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Archaeologists mine the past at proposed construction site

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POTSDAM — Drivers pass through the intersection of Route 345 and County Route 35 as a small team of archaeologists hoists its shovels in a nearby field, looking for pieces of the past.

The state Department of Transportation plans to flatten a hill to increase visibility at the intersection. The $2.5 million construction project is not scheduled to begin until 2015, but before the backhoes and bulldozers break ground, the state needs to make sure they are not disturbing a historic site.

That is where project director Michael E. Jacobson, Binghamton, and his team of archaeologists come in.

An early survey of the proposed construction site showed evidence that the location may once have held a 19th-century farmstead. The state called in Binghamton University’s Public Archaeology Facility to take a closer look.

“We found some artifacts that indicate there might be something here,” Mr. Jacobson said.

The nonprofit facility performs archaeological digs at sites across the state in search of valuable historical data.

Mr. Jacobson and his team have divided the area into a grid. Over the next few weeks they will be systematically digging up the property, a few square feet at a time. As they remove the dirt, it is sifted through a screen to separate any valuable finds, no matter how small. Once an area has been thoroughly searched, the hole is filled back in and the workers move on to another one.

The work began a few days ago, and is expected to last a few weeks.

So far, the dig has turned up bits of ceramics, bent nails and broken glass from the 19th century.

“They’re basically the leftovers of daily life in the 1800s,” Mr. Jacobson said.

A few old nails won’t stop the bulldozers when construction begins. The survey is trying to determine whether the field near the intersection belongs on the National Register of Historic Places.

In order to qualify, the site must have ties to a famous person or event, or provide unique knowledge about a particular era.

“Is there enough information to learn more about people in the past?” Mr. Jacobson asked.

The survey will continue for the next few weeks; then the team will return to the University of Binghamton to compile its findings and make recommendations to the Department of Transportation.

Mr. Jacobson has been an archaeologist since 1997. He said he got into the business because of his love of history and the outdoors.

“It’s a way to see the past a different way, instead of just seeing what’s in the history books,” he said.

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