‘After I was honorably discharged, I thought about studying medicine, but something had enchanted me about that poppy field.’
“When I was growing up in Massapequa, I didn’t really find Long Island that interesting. I didn’t think there was much history here; everything seemed to be developed. I read through my grandmother’s encyclopedias to see all the cool places in the world, and I had this old globe, and I would fantasize about all the different places I could go. My family doesn’t come from money at all, so there was no way I was going to college, but my grandfathers had made it out of Long Island and seen the world in the U.S. Army in World War II. I joined up at age 18 and served four years as an infantry rifleman in 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, including two seven-month combat deployments to Marjah, Afghanistan, from 2010 to 2011 and 2012 to 2013. We lost a lot of friends there. Three people at our first deployment, one during our second deployment. We were patrolling poppy fields in southern Afghanistan that were a source of funding for the Taliban. I would be up there in the guard tower watching them plant and tend a poppy field a little bit bigger than a football field, right in the middle of a community, and thinking this is a huge culture shock.
“I’m from Massapequa. I’ve never seen Central Asia, the Islamic culture, let alone farms. After I was honorably discharged, I thought about studying medicine, but something had enchanted me about that poppy field. I decided to study botany, the science of plants and how people use them. The whole time I’m going to college, I’m traveling as much as I can, digging at archaeological sites at the base of Mayan pyramids in Belize, and doing underwater excavations, finding coins on ancient Roman shipwrecks off the coast of Caesarea, Israel.
“I’m getting married on April 30, and my fiancée are I still traveling, but the more we go away, the more I’m seeing my connection to Long Island. No place can compare to my home, and the more I learn about ancient plant use, my archaeological field, the more I realize it’s a field that hasn’t been looked at on Long Island as much as other places. There’s so much to learn from studying archaeology on Long Island.”
There’s so much to learn, and archaeologists aren’t the only authority on our past.
“Many Long Islanders are into metal detecting nowadays. You can find gold watches, rings, jewelry. A lot of people are afraid to tell anyone about their finds. But in New York, anything that’s 50 years old is archaeological, and if it’s found on private land, it’s pretty much yours to own. If you think it’s a significant object, it’s ethical to let a New York State museum or a local university know that there’s an archaeological site there.
“For archaeologists, it’s not just about the stuff, it’s about the context that stuff is found in. We don’t make any money off what we find. We’re trying to measure or understand items that are essentially garbage from the past. In my field, I try to find out what kind of plants people were using in the past. I’m looking in the soil, digging in ancient kitchens, hearths and abandoned privies. I take what I find to the lab and look at the species of each seed to see the plants people were using.
“I teach at Queens College CUNY in Flushing, and I’m a PhD student at the CUNY grad center in Manhattan. I’m working on a dissertation investigating early 17th century colonialism in coastal New York, and, specifically, how plant use and foodways were impacted during periods of conflict. I’ve looked at seeds upstate in the Mohawk Valley, and soil samples from the New York State Museum excavated in the 1990s at Mohawk archaeological sites. I’m trying to see the differences in the plants the Mohawks were using before and after the Europeans arrived.
“I haven’t started my field work yet on Long Island. The most important thing to realize is that you might think you’re studying the bygone past, but everything that has happened on Long Island in the past impacts right now. Native American communities such as the Shinnecocks, Montauketts and Unkechaugs are still here. It’s their ancestors we’re studying, which demands equal partnership with descendant communities. There’s so much to learn, and archaeologists aren’t the only authority on our past. It’s the descendant communities, also including African Americans and European and more recent immigrants to Long Island, that have an equal partnership in understanding the past and using archaeology to explore it.”