Comparative Analysis: An Important Way the Archaeology Team uses Collections

By Chris Sabick, Director of Research and Archaeology

One of the many benefits of our ongoing collections work is that the process exposes the Research and Archaeology team to artifacts from sites of similar historic context as those being worked on currently.  With the ongoing archaeological examination of the Revolutionary War battlefield at Arnold’s Bay, we are fortunate to have a multitude of related collections that we can use for comparative analysis with the artifacts we are currently excavating.  Perhaps the most valuable of these collections is the Lake Champlain Archaeological Associates (LCAA) Collection. 

The LCAA Collection consists of more than 4000 artifacts that were recovered from the bottom of Lake Champlain during the 1960s and 1970s by a group of avocational archaeologists.  The majority of the collection is related to the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay, the decisive naval battle on Lake Champlain from the War of 1812.  However, a smaller portion of the LCAA Collection dates from the American Revolution and was collected during the 1960-61 excavations of the Row Galley Congress hull remains in Arnold’s Bay.  The entire collection was donated to the Museum in 1997 by one of the principal members of the LCAA, William (Bill) Leege, and it is now curated on behalf of the US Navy in our collections storage facility.

For the past two field seasons Museum archaeologists, under a permit from the State of Vermont and the US Navy, have been mapping the Arnold’s Bay battlefield. Our team conducted intensive, systematic, metal detecting both on shore and in the water and conducted limited excavations of the hull remains of Congress.  Accessing the Congress artifacts from the LCAA collection has proven invaluable to helping us understand the objects located during our ongoing work at Arnold’s Bay while providing us with a more comprehensive understanding of the site.  As we metal detected around the known Congress hull remains, we encountered several interesting artifacts, including a well-preserved brass ink well.  Without readily available reference material on 18th-century ink wells for comparison, we were unsure of this item’s age or historic context. Luckily, we could turn to looking for comparisons within our recently re-inventoried Revolutionary War collections and found a nearly identical ink well in the LCAA collection. This example is currently on display in the Key to Liberty exhibit on the Museum campus. By studying the LCAA inkwell, our team confirmed that the Arnold’s Bay inkwell dated to the 18th-century and may have come from the cabin of Congress.

Another example can be found in the wood chips recovered during the limited excavations of the Congress hull remains. These appeared to be debris from the vessel’s construction that were left between the frames of the lower hull structure.  There was also evidence of tool marks on some of the surfaces of the uncovered hull timbers.  Final shaping of frame timbers (nautical terms: floors and futtocks) was often done with an adze, which would have produced both wood chips and tool marks like those discovered in and on the Congress structure.  Again, the LCAA Collection revealed an example of this tool type that was recovered from the site in the 1960s.  While we can’t say with certainty that the wood chips or tool marks we documented this summer were made by the adze from LCAA Collection, we are confident that it was a very similar tool.

These are just two examples of how the ongoing collections projects at the Museum help to facilitate and support our ongoing field efforts as we strive to gain a more wholistic understanding of the role of Lake Champlain in the American Revolution.  Our long-range goal is to make these valuable collections of artifacts available remotely to researchers working on similar sites from far outside the Champlain Valley.  And we look forward to sharing these objects with the public via an online collections portal which will launch in the coming years.

The Museum thanks the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership for their support of the Museum’s 2022 Collections Inventory of our Revolutionary War related collections.