Not just for pirates: Philipsburg Manor’s buried treasure


Thursday, 6/21/2012 1:07pm

Cinematic and literary pirates are all about treasure of the gold doubloon variety, creating all sorts of controversy in their wake, but non-piratical digging for buried goods still causes more than its share of stormy seas.

Inspired by shows like the History Channel’s American Pickers, both National Geographic Channel and Spike TV launched reality shows focused on archaeological treasure-hunting in early 2012. Critics, some drawing comparisons to the 1987 Slack Farm looting (exposed, ironically perhaps, by National Geographic in 1989), organized petitions and sent letters admonishing both networks for promoting profiteering and the destruction of our national heritage.

The criticism grew so loud that National Geographic Channel actually stopped airing Diggers at least temporarily and removed all mention of the show from its website!  American Digger, meanwhile, carries on despite multiple shots fired across its bow.

Such “treasure hunts,” when performed systematically by professionals, can help discover cultural heritage.  Fifty years ago, archaeologists concluded a five-year-long investigation of the grounds of Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills to help create an authentic restoration.  Now a museum property that boasts a working mid-18th century gristmill and the site of the popular new, treasure-hunt filled Pirates of the Hudson event, Philipsburg Manor has a long and storied history as a small part of the estates of Philipses, a prominent Dutch merchant family.

In historical archaeology, context is more important than the items unearthed. The entire archaeological deposit tells the story.  The importance and meaning of an individual artifact is determined only by its location within the various geological and archaeological layers and what other artifacts are found in the dirt beside, below, and above.

The type and quantity of artifacts discovered attest to the activities carried on at Philipsburg Manor. In addition to foundations for numerous buildings and roads, investigators uncovered pieces of pottery, metal, and glass, the quality of which attest to the economic status of the family; brownstone (quarried locally) and coral (brought on trading ships from the West Indies); and leather, which indicated that shoe-repairing may  have occurred on site at one time. 

You can see the type of information researchers learned from foundations in the image of the dam site excavation (at right) which shows one dam wall built atop another. The same site had been used for a series of dams over the course of three centuries. Artifacts unearthed in the area pointed to several washouts that would have meant repair or replacement of earlier structures.

Both the presence and absence of artifacts informed researchers. The sheer number of artifacts -- more than 5,000 clay pipe fragments, for example found along the north edge of the millpond led researchers to believe the site was used as a dumping ground in the 18th and early 19th century (image at right).

The true treasure unearthed during the archaeological investigations at Philipsburg Manor is the evidence of the activity that took place on the site. That information informed the restoration of the site in the 1960s and continues to inform Historic Hudson Valley’s interpretation and special events.

For a treasure hunt of the more piratical kind, check out Pirates of the Hudson starting this Saturday!

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