Archeology Digs

Panning for Old

by Melinda Nye

The prospect of selling history on e-Bay can't fully explain our fascination for detritus. We seem wired to search for buried treasure, as if ancient, ancestral memories urge us to pull things from the soil; we dig, scrape and tunnel after forgotten fragments of human history.

Happily, New Jersey offers a vast repository of ancient treasure. Beginning with the arrival of paleo-Indians, humans have hunted, gathered, plowed, mined and built across New Jersey for thousands of years. Lost to dirt and time, most artifacts remain hidden until pushed to the surface by floods, construction, or farming. Archaeologists dream of such moments: the sudden appearance of projectile points, colonial glassware, Civil War buttons. Enough clues might prompt an investigation, or a "dig". Soil will be removed, inch-by-inch, as they delve into the mysteries of Who, When, How. For the public, a wide range of courses and activities have offered opportunity to understand a science that studies relics to interpret vanished societies.

At the Lenape Meadow project, careful inspection by volunteers such as Kathy Halsey, above, yielded artifacts such as those shown below

The Lenape Meadow Excavation at Lord Stirling Park, sponsored by the Somerset County Park Commission, sought elusive clues to a people whose only record lies deep in dirt. Scouts and school classes visit the site, and volunteers did much of the work. Two hundred years of agriculture have obliterated most clues to Indian occupation, but to the trained eye the meadow holds potential clues to the lives of paleo-Indians.

Objects from the Lenape Meadow include flint and quartz chips, shards of Early Woodland pottery, and tools and projectile points from the Late Archaic, Early Woodland, and Late Woodland periods (c. 6,000 to 650 years ago). The natives took advantage of the resources in an area that was once more heavily forested, but with an animal and plant population much as it is today - deer, fox, muskrat, skunk, etc. The natives cooked game in firepits, leaving layers of charred earth behind.

Volunteers scraped trowels along packed earth working well below the plow zone and the level that sometimes reveals 18th century ceramics and fragments of colonial pipes. Due to the characteristics of the swamp, there are no organic remains; no one expected to find bone. Even without cadavers, it is not elegant work.

An adjacent pit had proven more exciting where the team discovered a hearth and flint knife from the Late Archaic period. Brian Sniatkowski of Minnola scraped dirt off the dark stains of hearth dating back thousands of years. A ring of rock, resembling a mini-Stonehenge, jutted from the still-charred ground where a family, clad in skins, once clustered together for warmth and food in an ancient forest.

By late fall, the work moved indoors, where the finds were cleaned and catalogued. It is the task of years, the typical effort of small, dedicated teams supported by county, community, and corporate assistance.

The work at Lenape Meadow stands in striking contrast to the events that recently unfolded on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The discovery of endangered flora and fauna forced a beach closure in the park. Forced to find another beach, the Park Service studied shorelines along the Delaware River. Downstream, where the river bottom seemed suitable, Bruce Bevan of Geosight (formerly of Pitman NJ) checked soil compaction with a ground-testing radar system. An object 3.5 meters underground caused a shift in radar signals. Preliminary shovel probes revealed signs of a center post. Soon after, ancient net sinkers, a storage pit and pottery that contained burned corn, beans, and nuts saw the light of day for the first time in hundreds of years.

"Everything really started the end of May," recalls Lori Rohrer, an Archaeologist with the Delaware Water Gap NRA. "It was phenomenal. It was the kind of stuff you really don't find. You just get lucky."

Lucky indeed. Archaeologists had uncovered a Late Woodland site, an 800-year-old village of five structures. The discovery led to the largest excavation in the Delaware Water Gap, funded by The National Park Service. The find overturned old assumptions of a nomadic, native Indian population.

"It seems logical now. People will live in villages. They like the social interaction. This was probably an extended family who lived and fished by the river for three seasons," John R. Wright, Cultural Resources Archeologist of DWGNRA, speculates.

The genius of archaeology lies in cultural interpretations drawn from fragile, scattered clues in the earth. The village offers a tantalizing glimpse of the day-to-day life of Late Woodland Indians, the probable ancestors to the Delaware Indians. The Park Service uncovered hundreds of artifacts: hammer stones to knock off flint at a quarry, and an adze to carve canoes from tree trunks. Stain from post molds revealed the placement of a fence, prompting questions as to its purpose. Tests on the materials and subsequent interpretations will no doubt mirror those done on a Late Woodland clay pot, discovered earlier at the Delaware Water Gap NRA. The crosshatched pattern around the rim baffled archaeologists, who worked through various possible explanations. "The decorations were made with porcupine quills," John Wright explains. "We know that from microscopic evidence, and tests with materials."

Some of the artifacts will go to native groups, and the collection should be available for viewing by next summer. Park employees were relieved to complete the dig, well aware that looters might find the site irresistible.

