Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I-95 bridge dig yields American Indian site

A $1.1 million archaeological dig that has been under way for months as part of the proposed project to replace the Scudder Falls Bridge has turned up evidence that American Indians lived at the site as long ago as 500 B.C. and as recently as A.D. 1500.

The most "intriguing" pieces of evidence found at the Ewing site "are the physical remains of a large number of hearths," said John Lawrence, a senior archaeologist with AECOM, a Trenton engineering firm hired by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission.

The commission owns and operates the bridge, which carries I-95 across the Delaware River between Bucks and Mercer Counties, and it is paying for the dig.

"They are the remains of where the Native Americans would have been cooking food for storage and for daily meals," Lawrence said.

AECOM is conducting the dig with the New Jersey and Pennsylvania historic-preservation offices to determine if artifacts might be affected by the proposed bridge project, said Joe Donnelly, a spokesman for the commission.

The dig started in October, with 10 people in the field and two in the laboratory. Lawrence said archaeologists should be done digging in Ewing this week. A dig on the Pennsylvania side, in Yardley, is projected to take three or four months. It could get under way within a month, Lawrence said.

In Ewing two weeks ago, the archaeological team found the charred remains of nut shells that might be evidence of the American Indians' diet.

Other artifacts found include chips of stone that the American Indians might have used to create a tool, such as an arrowhead.

"Many of the artifacts would just be a piece of stone to a layman, but information about the technology being employed by Native Americans to make their tools tells us about their ways of life," Lawrence said.

About 10 percent of the artifacts are tools, including projectile points, pottery, markers used for drawings, and hammer stones, he said.

The artifacts are taken to an off-site lab to be cleaned, processed, and cataloged. Some objects, such as ceramics that could contain plant or animal residue, are sent to a specialized lab, Lawrence said.

When the project is done, the artifacts will be taken to the New Jersey State Museum, where researchers and others can analyze them.

Donnelly said archaeological digs were standard procedure when large-scale public projects such as bridges or highways are proposed.

If the site has been determined to contain significant information about the past, archaeologists will recover that information before the project moves ahead, he said.

The bridge commission is working with transportation departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to advance a $310 million I-95/Scudder Falls Bridge improvement. Construction is set to begin in 2013.

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