July 1, 2010

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Excavating the Sutler’s House: Artifacts of the British Armies in Fort Edward and Lake George, by David R. Starbuck, University Press of New England, 2010, 118 pages.

Before any Declaration of Independence, there were British settlers fighting not against Britain’s royal government but for it against the French in the New World. The British set up camp on Lake George and Lake Champlain, and one New Hampshire anthropologist has made it his job to dig into those sites.

David Starbuck is associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Plymouth State University. He previously wrote The Archeology of New Hampshire: Exploring 10,000 Years in the Granite State. Now with Excavating the Sutler’s House he documents the findings of his team (and earlier archeologists) at a handful of sites in northern New York state, particularly at a sutler’s house in Fort Edward. A sutler was a merchant who set up shop near a military camp and sold goods to soldiers.

The sutler’s house proved to be a treasure trove of artifacts in a region that includes “some of the most significant eighteenth-century military sites in the United States.” This book, slim and unimposing, includes a list of artifacts recovered there, and it’s flush with photos showing the items up close. Laid out before you are the soldiers’ wine bottles, the dishes they ate with, the knives they used, the coins from their pockets, their keys and padlocks, combs and pipes. There’s a mostly intact sundial and compass that was made in the 1730s.

Starbuck also shows and tells us about the excavation itself, which is as enlightening and interesting as the history. The process of discovery, of piecing together this building’s life story, is an adventure in its own right.

For context, and because it’s yet another informative part of the historical record, Starbuck provides quotes from the diary of Jabez Fitch Jr., who served in Fort Edward in 1757 and ’58. One entry mentions that the soldiers made chocolate the previous night. “The sutlers probably sold a great deal of hot chocolate, especially in the mornings, and it would have been just as popular as coffee,” Sutler says.

My kinda guys. ALisa Parsons