February 1991

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William A. Ritchie



Bill Treichler

The man who has done so much to unravel the mysteries about the ancient people who lived in eastern United States is Dr. William A. Ritchie. Dr. Ritchie conducted field researches on more than 100 major sites in this country and Canada for both the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences and the New York Museum and Science Service.

In central New York he carried on site work and kept track of the developments at more than 40 locations. His careful excavation at these places through different levels of early habitation, recording all the fire hearths, storage pits, graves, and the holes of shelter poles or palisade posts, in addition to the grave objects, broken tools, and camp refuse, enabled him to reconstruct the kind of living that must have gone on at the different sites.

When the radio-carbon dating technique became available in the 1950s, and he and other archaeologists were able to recover bits of old charcoal from these encampments of the early people, they were able to get dates for the sites, sometimes for upper and lower levels at the same location. These dates amazingly pushed back the time of occupancy of some of these sites beyond the age that had been accorded to them.

The new accurate dates made it possible to look for similarities in those sites of the same time period. It also made it possible to work out the sequence of Indian cultures of sites of different time periods.

William Ritchie has written more than 150 articles and monographs on his findings at different archaeologic sites. He was for many years the New York State Archaeologist; he has written a number of books on archaeology, and he has prepared informative pamphlets on the Indian History of New York State for grade school children. His great book that covers all of this study in thorough detail is The Archaeology of New York State first published in 1965, and then in a revised edition in 1980.

Dr. Ritchie lives now in Delmar, New York; he was born in Potsdam in 1903, but spent his childhood in Rochester, where he went to the University of Rochester and earned BS and MS degrees in archaeology. From Columbia University he received a PhD degree in anthropology. He did his first field work in the 1920s.

During the winter of 1925, Dr. Ritchie conducted, with the Rochester Museum, his first excavations at Lamoka Lake in the town of Tyrone, Schuyler County. The site was on a farm, and the archaeologists had to schedule their digging at a time of year before spring planting or after crop harvesting so as not to interfere with farm work on the land.

The owners of sites were usually cooperative and interested in the work of the archaeologists. Often it was the sharp eyes of the farmers who first saw the "arrowheads" in the plowed soil. They would show people their finds and word of a rich site for Indian artifacts would get to the archaeologists eventually.

Actually surface tillage didn't harm the site much, because it disturbed only the more recent upper levels. Plowing did free the surface of heavy vegetation which eased the diggers work. Some sites were dug through by collectors and this searching could mix layers and obliterate hearths or erase and confuse outlines.

The archaeologists were concerned with noting all the evidence left by these early settlers, even their garbage. Dr. Ritchie would sometimes go out at night to a dig to look at the ground with a flashlight to see if different shadows might reveal a form unnoticed in daylight.

From his first findings at Lamoka Lake he was able to say by 1932 that the people there had been in the Archaic stage of development. He researched a site along Seneca Lake near Geneva in 1935 and a site at Woodchuck Hill near Scottsville in 1936. By 1937 he had classified the aboriginal cultures in New York, and then in 1944 and 1951 he elaborated his first classification.

Dr. Ritchie's two years of digging and study during 1939 and 1940 at Frontenac Island, close to Union Springs near the north end of Cayuga Lake, confirmed the findings at Lamoka Lake. The Lawson, Ross and DiSanto sites then helped to define the territory of the Lamokan culture. These people had remained in the lake region of central New York, locating their campsites along shallow lakes and streams and around marshes where they could find an adequate supply of food.

Dr. Ritchie returned to Lamoka Lake in 1958 and again in 1962 for further digging. More hearth samples of charcoal collected in these years confirmed the earlier radio-carbon dates of about 2500 BC or 4500 years ago for the camp fires.

He had been right about the antiquity of the people at Lamoka Lake.

© 1991, Bill Treichler
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