"The very nature of archaeology destroys things, but we reestablish the site in the lab," John Wright explains. "When things are stolen, someone has destroyed history. All chance of learning is lost when the object is taken out of context."

Context is key. Accurately recreating a long-gone era is the bedrock of living history. In Stanhope, at the Lenni Lenape Village in Waterloo Village, (currently closed) archaeologist John Kraft used information gleaned from years of work to recreate the tragic, final phase in the Lenape's history. A tangible culmination of an archaeological project, staged scenes in the village depict Indians negotiating with Dutch traders, and a child suffering from smallpox.

As the next wave of human occupation pushed the Indians out, those same traders and early colonials left their own artifacts behind. In Alexandria Township, a building project unearthed Hessian gravesites. In North Branch, when homeowners raised their homes to prevent a recurrence of the damage caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, an archaeologist working for an architectural firm discovered a cache of colonial artifacts under a house's foundation.

The former privy was a bountiful source of prized artifacts during the excavation at Lord Stirling’s Manor. The reassembled porcelain “precipice” bowl shown above could have been brought from England by Stirling himself. The pieces of brandy bottles below were also among the hundreds of discarded items discovered from the Colonial household.

For those who don't want to rely on serendipity, an annual 1770s Festival at the SCEEC in October offers a chance to appreciate colonial society. Items gleaned over the course of a public archaeological project sponsored by the SCEEC and conducted by Dr. Cooper are displayed at the 18th century manor house of Lord Stirling, a Major General during the American Revolution. 80,000 pieces, representing more than 230 years of occupation, were discovered over the course of the project (which ended in 1991). Living historians demonstrate the use of many tools, making such items as rifles, redware pottery, powder horns, and clay items with Stirling clay.

Beginning with the same timeframe in New Jersey's history, an interest in the early era of mines and mining communities has prompted some archaeologists and historians to study New Jersey's abandoned mines. Iron works in the Highlands area supplied ore for at least three wars, starting with the American Revolution. At Ringwood Manor in Ringwood State Park, visitors can learn about an iron community's development through the Colonial, Federal and Victorian periods. Founded in 1766 and operational until 1882, Long Pond Ironworks, an integral part of Ringwood Manor, still exists, in part. The ruins of three furnaces can be found in Lond Pond Ironworks State Park in West Milford.

A fascination for the men who carted materials from deep inside the earth pulls the curious to odd features in New Jersey's hills. Just north of Route 80, the Mount Hope Mine, begun in the early 1700s, is possibly one of the oldest mines in the United States, a remnant of the quest for widely demanded iron ore. The Mount Hope Mine, along with the Hibernia Mine, provided shot and ordnance for the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The Mount Hope Mine would yield close to 6,000,000 tons of iron ore. The bone-chilling depths of its New Leonard shaft reached almost 2,700 feet.

Ultimately, the mines were abandoned, leaving rubble-strewn holes and deep shafts behind. Most have been sealed. The main entrance to the Hibernia Mine has been closed and preserved as a bat hibernaculum. Armchair archaeologists and historians can visit Abandoned Mines of the Highlands for a sense of the scope and range of New Jersey's mines. A member of the North Jersey Highlands Historical Society, Mike Hetman hopes to simultaneously educate the public and preserve the old mining sites. The curious can submit questions to his on-line forum. According to his website, Mr. Hetman occasionally gives private tours of some of these sites and provides insight regarding their history and stories of the past.

More contemporary puzzles challenge forensic archaeologists who shift through debris for clues to crimes that are often environmental. The work is not for the fainthearted. In 1998, odd things, unearthed by erosion, popped up at a Superfund site in Sussex County along the banks of the Delaware River. The odd things turned out to be unexploded WWII ordinance: phosphorous based flares, chemicals used in manganese hand grenades. "It was volatile stuff," says John Wright. "It got turned over to the Explosive Ordinance Detail. It took thirty to forty-five days to expose it all."

Projectile points to pollutants: digs in New Jersey beg the question. What will we leave? Will future generations have the same urge to know us? At the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, on the eve of the NWR System's Centennial, the staff sealed a time capsule. Inside the metal cylinder, employees and volunteers placed assorted photos and letters, a tribute for a fallen ranger, and a CD with songs by staff members. Their ready-made artifacts were locked away for another generation, with instructions that the cylindrical vault remain locked until the year 2103. (Still drawn to the thrill of buried treasure, some participants were disappointed by the capsule's placement above ground.)

