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URSI: Archaeology in the Catskill Mountains

A century ago, 11 villages in the Catskill Mountains were abandoned and burned to the ground to make way for a 150-billion gallon, man-made lake that still feeds New York City’s water system. Tens of thousands of acres of land were claimed by the city for the 8,300-acre Ashokan Reservoir and its surrounding watershed.


What happened to the farmers, shopkeepers and others who were uprooted by this massive project, and how have the land and the people who live near the reservoir adapted to these profound changes? That’s the question assistant prof. of anthropology April Beisaw and four of her students are attempting to answer this summer. To do so, they are exploring the fields and forests that surround the reservoir in Ulster County, about 50 miles from the Vassar campus, using geographic information software (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to record what they find. The students are also exploring a second site, located in nearby Putnam County, which was claimed by the city for a smaller reservoir in 1873.

“To protect its water system, the city had to acquire a lot of land around these reservoirs, so we are documenting the history of these lands – what has happened to them over the past 100 years or so,” Beisaw says during a recent trek a few miles north of the Ashokan Reservoir. Two of the students taking part in the project, Cayla Neipris ’16 and Dan Swerzensky ’18, are working under the auspices of Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute. Drew Leventhal ’17 is a Vassar Ford Scholar, and the fourth member of the team, Dzifa Binka ’16,was selected to take part in the project through the college’s Environmental Research Institute.

At first glance, much of the land the students are exploring shows little evidence of habitation. But on closer inspection, they find clues about who may have lived there in the past. They spent part of a day in June examining massive stone walls apparently built by farmers to keep their animals confined. Beisaw says she suspects the people who built the walls had previously farmed the more fertile valley that was claimed by the reservoir, then tried to make a living on the steeper, rockier land when they were forced to move. Two building foundations are near the walls. “None of this shows up on any official map, so this farm wasn’t here long,” she notes.

Binka, a geography major from Ghana, carried an iPad with GIS software on the hike so she could make a permanent record of the walls and other items she and her fellow students found, while Leventhal, an anthropology major from Bryn Mawr, PA, took photographs. “Any man-made object is called a ‘way point,’” Binka explains, “and it’s our job to document every way point we find. We’re adding everything we find to the GIS maps of the area.”

During their search of some of the land surrounding the stone walls, the students found a mud-caked piece of brass that was apparently a part of a car or truck; the word “Chevrolet” was stamped on it.” They also found an old glass bottle with a pink cap with the word “Hershey’s” on it, prompting them to speculate it probably contained chocolate milk 40 or 50 years ago.

While all four students are responsible for chronicling what they find, Swerzenski , a resident of Oak Ridge, NJ, who has not yet declared a major, was given an additional assignment: making sure everyone was adequately prepared and outfitted for the hikes. “I was an Eagle Scout, and I’ve done quite a bit of hiking and camping, so one of my jobs is to make sure all of our equipment is operable before we go into the field,” he says. “I also offered some safety tips about ticks and other dangers in the woods.”

Neipris, a psychology major from San Diego, says she’s thoroughly enjoying these treks away from the Vassar campus. “I chose this for my URSI project because I’ve never done this kind of field work before,” she says. “It’s good to do some work off the Vassar campus.”

Neipris says the project had changed the way she views her surroundings. “I’ll never look at an old beer can on the side of the road in the same way again,” she says. “It’s all a part of a puzzle.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, July 28, 2015