POTSDAM - How many miles to Timbucto? It's a question that SUNY Potsdam's anthropology department has been trying to answer for years.
The Timbucto in question is part of a pre-Civil War land reform experiment initiated by abolitionist Gerrit Smith, an experiment that recruited free blacks from Northern cities to farm land in the Adirondacks.
With many details about the Timbucto settlement lost to history, the staff and students of the SUNY Potsdam Archaeology Field School had been searching for a specific site for several years and this summer, they got a bit closer to confirming its location.
In July, the field school (a group of 13 SUNY Potsdam students, a professor and a teaching assistant) conducted a month-long excavation at a possible Timbucto homestead in Lake Placid.
Based on results from the previous field school's excavations in 2009, the students thought they might be close to discovering the "success story" of Timbucto: a homestead belonging to Lyman Epps, whose family survived at Timbucto longer than any other settlers.
"We know he was on the lot for almost 20 years, and that's why we targeted it," said Hadley A. Kruczek-Aaron, an assistant professor of anthropology and the field school leader. "A lot of other Timbucto settlers didn't stay very long on their lots, so as a result of that it's very difficult to find traces of what they left behind."
Timbucto was named after the legendary capital of Mali and was founded by Mr. Smith, a wealthy activist who gave free plots of land in North Elba to 200 black families from downstate cities.
The move was intended to make a social statement about racism as well as enfranchise the adult men as voters - Mr. Smith was a frequent candidate for political office - but failed miserably.
Most of the settlers - including the Eppses, who arrived in 1846 - came to the Adirondack parcels with no livestock, no seeds and no experience and were expected to pay back property taxes the very next year. According to census reports from 1850 to 1870, there were only thirteen black families listed in North Elba; by 1871 there were two, including the Epps family.
According to Ms. Kruczek-Aaron, the 2009 field school had attempted to track down the Epps site using a century-old map from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, but they had found no convincing evidence where the map said the homestead should be.
It was only when a descendant of the Lawrence family (who purchased the 40-acre Epps land parcel at the turn of the twentieth century) gave Ms. Kruczek-Aaron an old photograph of three log cabins that she realized the original survey might have been misleading them.
On the very last day of the 2009 field school, the students searched at a new location and their metal detectors went haywire. It was to this promising site that the field school returned in July 2011, and after one more metal detector survey they picked up their shovels and began to dig.
"The bottom line is that we did find evidence of what we believe to be the Lawrence occupation," Ms. Kruczek-Aaron said.
"We found structural remains of things like window glass and nails and what we would call possible chinking (material used in the construction of log cabins). We found lots of goodies, from medicine bottles to shoe fragments and shoe leather and buttons. We found a lot of a cast iron stove, but not the whole cast iron stove; we found a spoon, we found ceramic dishes, we found intact bottles and animal bone that showed evidence of butchering."
The artifacts unearthed by the field school were associated with a "burn layer," a grouping of material associated with fire damage. Because the burn layer corresponded with testimonies of a forest fire in 1903, Ms. Kruczek-Aaron knew the artifacts at least dated back to the Lawrence family's residence on the homestead; because some of the artifacts seemed to belong to the mid-19th century, she also suspected that the Epps family might have lived in the same clearing before the Lawrence family.
"When you have a fire like this, it's something that is tragic for the people because they lose all of their belongings, but what it does is it leaves behind kind of a snapshot of what was in their house at the time," Ms. Kruczek-Aaron said. "We find all these things that didn't decay."
The most telling of the artifacts found by the field school included cut nails, which were used in structures before 1890 and provided a clue that the Eppses might have occupied the now-destroyed log cabins in the photograph before the Lawrences. However, the nails alone were not enough to make a conclusion, and there was ultimately not enough evidence to solidly link the site with the Epps occupation.
Although the field school will be taking next summer off to analyze and write about this summer's data, Ms. Kruczek-Aaron will be giving a talk about the findings in Lake Placid this February. She ultimately hopes that a future field school will uncover a concentration of mid-19th-century artifacts at the Lawrence log cabin site, thereby confirming the presence of the Epps.
Christopher M. Morine, who participated in the 2009 field school as a student and in the 2011 field school as a teaching assistant, explained that the summer's search was complicated by Timbucto's "landscape of poverty" and concomitant lack of material possessions to excavate.
However, he said that students in both field schools not only dealt admirably with the difficulties but also benefited from the opportunity to use excavation tools and techniques, such as metal detectors and shovel test pits.
"This was their first time in the field, and I think they all went in with a good attitude and they all came out with a good attitude. I don't think we got discouraged - we were finding things," Mr. Morine said. "That's part of the adventure, trying to pinpoint where you think a site might be and then excavating there. #It was a great time, and I think it was a great experience for the students as well."