The mystery of human history tugs at our imagination. In that spirit, I decided to conduct my own mini-dig. Of all possible shocks, I was most afraid of uncovering buried electrical lines. According to the state, shallow digs around 6 inches deep would exempt me from permit requirements. I gave in to the lure of dirt, earth, and mystery and reverted to the urge of our ape ancestors­in a modern tech way. With a friend, I struck out across a farm where a plow had uncovered immense, century old hand-forged horseshoes. Swinging a big, handheld metal detector over the ground, we navigated cow patties and picked our way through a field of alfalfa. We tried to coax secrets from the earth. Only half in jest, we laughed at a fantasy of uncovering George Washington's sword. The needle swung. Bleeping noises came from the metal detector. Grabbing shovels, we scooped out the topsoil, to discover ore in buried rocks.

Twenty minutes later, we abandoned the rock-strewn field and headed for a stream by the wreck of a 19th century kiln. The metal detector clicked and bleeped over a discarded feed bin cover. We kicked leaves around. Eventually we discovered a small narrow pipe, shards of broken glass and a model horse encased in a clear plastic box. A milk bottle, surprisingly intact, perhaps fifty years old. And lots of ore-laced rock. A woman stood in her driveway, watching us work. This hunt for debris was perhaps best left to professionals.

Nonetheless, we searched the woods and paths of the farm. The interest was not without its irony: we dug in the dirt to find out why people dug in the dirt. But this search for clues to our past was satisfying in a way an evening watching Clan of the Cave Bear could never be. I moved on to the ruined foundation of an 18th century farmhouse. Just for fun.

