Monday, March 22, 2021

Remembering an Adirondack archaeologist

David Starbuck reached into the center console of his car and pulled out a polished stone. He dropped it in my hands. After I admired it for a moment he happily told me it was dinosaur poop.

He had pulled that prank on so many students. Some of them would drop the “polished turd” and yell “ew,” the archaeologist told me. In case I was about to do the same, he assured me that there was no harm in holding it now. He slipped it back into a labeled sandwich baggy.

A few months later, he would put the most beautiful blue, 18th century glass cufflinks in my hands, freshly dug from the site of an officer’s hut. It was one of his most exciting finds before he died at the end of last year.

Whenever you met Starbuck, something amazing was always going to happen.

And you never walked away without a photo of someone holding something awesome (which this newsletter will confirm).

I first met him about three years ago at the site of an 18th century merchant’s house in Fort Edward. It was an exceptionally hot summer day, but people of all ages were sifting, digging and brushing in the shade while Starbuck sat on a bucket by the edge of a pit. It was a colorful group. I remember an older gentleman smoking a cigar and sifting a big pile of dirt, next to a few college students.

Starbuck would snap photos or examine someone’s find. It was a rich archaeological site where he would uncover plenty of coins, wine bottles, buckles and delft. Here’s a video I produced about the dig.

Fort Edward was one of the municipalities I covered for The Post-Star. Stories centered around the aftermath of PCBs in the Hudson River–Fort Edward was the home of the General Electric dewatering site. It became a heavy burden to the town, village and their taxpayers.

It was a breath of fresh air to meet Starbuck and write something about Fort Edward so completely different. He loved Fort Edward and its history, though he was dismayed by some of the local politics. What always struck me was how sad he was that the town’s historical sites had not become the Fort Ticonderoga or Lake George Battlefield that he thought they had the potential to be.

He had worked at those sites and more around the Adirondacks. Chris Carola, a retired Associated Press reporter, wrote to me earlier this year on how he had written dozens of stories on Starbuck’s digs.

More from Carola:

“His work really was a key component of that region’s cultural heritage tourism for the French and Indian War, something that really started to surge after ‘Last of the Mohicans’ with Daniel Day Lewis came out in the early 1990s,” Carola wrote. “David always made sure to relate his latest project to that film since the book was based on actual events that occurred right on the grounds he was excavating. And while most people haven’t read the book, most have seen that movie. He told me several times that after one of my stories on his Lake George projects would hit the AP wires in the summer, tourists in large numbers would show up each day at the dig sites to check it out what was going on. David said those encounters were also great opportunities to educate people on an often forgotten period of America’s history and how Lake George played such a significant role in it.”

It is cliché to say, but Starbuck’s enthusiasm for archaeology and history was absolutely contagious. You could see it in the faces of all the SUNY Adirondack students digging, students of all ages, from all over the country. They were thrilled to be on a David Starbuck dig.

Ed Burke David Starbuck tribute

Finds from a dig on Rogers Island in the 1990s. Photo by Ed Burke

Photographer Ed Burke also shared with me a photo he took on one of the digs at Rogers Island. It is an arrowhead and musket ball, side by side. “Found a few inches apart but separated by thousands of years,” Burke noted.

I will never forget, too, when Starbuck first told me he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. There was no getting away from the topic. He had already begun to lose weight and his eyes were turning yellow. The timeline doctors had given him was so short, and he told me he wished he had decided to study medicine and make discoveries that way. Starbuck pressed on, and often told me digging gave him something to live for.

Last fall I called him to check in on the Revolutionary War remains unearthed in Lake George and the dig on Rogers Island in Fort Edward. Starbuck answered, but he was in the hospital and had just had a stroke the week before. We kept in touch and after he was discharged, we made plans to meet at his farm in Chestertown.

The meeting was tremendously sad. Starbuck handed me his CV and outline of his autobiography. The gesture and meaning behind that would bring me to tears on the car ride home. He was still having difficulty with his speech after the stroke, but he had so much more to say and share. There is so much responsibility in helping tell someone’s story, and I’ll never be satisfied with how I told Starbuck’s here. But, I hope you will read it and get a small glimpse of what he uncovered in the Adirondacks and beyond, and the impact he made on so many.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Gwen’s weekly “Adirondack Report” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Gwen is the environmental policy reporter for Adirondack Explorer.

One Response

  1. David would so much have appreciated that article. Thank you for writing about his amazing public archaeology efforts.

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