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A Weeklong Dig at the Roosevelt Historic Site

Five Vassar students recently spent a week digging holes in a field at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY. What they found may prompt National Park Service officials to alter their plans to enhance a garden on the property.

The students were working under the guidance of assistant anthropology prof. April Beisaw, who recently forged a new partnership with the National Park Service to have Vassar faculty and students perform archeological services at the site. They spent five days in June inspecting a field near the Visitors Center where Park Service officials plan to expand a garden and build two new walkways and a luncheon pavilion.

During the weeklong dig, Beisaw and her students unearthed some artifacts they didn’t expect to find: two porcelain doll heads, a horse shoe and some cow bones. That was enough to put the project on hold while park officials ponder the significance of the discoveries.

The students working on the project were doing so as participants in three of Vassar’s summer research programs. Cayla Neipris ’16 and Dan Swerzenski ’18 are working under the auspices of the college’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI). Dzifa Binka ‘16 was selected to do the work through the college’s Environmental Research Institute, and Drew Leventhal ’17 is a Vassar Ford Scholar. Jonathan Alperstein ’18 also volunteered for the dig.

Alperstein found the cow bones while sifting through one of the 50-by-50-centimeter pits Beisaw had asked her students to dig. The pits, spaced about 15 feet apart throughout the field, are standard protocol for the kind of investigation Beisaw and the students had been asked to perform.

Alperstein was surprised and excited by his discovery. “I’d been complaining that we weren’t finding much besides a few nails and some charcoal, and then suddenly we uncovered these bones,” he says.

Beisaw says the find was significant because historians believed that area of the FDR property was largely used as a playground for the Roosevelt’s and other children who lived nearby. The discovery of two doll heads so close to the cow bones raised some questions about how many different uses the property may have had through the years. The final decision on what happens to the garden project rests with National Park Service archeologist James M. Harmon. He’ll decide how to proceed after he reads Beisaw’s final report.

Beisaw’s students say they enjoyed taking part in a real-life archeological dig. “As a geography major, I’m interested in how construction projects change landscapes, and that’s what we’re doing here,” says Binka.

Swerzinski, agreed. “I knew nothing about archeology before I took two courses from Prof. Beisaw, and now that I’m on this project, I’m translating what I learned in my readings to actual work in the field,” he says.

Neipris says she too enjoyed getting some hands-on experience in archeology. “I’d never done any kind of excavation like this before,” she says. “It’s been fun putting pieces of the puzzle together.”

Beisaw says she’s glad she was able to bring students with varied interests and backgrounds together for the dig. “Not all of these students will be pursuing careers in anthropology or archeology, but this project helps them hone skills necessary in many other disciplines,” she says. “They’re learning to be flexible, how to deal with discoveries you don’t expect. That’s how scientific research works.”

Beisaw says she’s looking forward to taking on more projects at the FDR site now that the partnership with Vassar has been forged. Park officials are thrilled too.

Michael Riegle, facility manager for the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Site, says the Park Service decided to enter into the new agreement with the college after Beisaw did some work on another part of the FDR property last fall. “After she completed that work, April turned in better and more complete reports than the ones we were receiving from private firms we’d hired in the past, so we decided a partnership between the college and the Park Service would be mutually beneficial,” Riegle says. “We’ll be getting excellent work at no cost, and the Vassar students will be getting hands-on experience at an actual historic site.”

Harmon, the Park Service’s chief archeologist, calls the new partnership “an exciting opportunity for all involved. For April and others at Vassar, it’s a way to give their students real-life experience. And for the Park Service, it’s a great way to get our compliance work done by someone we know and trust.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos by Buck Lewis

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, July 13, 2015