Beverwyck Archaeology recently completed field investigations at the Yates house and property, and are putting the finishing touches on a deed research project. The excavations, conducted during the 2019 and 2020 field seasons, provided information on when the house was built, activities occurring on-site, and a variety of other topics.
Below is a video interview we did with the Supervisor of the Town of Glenville, Christopher Koetzle, following the completion of our site survey. Click the image to follow a link to Youtube!
In May of 2018, I helped consult on an interesting project in the Hamlet of Slingerlands, located in the Town of Bethlehem just outside of Albany, NY. Efforts to rehabilitate and restore an old run-down and overgrown mausoleum known as the Slingerlands Family Burial Vault were in their earliest stages. An organization known as the Friends of the Slingerlands Family Burial Vault had formed to focus these efforts, raising money for the vault’s restoration and bringing in experts to aid in that endeavor. Their efforts so-far have been very successful. Their web-page can be found here, and I encourage everyone reading this to check it out and consider donating to the rehabilitation of this historically significant (and incredibly interesting) structure.
Restoration efforts actually began in April of 2018 when members of the Town of Bethlehem’s Highway Department removed trees from the top of the vault and regraded its entrance. My involvement in the project began shortly thereafter when a member of the Friends of the Slingerlands Family Burial Vault, asked me if I’d be interested in consulting on any archaeologically related issues that may arise. Specifically, the interior of the vault had a dense layer of debris and cultural material, and one of the internal sarcophagi had been damaged. To say I was interested is an understatement, and I enlisted a friend and colleague of mine to conduct archaeological fieldwork at the vault. (Just to note, all of the work we did for the Friends organization was voluntary.)
First a description of the vault: built in the early 1850s, the Slingerlands Family Burial Vault was constructed to house the remains of John A. Slingerland (1769-1850), patriarch of the Slingerlands family and father to John I., William H., and Albert Slingerland - these three men were all of local and regional significance, and the hamlet was named after their family during the 1860s.
The vault was constructed of mortared stone and brick set into a small, low-lying hill. The exterior of the vault’s front consisted of very large cut and mortared stone slabs, and much of this remains intact today. An iron door was set into the entrance-way that, at the time of fieldwork, had been pushed open and left to rust in place. The crypt’s interior was built with brick and mortar that was then covered with smoothed plaster. Fourteen burial niches were built into the far (south) wall, though only eight were occupied. Flanking the central path of the vault (actually forming the path) and immediately to the sides of the entrance were two sarcophagi.
The inside of the vault was a mess. Leaf litter, bricks, glass, and all sorts of refuse filled the space between the sarcophagi and forming a thick deposit closest to the entrance that tapered off as one moved inside.
The sarcophagi themselves were constructed directly on the vault’s floor and are later additions to the vault. Each entombed a single coffin. They were built with in the shape of inverted “L’s” with mortar and brick walls that abutted the adjacent vault walls. Sections of heavy slab stone were placed over the “L” shaped shell, and the entire structure was covered in smooth plaster. Marble markers were set into the exterior side faces of each sarcophagus. The one on the left (east) housed the remains of William H. Slingerland (1820-1910) while the right one (west) contained the remains of John H. Slingerland (1844-1914), son of William H. John H.’s sarcophagus measured 42. 5 in x 106. 3 in. William’s was slightly shorter.
At some point, the east wall of the John H. ’s sarcophagus failed, either due to poor construction, removal of the plaque, or some other kind of vandalism. The brick wall appeared to have buckled and collapsed outward while the slabs of stone that formed the top of the sarcophagus came down, breaking in the process and crushing the wooden coffin inside. The marble marker that was inset into the sarcophagus’ east wall was missing.
So this was the physical state of things when I arrived, in addition to an unknown number of years of vandalism, possible squatting, drinking, kids playing, and animals using the vault space as a den. My biggest concern was that human remains (or other objects) from inside the coffin had fallen out or had been forcibly removed, and that they were mixed into the general debris strewn over the floor. I’ve dealt with human remains before in a professional capacity during cemetery excavations twice – once on a Maya site and the other at the Almshouse cemetery excavations in Albany. The primary goal in both instances was to make sure that the remains and any associated grave goods stayed together in advance of repatriation. In all instances maintaining respect for the deceased was of paramount importance.
As mentioned, the central walkway between the two sarcophagi was strewn with debris. The debris was thickest near the door, approximately 14 in (35 cm) from its surface to the vault floor, and tapered towards non-existent near the south (far-end) of the vault.
At the Slingerlands Family Burial Vault, there was no vertical context to consider or record. Everything on top of the smooth concrete floor was the result of some kind of disturbance or vandalism, though there was the possibility that some of the objects could be the result post-burial rituals or rites (e. g., leaving of mementos, lighting candles). While not likely (especially considering the Slingerlands’ Protestant upbringing), it was still possible. Anything is possible when it comes to human behavior.
In removing the vertical relationships from consideration, we’re left with assessing the horizontal relationships of the artifacts encountered in the vault. This was of importance in that our primary concern – identifying possible human remains and associated grave goods – would be an example in investigating the distribution of artifacts in relation to the breech in the sarcophagus. We needed to find any possible remains or grave goods, and document where they were. If they were found close to the breech, then it becomes more likely they originated inside the sarcophagus. Not absolutely certain, but more likely. Archaeology is often a science of generalities.
As a result, the path between the two sarcophagi was partitioned into 50 cm thick “slices” that each measured 97 cm wide (the width of the floor between the two sarcophagi). All of the material located within a slice was removed and screened through ¼” mesh, and all of the artifacts were placed into paper bags (with the exception of whole bricks, which were stacked for future use if needed). The bags were later returned to my lab where they were cleaned and washed (or dry-brushed when fragile) and then sorted. Finally, they were entered into a catalog that detailed, among other things, what they were made from, their count, identification, and, most importantly, their provenience. It is then that distribution analyses could be conducted – in other words, studying patterns in artifact locations.
Although we didn’t find any artifacts of historical significance, two-thirds of the assemblage was glass. Lots of it was clearly the remnants of people hanging out in the vault and drinking – bottle glass, clear, brown, and green. The only identifiable beer bottle was from the Genesee Brewing Company (likely from the 1980s). A golf ball was found. Several different kinds of shoes, including sneakers from the 70s or 80s, and a somewhat formal woman’s wedge.
What we did not find, to my utmost relief, were human remains. Lots of coffin fragments, but no sign of human bone or any clear signs of grave goods. And while we did find bone, it was all of the “dead squirrel” variety.
With that, and a sweeping of the floor for a final cleanup, our fieldwork was done. I wrote up my findings and submitted a report to the Friends. The vault had a nice clean floor for further rehabilitation, and a bag of coffin fragments were given to the Friends of the vault for repatriation if they so chose to do so. Subsequent work at the vault has been very impressive, and the group’s progress can be seen here. The niches have been cleaned of sand, John H. Slingerland’s sarcophagus has been rebuilt and the marble plaque replaced, and a historical marker has been installed outside.