Walking through the wilderness of the Sourlands, Ian Burrow comes upon a tree much taller than those around it. He takes note of the tree and the rest of the wooded landscape around him.
To most people, a tree is just a tree. To Burrow, it can be so much more. It can even be a window—a window into a time a century ago, when the Hopewell Valley didn’t look anything like it does today. When the area he’s walking through wasn’t woodlands, but a pasture where cows found shade under the large tree that stands before him today.
Few know what Burrow knows: that only in the last century have younger trees been filling in, reclaiming the former farmland. Chances are there’s a fenceline nearby, or a dusty old road, maybe even the foundation of an old barn, all long forgotten.
Burrow is an archaeologist. For many years, he worked alongside Richard Hunter as a partner at Trenton-based Hunter Research doing a wide variety of projects, including the noted Petty’s Run excavation between the New Jersey State House and the Old Barracks.
Burrow, who has lived in Hopewell Borough since 1989, says he’s now in semi-retirement. Two years ago he and Hunter parted “most amicably,” he says.
“I was ready to move on. It was a good time, for various reasons. I’m still very much in touch with Richard and everyone else there.”
But he jokes that his days don’t feel that much different from when he worked full time. He’s started a new enterprise, Burrow Into History, and through it he is focusing much of his energy in two key areas: teaching and advocacy.
“In these times, there’s quite a need for advocating for archaeology, locally and nationally,” he says.
Burrow knows first hand from his experience with Petty’s Run the importance of advocacy. Once Hunter Research began excavation of the site, it became clear to the archaeologists that they had a potentially historic find underfoot.
“We had documentary records that there had been a steel furnace there and a water-powered iron forge,” he says. “We sort of stuck our necks out a bit and said we think there’s a good chance that this stuff may still be there.”
The dig proved them right. They found a foundation of a steel furnace that had been built in the 1740’s — the only one of its kind from the colonial era that has been unearthed to date.
In 2013, after Burrow and Hunter had completed much of their work on the site, it was opened to the public. But a few years earlier, it had almost been reburied. The Department of Environmental Protection, citing the high cost of a proposed $1.3-million restoration, invited contractors to bid to fill the site back in. There was public outcry, and ultimately, the DEP and Mercer County together found the money to preserve it.
“That was a very local and very personal wakeup call for me, and for Richard as well,” Burrow says. “There was a real chance that a really internationally significant archeological site could be covered over and forgotten, for not terribly good reasons.”
He’s been advocating on behalf of archaelogists and historic preservationists at the national level for a number of years through the American Cultural Resources Association, where he was recently vice president of public relations. For ACRA, he spent a fair amount of time in Washington meeting with members of Congress and representatives from various federal agencies involved in historic preservation and archaeology including the National Park Service and the Department of Transportation, as well as with nonprofit groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
At the local level, advocacy for Burrows often means helping groups who are trying to preserve historic sites. In October he was honored by Lawrence Township with its Podmore/Dwyer Historic Award, celebrating the support he gave to the township in its efforts to preserve the Brearley House, built in 1761. The house has been restored with the help of both state funds and locally raised money.
“Brearley House is a wonderful example of how a local municipality working with nonprofit group (the Lawrence Historical Society) can really get it right,” Burrow says.
Burrow was involved in the restoration. Initially they had few archaelogical clues to guide them in their preservation. With Burrow’s help, they were able to find not only a foundation for a kitchen wing that he had suspected would be there, but also the foundations of two houses that had stood there before the Brearley House.
He’s also been involved with the group that’s trying to preserve the Union Hotel in Flemington, which is under threat of being torn down by a developer. Burrow says there isn’t blanket opposition to redeveloping the area, but it’s the way the redevelopment has been proposed that’s the issue.
“What we’ve learned with historic preservation generally is that it actually makes economic sense to preserve and reuse and retain historic buildings,” he says. “It can be more complicated to incorporate historic buildings into the new development, but it can be done and it has been done in many places.”
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Burrow is involved in another local project, one that is clearly near to his heart. Through the years he’s been studying the Sourland Mountain landscape and how it has changed over time because of human activity. Recently he’s started a more formal investigation into the area in cooperation with the Sourland Conservancy.
“People tend to think of areas like this as natural areas,” Burrow says. “But as an archaeologist, I’m very aware that there are no natural landscapes. Humans have been messing around with the landscape since before European settlement.”
What Burrow wants to do is bring landscape archaeology techniques and approaches to looking at some of preserved areas on Sourland Mountain to see how they’ve developed.
“What this involves is everything you can imagine: documentary research, land deeds, aerial photographs and all that,” he says. “You can see the sequence of the gradual changeover from pastureland in the early 1900’s to what’s essentially all woodland today.”
One area he’s focusing on is the Cedar Ridge Preserve, which is 10 minutes from the house where he lives. He goes on frequent walks through the woods, finding old fieldwalls and fencelines, traces of roads, quarries, barn foundations and traces of old houses.
He also looks at the vegetation. “When you learn to read it, it talks to you about what people have been doing,” he says. “You can look at forest regrowth figure out how old the trees are, how long ago the land was abandoned. It’s a very satisfying project because it allows me to wander around in the woods with a real purpose in mind.”
One of the purposes is to enlarge people’s enjoyment of the area. When hikers find a stone wall, he wants to be able to tell them that what they’re looking at was built by farmer so-and-so in 1850, or that these cedar trees are growing here because they are the first kind of tree that grows in a pasture when a pasture is abandoned. “I think I’m bringing a real cultural landscape and appreciation knowhow to this, which I hope will be very valuable in improving people’s enjoyment of these areas,” he says.
Sometimes his explorations lead to exciting discoveries, like the time he wandered a little off the Rockhopper Trail near Lambertville and came upon a hole in the ground that he realized was a cellar hole — meaning he was standing on a site that was once someone’s home. “A house site in the woods that’s sort of been forgotten,” he says. “And I can hopefully bring it back to life. It’s very satisfying.”
He’s also begun working with the D&R Greenway on the site of St. Michael’s Orphanage, which was situated just south of Hopewell Borough from the 1890’s to the 1970’s. They’ve talked about how to commemorate, interpret and manage the site.
Burrow, 67, grew up in England. He first encountered Richard Hunter at the University of Birmingham, where both studied archaeology in the 1970’s. By chance they were reintroduced in the late 1980’s, when Hunter was living and working at his own firm in New Jersey. He invited Burrow to join him, so in 1988, Burrow moved to the U.S. He became a partner in the firm in 1992.
Burrow is married to Canada-born wife Catherine, who once worked in archaeology but is now a paralegal. They have a daughter, Nicola, 25, who attended Hopewell Valley Schools and who is now a special education teacher in the Bronx.
Burrow has uncovered historic truths all over the world, but one bit of history right in his backyard continues to mystify him. There he has found pieces of a couple of gravestones whose stories are yet to be told. “I don’t know anything about them,” he says. “You can see there’s a couple of letters on them but you can’t make anything out. It may be a family graveyard, but I really don’t know that.”
If there’s anyone who can figure it out, chances are it’s Ian Burrow.
This story has been updated to correct a typographical error.