Archaeology in the Ice Age

By Chris

Archaeology in New York involves the cold. Unless you have the luxury of summer field seasons starting in late June you are going to dig cold. Engineering firms with tight schedules need their projects shovel ready when they need it too. So HAZEx was started in the snow and has continued working throughout all four seasons in New York and the the Northeast helping our Engineer clients’ get their permits on time. My personal experience in Great Britain and the Deep South provided me with their own share of environmental challenges, constant wet and constant heat, but it took some serious thinking to work through out the year in Archaeology in New York.
I thought with the holiday season it might be nice to share our cold archaeology in New York experiences and methods in the following short list of projects.
First job we had was for a cemetery relocation in Delaware County. Though we found and reunited the remains in the summer and early fall, it wasn’t until November that we had the reburial. The site was on a wind-swept bare-knoll below John Burroughs ground-hog cabin. The graves were in frozen gravel and so we called on the local track-hoe operator to do the digging for us.
Later that winter we had two archaeology survey jobs for the New York State Office of Parks. This time it was in St Lawrence and Jefferson Counties (North County). There was a foot of snow on the sand ground and we were excavating test pits at 15 meter intervals across acres. First we tried filling tin buckets with red-hot coals and placing them on the ice, then we realized that if you tested the ground with a steel breaker-bar you could find areas with little to no ice just below the snow. These became our test spots and we took the frozen sod and thawed it in an archaeology double boiler consisting of a tin bucket filled with earth placed inside a large trash can partially filled with charcoal. WE put the lid on and by the time the hole was excavated into sub-soils the sod was thawed and could be screened despite the 0 degree temps.
Variations on this method have continued through the past five years and surprisingly we find that snow-covered soils seldom freeze below the sod before February even in frigid conditions. So then it just becomes a question of how to keep digging without your fingers and face freezing up. Luckily there have been plenty of products created for the insanity that is ice-fishing and late-season deer hunting that function just as well for the gonzo New York winter archaeological technician: hot-hands, glo-mits, snow-shoes, Mr. Heater, aluminum duct-tape.
But the greatest HAZEx success for a winter challenge has been site testing. We were asked for help with a farmstead site in Jefferson County three years ago and decided we’d give it a try. The shovel testing wasn’t hard as soils were loose and steamy having had an insulating 5 feet of snow protecting them from the -20 degree nights of February. But excavating units that took several days to complete was another story. So we dug down to our datums left over from the survey, put up strong pop-up tents sealed up with aluminum tape, turned on the propane heaters, and dug through 6 of the coldest days in the past decade for Watertown. Though the technician outside of the tent had to screen fast before the soils froze to the screen, the folks doing the digging were pretty comfortable. One of our more productive days was a day the entire region was closed down for a blizzard. We dug through the storm and, as luck would have it, the first plows of the day rolled by our little Outbacks just as we were packing up for the day. We have applied this method several times since and none of us dread the winter testing lie we did at first.
I found my new favorite winter sport Archaeology in New York.
Thanks for reading. For comments or questions email me at

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