OSWEGO — A $90,000 federal grant has helped advance a SUNY Oswego project to catalog and map the origins of at least 160,000 centuries-old Native American and other artifacts from archeological sites around the state.
The National Park Service grant is the second for the college and Douglas Pippin, visiting assistant professor of anthropology. It is part of $1.5 million in grants the agency awarded in 2011 for documenting and repatriating Native American artifacts and remains around the country.
Through the grant, two students a semester work as paid employees, researching and cataloging pottery shards and pipe stems, grinding stones and fire-cracked stones, projectile points and waste materials.
Senior anthropology majors Khrystyne Tschinkel and Elisabeth Warszycki are primary assistants on the project this year. “It’s very interesting and it makes you feel a little smaller in the world when you are holding something that is several centuries old,” Warszycki said.
Another eight to 10 students a semester, on average, do work requiring less training, as part of Pippin’s course “Archeology Lab and Collection Management.” In all, some five dozen students have worked on the project over the years, Pippin said.
Any suspected human remains automatically trigger rigorous laboratory procedures under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Bones and other possible skeletal remains wait for the scrutiny of an expert forensic and physical anthropologist — currently, Kathleen Blake of the anthropology department — and are treated with respect and sensitivity, Pippin said.
After Pippin completes analysis of the entire collection, he will file reports about any human remains and funeral-related objects, and any nation associated with them may repatriate the articles, he said, along with other objects the nations wish to reclaim. He estimated that the project would run at least to the end of the two-year grant.
Pippin noted that the project has the support of Native American groups. “It was at the nations’ request that we not do repatriation until we have gone through the entire collection and finished the analysis,” he said.
Project opens doors
An important part of the project is using Geographic Information System software to plot more than 100 archeological sites around the state, aided by databases of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and New York State Museum in the attempt to link artifacts — ranging in age from prehistoric to the 19th century — to specific sites.
“It does feel good to do this work,” Pippin said. “There are parts of the collection, from the more unknown sites, where we’ve had trouble getting detail. But certain parts of it we have been able to return to a collection with research potential.”
Another plus is the learning experience afforded the student anthropologists.
“They’ve had opportunities just not available to other students at the undergraduate level,” Pippin said, noting some have been trained in specifics of the repatriation act. “NAGPRA is an incredibly complex set of policies, so even without the archeological aspects of the project, this is tremendous training for just the policy experience.”
The students agreed. “Being able to say we worked on a collection, a cataloging project of this kind, is such a plus,” said Tschinkel, who has been accepted at Durham University for graduate studies in paleopathology. “Graduate schools look at that and see you’ve had experience and tell you how you can apply those skills to other work in the field.”