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Public Archaeology Facility receives major state contract

The Public Archaeology Facility has won a new state contract worth up to $20 million over five years to inspect prospective Department of Transportation project sites. The Public Archaeology Facility, or PAF, an organized research center on campus, has a long history of working on transportation projects and, in fact, is wrapping up work on a similar five-year contract, said Nina Versaggi, PAF director and adjunct associate professor of anthropology. With help from three subcontractors, PAF will conduct archaeological surveys assigned to it by the New York State Museum in Albany.

The archaeologists will examine 100-150 project sites throughout the state each year, Versaggi said. Each location can go through as many as three phases. During the first phase, archaeologists do a systematic spot-check using small test excavations. “We have to answer the questions ‘Is there an archaeological site present or not,’ and ‘Is there significant historical architecture or not?’” Versaggi explained.

If so, the review continues with a second, more thorough excavation designed to establish whether the site is eligible for inclusion on either the state or national registers of historic places. The archaeologists prepare a report in which they argue for or against the site’s potential to yield valuable research data.

If the experts indicate a site has archaeological significance, the DOT then looks for alternative project sites. If none can be found, the archaeologists return for a third phase in which they excavate the site to recover data before construction. The archaeologists frequently consult with American Indian groups, historical societies, property owners and others who may have information about the history of a given site.

“Our field and research techniques have been improving, so we have been identifying more archaeological sites,” said Versaggi, who estimates that about 60 percent of sites now involve a second phase of excavation.

PAF employs 30-60 people, depending on the season. Its archaeologists work with the Department of Anthropology to marry the applied and academic elements of archaeology and to develop innovative approaches to research.

“We benefit from the academic division here, and the academic division benefits from data found on our projects,” said Versaggi, who is teaching a graduate-level course this semester.
“We are fortunate to have many opportunities to do field research that advances the research and teaching mission of the Anthropology Department and University,” she said. “We also get to work in our back yard, doing local archaeology.”

She noted that the University’s back yard happens to be an especially interesting one, since it’s at the confluence of two major rivers, the Susquehanna and the Chenango. Recent projects have led archaeologists to revise the long-established chronology for the region. New sites and radiocarbon dates have identified the earliest camps in the region and have produced research on continuity and discontinuity in American Indian land use, as well as documentation of diverse historic settlements, Versaggi said.

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