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April M. Beisaw

Associate Professor of Anthropology

April M. Beisaw is a North American archaeologist who studies cultural change and resilience in the relatively recent past (1300 AD to yesterday). Understanding when and why cultures change is necessary for balancing the retention and revival of community identities with the pressures of a constantly changing world. 

Since 2012, April has been documenting the archaeological remains of communities impacted by the creation and maintenance of the New York City water system. Focusing on the Boyd’s Corners (aka Boyd Corners) reservoir in Kent, and the Ashokan Reservoir in Olive, April and her Vassar students have surveyed thousands of acres of City owned properties around these reservoirs to juxtapose 100-years of specific land use history with the City’s own goals of acquiring these properties. The archaeology reveals that what the City describes as recreation land maintained for environmental protection is often littered with waste, harvested for resources, and anything but natural wilderness. April will begin writing a book on this research in 2017, with the goal of informing current and future urban water source development. An article “Water for the City, Ruins for the Country: Archaeology of New York City’s Watershed” is in press with the International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 

April’s other local archaeology project is attempting to locate the footprint of Orson Squire Fowler’s original octagon house; the one that began the building craze of the 1850s. Fowler believed that the octagon house was a mode of building that could improve the world. The self-supporting nature of the structure simplified construction and reduced costs. By using lumber and gravel from the building site, Fowler claimed that octagon houses could provide “a home for all” and a superior one at that. With windows on all sides, fresh air would flow throughout the building to maintain health. With a central stairway, space could be maximized. By adding a greenhouse to the structure, fresh food was freely available. Despite his efforts, the octagon house craze passed and Fowler’s own octagon was demolished by the county after they blamed it for the ill-health of its residents. Fowler’s attempt to improve culture failed and he was largely forgotten about. Reviving Fowler’s story is a way of understanding the successes and failures of today’s “breakthroughs” (think the Prius and those sneakers that were supposed to make us lose weight just by wearing them). 

Since 2003, April has been conducting research on the Susquehannock Indians of central Pennsylvania. The Susquehannock are often depicted as enigmatic gigantic (and sometimes cannibalistic) warriors yet the archaeological record tells a more human story - one of cultural change brought about partly from the onset of the Little Ice Age and partly from the arrival of Europeans, both of which had social, economic, and political ramifications. This research was most recently summarized in her article “Memory, Identity, and NAGPRA in the Northeastern United States,” which was published in American Anthropologist and awarded the Gordon R. Willey Prize by the American Anthropological Association. This work was supported by the Funk Foundation and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. More recently, April has been recompiling data from the 1916 Susquehanna River Expedition in preparation for authoring a new book on the Susquehannock. 

An expert in the analysis of human an animal bones from archaeological sites, April recently published “A Manual for the Identification of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites” with Texas A&M University Press. In 2009, she served as co-editor with James G. Gibb of “The Archaeology of Institutional Life” with The University of Alabama Press. This book brought together archaeologists who specialized in schools, prisons, asylums, poorhouses, and other institutions to develop a more unified method and theory for sites whose occupants were subjected to many cultural regulations. 

April teaches in the Anthropology department, and the Native American Studies (American Culture) and Environmental Studies programs. Her courses include: ANTH 100 - Archaeology, ANTH 170 - Bones, Bodies, and Forensic Cases, ANTH 231- Archaeology of Animals, ANTH 231 - Maps, Culture, and Archaeology, ANTH 235 Prehistoric Archaeology of North America, ANTH 235 Historical Archaeology of North America, ANTH 281 - Repatriation, ANTH 305 - Forensic Anthropology, and ANTH 331 - Archaeology of Disasters. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Binghamton University in 2007 and began teaching at Vassar College in 2012 (after several years teaching at Heidelberg University in Ohio).