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nick schmitt
01 Nov 2017, 08:14
I found a site recently it contains spear heads, arrow heads, some pottery shards and lots of unofficial tools . Very interesting, most interesting are several spear heads and arrow heads made of crystal and some form of obsidian or something , also the spear heads . included are many different mineral specimens . also some gemstones . I have visited several jewelers and none have been able to willingly identify what I found. my most prized piece is an orange and yellow spear head that was broken and re napped into a scraper or something. the style of bi face is older than Woodland era , but the re napping is finer. also , during my examinations I discovered 60 stones or so, with flat sides from rubbing
06 Apr 2015, 08:53
Hunter Research in Trenton NJ did a dig in Lawrenceville years ago on the Brearly House and had local fourth and fifth graders take part. It was probably paid for by the school system but what an amazing experience! I was an adult volunteer for two weeks and was assigned a small group of kids and and an area off the original kitchen of the house. The kids were taught all the necessary basics of digging, scribing and marking. We were given a screen to sift our dirt and found large animal teeth, pottery shards, marbles, and nails. Every find was thrilling and I wouldn't be surprised if some of those kids grow up to become archeologists.
20 Nov 2014, 12:02
i found what i believe to be a stone indian head...can anyone point me in the direction to resharch it
Sean C.
12 Oct 2014, 13:02
Hi I was wondering if anyone knows N.J. laws for surface native american artifact hunting. Is it legal to keep the artifact if they are found on public land?
Rich Adamecs
20 Aug 2014, 19:16
I have unearthed an intricately carved clay pipe with tin mouthpiece near a line of mock orange in my backyard. I am seeking an individual who could estimate age and origin. Thank you.
Jacqueline Smith
29 May 2014, 12:19
I work for Winakung at Waterloo in the Lenape Village and just want to point out that we are OPEN since 2011. Please see our website
Steven s
04 Jan 2013, 12:55
Thank you! Your article are superbly illustrated. And very well written.
Dana DeBarros
28 Jul 2012, 10:07
Hello, \r\n\r\nI recently graduated from Drew University in Madison NJ. I majored in Studio Art with a focus in Photography and double minored in Art Administration and Archaeology. I came across this page, when I was researching the Great Swamps so I could go on a photo hike. I took part in a dig in Umbria Italy back in 2010, and I would love to be involved in a NJ dig. If there are any current projects underway I would love to be informed. Thank you.
neil defeo
20 Jul 2011, 12:38
i am a metal detectorist if you need any help i would love to volunteer.ty
Jack Nock
02 Apr 2011, 20:11
Charles, Caroline -- Check out The Speaker's House dig. It's not in New Jersey but it's not that far away. It's in Trappe, PA, a short drive from Valley Forge.
Charles Staubs
02 Apr 2011, 18:39
Hi I am a College student interesting in volunteer work on an archaeological dig. If you know of anyone needing this help or any advice you could give I would greatly appreciate it. \r\nThank you,\r\nCharles Staubs
07 Jan 2011, 17:02
Hey everyone, I'm a junior in high school and I'm hoping to major in archaeology in college. I'd like to get a taste of what I'm getting into by attending a dig in nj, preferably near Morris county. does anyone know of one coming up? Feel free to email me about it :)\r\nThanks!
Rob White
03 Aug 2010, 04:10
Hello:\r\n\r\nLooking to get involved with a dig. I am a 5th grade history teacher and would be very interested in Early Native American era (Lenape, etc.) \r\n\r\n\r\nI am also looking to bring archeology to my class room and getting my kids involved too. Please let me know.\r\n\r\n\r\nThanks,\r\n\r\nRob
Kimberly Lewis
24 Apr 2010, 11:31
Dear Dr. Cooper,\r\n\r\nI use to work for you at the Lord Stirling Excavation. For 5 years, I helped with the cataloging. After all these years, I am doing cataloging again for an up and coming community museum. It's alot like being out in the field...with out the wash buckets and the biting flys. :)\r\n\r\nIt has been so many years that we have been out of touch. Sorry to hear your health has kept you from working in the field.\r\n\r\nPlease send me an email. I am still in New Jersey.\r\n\r\nRespectfully,\r\nKimberly Lewis
john bradley
26 Mar 2010, 10:12
im looking for a opportuinty to participate in metal detecting or any digs in new jersey i have my own metal detector but not that good at it just learning like to get the opportunity to participate with someone i myself love to do things like this so if you can direct me to any im can do it any day of the week thanks for any help john
Jack Nock
07 Mar 2010, 20:00
I am seeking an opportunity to be involved in a colonial archaeological project. I am not a pot hunter or amateur archaeologist but simply a person who has always been interested in history and American history in particular.\r\n\r\nI retired in 2004 after a 20-year career in marketing/business development and a 20-year career in journalism. Until now, I never really had the time to pursue my interest in colonial archaeology.\r\n\r\nI grew up in on a small farm in Pennsylvania, at the top of a hill overlooking a valley that decades ago was farmed by a pioneer whose log cabin still stands at the edge of the clearing at the valley floor. For the past 40 years, I have lived in Arizona which has a rich history of its own but very different from the historical activities that interest me.\r\n\r\nWhile it would be fun to be involved in a dig, I recognize my lack of experience and education might preclude such activities. I am willing to run errands, go for coffee, whatever. I would just like to be involved.\r\n\r\nI would appreciate any advice or help you might give me.\r\n\r\n\r\n
Kevin Neve
27 Feb 2010, 01:53
I was wondering if there is any Archeological digs near central Pa. Im very interested in helping out. Please email me if you have any info.\r\n\r\nThank you.\r\n\r\nBest Wishes,\r\nKevin
18 Jan 2010, 22:09
Alan H. Cooper
12 Oct 2009, 03:18
I've had to retire from the excavation for health reasons but will continue working on the Lord Stirling Manor material for eventual publication. The archaeology programs of the Somerset County Park Commission's Environmental Education Center over the past 27 years have allowed hundreds of people to learn more about archaeology and our local history and perhaps foster interests which culminate in work at the master or doctorate levels. It is most gratifying to hear about participants continuing their work in the field.
Thadd Nelson
11 Oct 2009, 20:45
I am sorry to hear the excavation is now on hiatus. \r\nI spent two field seasons there and am now defending my dissertation topic in archaeology.
Alan H. Cooper
12 Aug 2009, 03:32
There are many possibilities for an abandoned site, partial destruction, unplanned vacating, sealing without exploration, remodeling with older portions of the house eventually lost. Excavation around the periphery could provide some information, as could an analysis of the extant architectural remains for comparison. As with a site like Pompeii or a derelict ship, it is strange to enter a place where it seems the occupants just left but perhaps expected to return.
Melinda Mann
11 Aug 2009, 21:00
A friend told me about a kitchen that was uncovered (complete with furniture, dishes, cooking utensils, etc., as if the early inhabitants simply walked away from it) 30-35 years ago underneath her neighbor's home in Waldwick, NJ. It was discovered while workers were digging in preparation for an expansion of the neighbor's house. No other part of the buried home was found intact. There was a resulting investigation, but my friend never learned the outcome. Can you tell us anything about this occurrence?
Alan H. Cooper
20 Nov 2008, 01:47
The excavation is now on hiatus and the future is in doubt. You might check with the Environmental Center occasionally for any news. Thanks for your interest.
Jane Eliasof
19 Nov 2008, 19:14
I'm looking for a volunteer opportunity to participate in a dig for me and my 14-year old daughter most likely for 2 or 3 days next Spring. We'd like to stay in the NJ/NY/PA area. I've been searching the internet, but haven't found anything. Can you direct me to any?\r\n\r\nMany thanks,\r\n\r\nJane
Alan H. Cooper
06 Feb 2008, 15:04
Thank you and I agree the article was quite well written. The excavation continues but is now an all-volunteer effort with limited enrollment rather than a program of the EEC. For more information or space availability please contact me. The article first appeared in the Winter 2004-05 edition but there have been no updates.
Doug Wescott
05 Feb 2008, 11:04
Wonderful article about a wonderful program. I'd like to see the date the article first appeared, and further, dates of updates.
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