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Annular Mounds at Perch Lake in Northern New York: Geoarchaeological and Archaeobotanical Perspectives

With National Science Foundation support, Drs. Julieann Van Nest and David Asch will conduct two field seasons of archaeological research at a large, unusual group of non-mortuary mounds at Perch Lake, east of Lake Ontario in northern New York State. The Perch Lake mounds are annular features that have long been objects of interest, but their purpose has remained enigmatic. An early estimate placed their number at 200, and upwards of 40 of them still remain in a well-preserved state. Typically the mounds are circular, symmetrical rings 10 m in diameter and 0.6 m high, with central depressions 2.5 m across. A recent pilot study of a mound built ca. 2,000 years ago showed that the ring portion is made of earth and stone and that the central depression contains much wood charcoal and fire-altered rock. Over the years many of the mounds have been partially opened, but no human remains have ever been found. Very few artifacts have been reported and no food refuse. Indeed it is the lack of such materials that has made past attempts at interpretation open to question and relegated the mounds to obscurity. At least 13 hypotheses regarding how the mounds were used have been proposed; these range widely from mounds serving primarily ritual functions, to lodges with perishable superstructures, to food processing facilities. Few of the hypotheses can be rejected conclusively on the basis of available information, and new field-based investigations are needed to address deficiencies in the current knowledge about the mounds. <br/><br/>Van Nest and Asch will work closely with members of the New York State Archaeological Association and results of the project will be communicated to the public through the resources of the New York State Museum. The team will conduct a modern census of the mounds and survey the surrounding cultural and natural landscapes. Newly collected and existing data will be used to build a GIS for the Perch Lake basin to examine potential correlations between mound locations and environmental and cultural variables. Topographic mapping will help to better characterize the form of the mounds. Limited test excavation is designed to obtain information concerning how the mounds were built and how they were used, especially addressing an hypothesis that the mounds may have been large earthen ovens used on a seasonal basis to process aquatic plants or other foods. <br/><br/>Construction of earthen mounds as integral components of humanly built landscapes extends back 5,000 years and more in eastern North American prehistory. Given this long time span and wide geographical spread, it is likely that many kinds of mounds were built for many different purposes. The ca. 2,000-year-old Perch Lake mounds appear to represent a unique or otherwise overlooked form of earthen architecture. Geographically they are situated at the periphery of Hopewellian mounds centered far to the southwest. This project seeks not only to address long-standing questions regarding the purpose(s) of the Perch Lake mounds, but also to place them into the broader geographical context of the midcontinental mound phenomena.

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