ALLEGANY — As volunteers watched, Ata Oz carefully and slowly scraped soil away from a precious piece of pottery that had been packed in its clay burial site for more than 800 years.
Oz, a native of Turkey, is one of eight international Volunteers for Peace students assisting archeologist Dr. Steve Howard with this year’s Allegheny Valley Project (AVP) archeology dig off of Route 417 in Allegany.
On Thursday, there was an air of anticipation at the site, located in the back farm field of Canticle Farm, as Howard and his volunteers worked on excavating pottery pieces that will be used to reconstruct an ancient pot, perhaps the size of a large flower vase. The dig has been ongoing for the past three weeks and will continue through Aug. 15.
The annual archeology dig is conducted by Howard, an Olean native, who uses groups of volunteers to search for artifacts dated from as long ago as the Archaic Period, between 8,000 B.C. and 2,000 B.C. Howard has supervised volunteers at the Allegany Bockmier site behind the Canticle Farm market for seven summers. The digs have been funded through donations to the non-profit project headed up by Howard, field director at the Galt archaeological site near Florence, Texas. He also teaches classes at Austin Community College. As the excavation work places emphasis on educating people of all ages, youngsters are especially welcome. Children 14 and under, however, must be accompanied by an adult.
While stepping away from the site for a few minutes, Howard said pottery pieces found during the dig will be reconstructed with special resins at a lab in Austin, Texas. This process will minimize any future damage to the pot.
“We just have to be careful because sometimes the pots have residue from what they were cooking inside of them, we have to be careful not to take any of that off,” Howard said during a walk past Canticle Farm’s squash field.
“We’ll try to extract as much of that as possible so we can reconstruct what they were actually cooking or storing in that vessel,” he added. “All of this stuff is going to be stored at the (Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca); they have the option that it could be displayed at any given time.”
Longtime volunteer Jill Patton, of Colorado, said this year’s group has found “a nice lot of pottery and we also found the base of a projectile point” used for darts and fitted arrows.
She said the current group of young volunteers hail from countries including Mexico, France, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Turkey. Members of the group are staying in rented houses in Allegany and have enjoyed local offerings that have included pow wows, Allegany and Letchwork state parks, as well as movies, bowling and restaurants.
Patton said there has also been a smattering of local adults and children who have helped at the dig. As most volunteers are not professionals or trained in the art of archeology digs, they are taught on-site by Howard.
One of the volunteers, Cristina Quintas, a native of Spain, and currently residing in California, said she learned of AVP through the internet.
“I really like it, I’ve learned a lot,” Quintas said, noting she is interested in art and history.
Julia Schmidt of Germany said she has never participated “in anything like this before.”
“I’m just trying to gain some life experience in general and I thought this would be interesting,” she shared.
Josue Valdec of Austin, Texas, said he has helped with digs in his home state and finds the Allegany site totally different from those in the Southwest.
“I’m learning a lot about archeology and how to set up squares” on the ground for digs, he said. “I didn’t know how to do any of that before.”
When Howard was asked why he continues to come back to Allegany every summer, he said that while in college he had worked with Robert Dean, a former Seneca Nation archeologist and owner of a cultural resource management firm.
Howard said he made a promise to Dean to one day return to the Allegany area to conduct archeology digs, as the area was underserved by “non-rushed” academic work at the digs.
As a result, Howard and his hundreds of volunteers over the years have unearthed a number of irreplaceable artifacts that had been used by the ancient predecessors of Seneca tribes.
“I promised (Dean) that I would come back and work in this area as an academic, and here I am,” he said.
For more information on the project, to donate or volunteer, visit the alleghenyvalleyproject.com website or send emails to email@example.com. Volunteers work at the site from approximately 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.