Joe Diamond receives a small shard of blue and white from one of his undergraduate students and flips it over in his dirt-creased hand, rubbing it with his thumb to remove the centuries-old soil.
“Majolica, 17th century,” he says with the unassailable confidence of an art appraiser showing a piece. “This stuff is like 1630 to about 1660 — it’s EXACTLY what I’m looking for…this is kind of what proves that were in a 17th century trench.”
The SUNY New Paltz professor — Diamond, his students call him — is showing me around the archeological dig he has been working on since 1998. About ten soil-streaked students are grouped around several six-foot-by-six-foot pits with square bottoms and straight sides, carefully scraping the lacunae’s bottoms in their search for artifacts.
The site is off Huguenot Street in New Paltz, down by the verdant Wallkill River. The area is popularly known as “America’s Oldest Street,” and includes preserved stone buildings dating to the early 1720s.
However, Diamond is going for artifacts older than that. Beneath the ground lies evidence of wooden structures pre-dating the stone homes and innumerable artifacts from the inhabitant’s everyday lives.
The area was settled by French Huguenots in the late 1600s, Diamond tells me, who were sold the area by the English Governor at the time, Edmund Andros.
The area near the Wallkill River was considered the region’s hinterlands at the time, as it was a day’s travel from the more established settlements of Hurley and Kingston, and Andros made the Huguenots construct fortifications to defend the new town from the Munsee Indians, Diamond said.
“[Andros] just didn’t really feel like…trying to get someone down here, so he said, look, you can buy the property, you can have a settlement here, but you have to have some sort of fortification to protect yourself,” Diamond said.
The fortifications against the tribe said less about the Munsee and more about Andros’ experience with other tribes while governing different parts of the colonies in the Northeast, he added.
The Huguenots built a redoubt, Diamond says — a fortification — which stretches across a couple properties on either side of Huguenot Street. The reboubt is long gone, but evidence remains in the soil.
The structure’s posts have rotted away, but the holes they rested in are marked by yellow soil from the deteriorated wood.
Diamond darts back and forth across Huguenot Street, pointing out the locations of post-holes that have already been located. He can’t dig everywhere he would like due to modern aspects of the street, such as the sewer lines, the road itself, and, ironically, the historical marker denoting the site, which Diamond says is incorrect.
The redoubt was built around 1678-1680, and a couple decades later, about 110 structures crowded the street, Diamond said.
Many of the original structures had their materials re-purposed in other buildings. Diamond points out the blue stone below the staircase of the exigent Reformed Church of New Paltz, which was taken from a structure knocked down in 1829.
Most of what Diamond and his students find is essentially historical trash. In the basement of one of the Huguenot Street homes, 300 glass beads, as well as “probably 20,000 fish bones” were found, the detritus of the house’s slaves, Diamond said.
As the dig is on a public street that is also a National Historic Site, it attracts its share of history buffs, as well as tourists curious about the dig. Rueben Slater, one of Diamond’s students, said those stopping by often make jokes about finding gold or Indiana Jones.
The students dig about 10 centimeters a day, Slater said, scooping up thin layers of soil and placing them on giant sieves before the remaining material is washed and examined.
The students go through the material first, but Diamond checks their work. I see him pick through a pile of what looks like wet pebbles, extracting chips of pottery and minute bits of animal bone.
Not only is there colonial bric-a-brac studded throughout the street’s soil, but Native American artifacts dating back 9,000 years. Diamond mentioned a projectile point, such that would be used on an arrow or spear, that dated back to 6800 BC. Another was dated to 7000 BC. A domesticated dog skeleton found at the site was carbon-dated to about 1300 AD.
Evidence of wigwams have been found on the site, Diamond said, as well as longhouses, which the Munsee began constructing at about 1000 AD.
Mandi Bonney, who is about to enter her senior year at New Paltz, described pre-historic artifacts found at the site.
“Lots of prehistoric pottery, animal bones, then there’s also different kinds of lithics [like] debitage, which is basically the shards and the scraps that come out when they hit a piece of flint to make, say, an arrowhead,” she said.
Tom Amorosi, a zooarchaeologist from the Museum of Natural History who is working with High School and Middle School students at the site, said the students must get at least 50 cm down to start seeing prehistorical artifacts — pieces from before colonization.
The students do not need to dig for long to find evidence of the past. Almost every small sample they scoop up includes some sort of artifact, whether it be pottery shards, rusted nails, or 18th-century silver coins.
Diamond still has areas of Huguenot to unearth. Thankfully, a new crop of students will be here next year to continue the search.