exterior of Dickson Hall
News and Announcements

Archaeology Students Expose Historical Erasures in Northern New Jersey

Posted in: Anthropology, CHSS News

MSU students and field school staff posing in front of an active excavation pit. Darryl Harris (standing third from the left) is a descendant of the African Americans who lived at Dunkerhook.

While most New Jerseyans might associate the town of Paramus with great shopping and terrible traffic, a group of 13 Montclair State University students dug into the town’s past this summer on an archaeological dig to unearth hidden Black and Indigenous histories. Joining professor Christopher Matthews of the Anthropology department, students excavated a site of a 19th-century African American household on Dunkerhook Road. The goal of the project was to bring to light histories of a marginalized community who have been deliberately erased from the historical record and our collective memory by recovering traces of the everyday lives of the men, women, and children who lived at Dunkerhook.

The African American Dunkerhook community was founded in the early 1800s by formerly enslaved men and women and remained in place until the early 20th century. At its peak the community consisted of six households consisting of more than 40 individuals. They also established an AME Zion church. Men worked on surrounding farms as laborers as well as drivers and coachmen for wealthier whites. Women were often laundresses, though Catherine Bennett’s obituary in 1911 noted that she was “a midwife who assisted at least 650 births for both black and white families … She read widely and was knowledgeable of not only medicine, but of agriculture, horticulture, and politics.”

Students excavated test pits and recovered thousands of artifacts. Exciting finds included pottery shards, animal bones, medicine bottles, marbles, slate pencils, brass buttons, horseshoes, a cow bell, a nursing bottle, an inkwell, a lock, and more than twenty small processed cheese containers that were likely repurposed to store something—perhaps medicine or baby food. These materials are currently being analyzed in the lab of the Center for Heritage and Archaeological Studies at Montclair State.

Students also did an initial survey of sections of the Dunkerhook Area of Saddle River Park. Artifacts recovered from these tests indicate that Native Americans occupied this area during what archaeologists call the Archaic era about 2000 years ago. Consultation with members of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape nation, whose ancestral land includes the Paramus area, has led to new relationships and collaborations.

Field school students and staff were invited to visit with Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann and Clan Mother Micheline Picaro to learn more about their history and struggle to preserve their heritage. Documenting Ceremonial Stone Landscapes has become a new focus for the team.

Small patent medicine bottle from the turn of the 20th century photographed in situ.
MSU archaeological field school students and staff in front of a large stone feature that is part of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation’s Ceremonial Stone Landscape. Turtle Clan mother Micheline Picaro is second from the right.
MSU archaeology students Dangelis Soto and Will Williams recording a unit profile at the Dunkerhook site.
Mid-19th-century ceramic ink well recovered at Dunkerhook.
End of the field school group photo. Everyone is wearing the Dunkerhook Field School t-shirt designed by the students.
The t-shirt design for the Dunkerhook field school noting the theme of exposing erasure.