An archaeological dig has revealed much about what life was like on the banks of the Delaware 6,000 years ago.
In 2010 and 2011, archaeologists working for the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission dug up two sites on opposite sides of the river, where engineers are planning to build the footings of the new Scudder Falls Bridge. The dig was required by federal law as a means of mitigating the impact of the bridge construction.
On the Jersey side, they moved 161 cubic meters of earth and found more than 15,000 stone and ceramic artifacts, from tiny flakes of stone or pottery that looks like gravel, to a large stone platform hearth. They found stone knives, arrowheads, tobacco pipe fragments and a counterweight for an atl-atl, a stone-age spear-throwing device.
In January, the final chapter of the dig came to a close when the artifacts recovered were sent to the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, where they have been archived for future study.
The final report prepared by the AECOM archaeologists sheds light on the hunter-gatherers who called Ewing home thousands of years before the first pyramid in Egypt was built.
Senior archaeologist John Lawrence, who led the project, said one of the most interesting interpretations of the evidence is that for some reason, change came slowly to the people who lived on the banks of the Delaware River 6,000 years ago. To the north and south, different groups of people moved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more agricultural way of life. The extra food allowed the population to expand, and brought massive social changes. They were led by chiefs and built large villages, fortified with palisades against attacks from their neighbors.
Yet, at sites dug up all over the Delaware Valley, including the one at Reeders Creek, that doesn’t seem to have happened.
“From 4,000 B.C., almost 6,000 years, there is no real evidence of change in the way of life of the people over that period of time,” Lawrence said. “Things just didn’t seem to change, which is really very interesting, and raises its own questions as to why it didn’t. What is it about this area that people didn’t need or didn’t want to change their way of life?”
The Reeders Creek site appears to have been an area used for processing food in the summer and fall. From this base, people gathered nuts and plants, hunted bear, deer and ducks and prepared them for eating or storage. The camp was not a permanent settlement, but it was occupied on and off from the Mid-Archaic period up until the most recent layer of soil from which researchers could gather artifacts, dating to about 1500, also known as the Late Woodland period. By that time, the people were known as the Lenape, and historical accounts shed some light on their way of life before they were forced out by white settlers.
Anything that may have remained from 1500 to the colonial era was plowed over by farmers.
To get to the ancient artifacts, researchers scraped off several feet of this archaeologically useless “plow zone,” which was full of bits of glass, garbage, birdshot and other relics of the modern age.
While the earth may appear static and permanent, it is anything but, and this is one reason that artifacts exist for archaeologists to dig up. Over time, periodic floods buried ancient campgrounds in silt. Furthermore, growth of plants and the burrowing of animals caused a churning of the soil that led to the remnants of human activity being buried for later discovery. The chaos of this process complicates the process of figuring out how old things are, or how an ancient site was laid out, since floods wash away different features and the roiling dirt can pull objects down farther than one might expect to find them.
The soil in this region is bad for preserving bone, he said, so there wasn’t much except for some animal bone fragments. There was no evidence of human burial, which makes sense given the nature of the site.
Lawrence said it appears that the Reeders Creek site was the outpost of a larger settlement somewhere within 20 miles, though he doesn’t know where. The fact that people returned to it over and over again for thousands of years indicates that it was a naturally good spot to gather food. People worked, built fires, made tools and cooked at Reeders Creek, but they went somewhere else to live permanently and bury their dead.
But even though the site may not have been a main village, the artifacts still reveal much information about the people who hunted along the riverbank.
Some of the tools and pottery fragments were covered in residue from the plants and animals they were used on. Frank Mikolic, who prepared the report, said the team used relatively new techniques to analyze the tiny amounts of plant and animal residue that they found. Using methods developed by the Canadian Royal Mounted Police to solve crimes, the archaeologists analyzed the blood on a knife and found it was used to butcher bear, duck and deer. More duck was found on the inside of a pot shard, indicating that it was used to cook waterfowl.
Other major food sources appeared to be cattail reeds, blackberries, wild mustard and pignut hickory. Unlike the Pennsylvania side, there was no evidence of fishing.
The largest number of artifacts were flakes chipped off during the creation of stone tools. These flakes are sometimes incredibly tiny and beyond the notice of a layman. Others are larger but just as unrecognizable. Fire-cracked rocks made up a large percentage of the artifacts too, and those are just rocks that were cracked from the heat of a fire. Another class of artifact is called a “manuport,” which is nothing more than a stone, totally unmodified, that is found in a place where it could have only gotten by being carried by humans.
Other artifacts were more recognizable. Biface tools, projectile points, drills, scrapers and other kinds of tools are more obviously man made. Most of the tools were made from local rock, but one piece of rhyolite came from the Gettysburg area.
Mikolic said the site ties in well with what had been discovered at sites throughout the middle Delaware Valley.
“It’s pretty much been a consistent picture of the middle Delaware Valley,” he said. “There have been a number of these similar sorts of procurement sites found throughout the area. It’s more of a reaffirmation of what was already known. It’s nothing revolutionary coming from this. But something that’s perhaps not unusual, but makes it of high value, is the fact that we do have these intact deposits spanning this long period of time. Spanning such a broad period of time makes it a very useful, very valuable site, exemplifying stuff that is affirming our picture of this area for that span of time.”
Lawrence said one other benefit of the dig was that the artifacts are now in a museum where future researchers can take a look at them again if more advanced techniques are developed for analyzing artifacts.
“Fifteen years ago, we would have been able to tell you that we had seeds from blackberries. But we couldn’t have told you for a fact that on the Pa. side, there were fish proteins, or that on the Jersey side there was residue of beard and deer and duck. We could have inferred it from the tools, but that’s as far as we could go with it. We could tell they were smoking tobacco in these pipes. Who knows what we’ll have 10 years from now.”