil War training ground, it could be the common soldier. It could be the women of the community who were supporting this training ground by cooking the food. They were employed to cook the food three times a day. We had women in the community who were donating meals and supplies. So it may be giving voice—no, not giving voice, I really hate that, me ‘giving’ them voice—but giving room for those voices and perspectives to be elevated and highlighted in ways that they haven’t before.”
She said that was also true of her recent field school at the John Brown farm, where she worked to uncover the perspectives of women and children who lived there, and at the Timbuctoo settlement, where she endeavored to understand what life was like for the African-American farmers who worked the land. In both cases, those stories have not been told, or adequately told, Kruczek-Aaron said, either because of racism, bias, a lack of written records, or a combination thereof.
“My hope is that by choosing projects that highlight those [previously untold] experiences, that can reframe how we understand things that we think we already understand and make people realize that all of those people make history. It’s not just dead rich white people who make history. We can’t tell the story of America without including all of these stories in that understanding.”
She said archaeology is not just about digging up the past, but about how the past can help us move forward.
“How we understand ourselves today is grounded in our understanding of the past,” she said. “We think we understand our past. And if how we understand ourselves today is grounded in a flawed understanding of that past, then it’s going to complicate our present and our future. And it’s going to lead us to where we are, frankly, which is a nation that hasn’t truly grappled with its history. So if I can in my small way help carve out spaces for us to rethink our experiences and that past, then maybe we can rethink our present and our future.”