A Catskill Catalog: July 25, 2012

We should call it the Davis-Felter Site. In the early 1940s, it was one of the most important archeological digs in New York State, and it was right here in Margaretville. And, the Davis-Felter Site was discovered and excavated entirely by amateurs, locals.

Archeological sites are named for the landowner, but a Davis Site already exists up in Essex County, so the hyphenated addition of the discoverer’s names seems appropriate.
One hot summer day, Ralph Felter Sr. sought a bit of shade on the north side of Route 30, in a copse of trees on the Calvin Davis farm. Ralph worked on the State Road. For years, he and his sons, Robert and Junior, had turned up Indian artifacts, projectile points and cutting tools, made of flint. It was this father-and-sons’ abiding interest.

Ralph noticed a patch of clover. He had read where clover grew in charcoal. Charcoal meant a firepit, the remains of a campfire, perhaps hundreds of years old. Ralph Felter Sr. started digging around with his knife, a long-time archeology hobbyist scraping at the ground in a shady spot during a hot summer dinner break from work.

And his knife struck gold. Not the shiny, wealth-making kind, but the gold that opens the door to the life of the past – the buried possessions of someone who passed this way many centuries ago: a cache of flint.

The flint was either a cache of knives, or a cache of likely pieces of flint stone, trimmed and ready for later napping. Depends on who’s remembering. But Ralph Felter’s noontime discovery turned out to be Normanskill flint, carried here from the Hudson River, over by Coxsackie, the only place such flint exists.

Ralph S. Ives was an attorney in Roxbury, a friend of Ralph’s, and a fellow Indian-artifact collector. Described as “so honest it hurt,” Ralph Ives was a learned man whom Ralph Felter trusted completely.

Ralph went to see Ralph, Felter telling Ives what he had found. Maybe Ralph Ives spoke with landowner Calvin Davis, but permission was granted to dig, and one Sunday morning, soon afterward, an organized, structured archeological dig began, on the south side of Route 30, just east of Margaretville.

Eventually, the dig formed a trench about 200-feet long, just below the road, a trench maybe 30-feet wide at some heavily-worked points.

Excavators, Ralph Ives, Ralph Felter, his sons, Robert and Junior, Henry Purchell, and his son, Dick, worked on Sundays. Junior Felter was still in high school, and everybody else worked fulltime, so Sunday was the sole excavation day.

They dug down four-and-one-half feet. Digging that deep, these amateur archeologists dug, carefully, through the sediment of many ages. They uncovered fire-pits that evidenced human occupation, at various spots along that site, over thousands of years. That’s right, thousands of years.

The artifacts were of flint. There is no source of flint anywhere near here. Projectile points and cutting tools found at Davis-Felter were all carried in. That was the point of the cache that Ralph Sr. first found. Someone had carried pieces of flint collected elsewhere, and buried them here, knowing he or she would return, and need flint for knives and points.
Makes you wonder why the cache burier never came back.

Ralph Felter Jr. remembers a visit to Vincent J. Shaeffer, in Schenectady, to report on the find. Schaeffer was the self-taught genius who invented cloud seeding, while working for GE, and went on to lead the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center in Albany. He was a champion of hands-on scientific learning. But the Davis-Felter scientific dig was not his dig, and Vincent Schaeffer wasn’t so interested.

The excavation went on for a couple of summers. Ralph Ives’ team took a lot of native artifacts out. Henry Purchell’s collection today resides in the Old Stone Fort Museum up in Schoharie.
Working only Sundays meant the amateur archeologists, and their partner, farm-owner Calvin Davis, lost some valuable stuff to folks who might find themselves out there - just happen to have a digging tool - on a Tuesday evening, and, wow, there’s a couple of arrowheads!

Arrowhead is a misnomer. The bow and arrow is a relatively recent invention, within the last five or six hundred years. The points found four-and-one-half feet down are thousands of years old. They would have been projectile points on the head of a spear, thrown with an atladle.
An atladle is an a spear thrower, an arm extender, made of wood, that allows a hunter to throw a projectile, pretty accurately, over long distances, and, then, reload from a quiver of spears.

A flood, backwash from problems on the Binnekill or the Bull Run, filled the trench with water, which gave Calvin Davis pause, and the excavation closed down, only a few years after it had begun. Later, Route 30 was rebuilt, moved south a bit, and widened considerably, and most of the Davis-Felter Site is now under the road.

In 1955, Ralph Ives published a paper, “The Davis Site at Margaretville, New York,” in the Bulletin of the New York State Archaeological Association (Albany, no 3, 1955, P- 11-14). But William Ritchie’s definitive 1965 book, The Archeology of New York State, makes no reference to the Margaretville site, while granting the designation “Davis Site” to a Crown Point excavation that came to light in 1958, a decade-and-a-half after our Davis-Felter Site.

It’s right across the road from Mike Ondish’s garage. There ought to be a blue sign.
billbirns@gmail.com