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Vol. LXIII, No. 45
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
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Real Life Questions Meet the Theoretical at Commission Meeting

Ellen Gilbert

Real-life questions about the archaeological oversight (or lack thereof) of current construction work on Quaker Road followed theoretical discussions about the importance of archaeological awareness at the Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) Monday afternoon meeting.

Describing the “painstaking process” involved in archaeological “detailed recordation” and “re-creation,” State Historic Preservation Office representative Vincent Maresca offered a training session for commission members and guests from neighboring townships.

After the presentation, Township Engineer Bob Kiser responded to a question about the relative absence of archaeological oversight at the Quaker Road site where a water main is being installed, by asking his own question: “Who pays for the additional cost of monitoring Quaker Road construction?”

Historic Preservation Commission Officer Christine Lewandoski noted that the Commission had not been “privy to other agreements” regarding the oversight of Quaker Road operations, and suggested that Township Committee be approached regarding the handling of future construction sites.

Deputy Mayor Chad Goerner said that while Township Committee is “looking for options,” regarding oversight, “I don’t think soil sifting is a feasible option. There are significant costs associated with more stringent archeological protocols.” He pointed out that the Historic Commission had done its job with respect to the Quaker Road project “based on existing understandings.” 

Andrea Tingey, another representative of the State Historic Preservation Office at the meeting, noted that “it is virtually impossible to undertake an effective and defensible archeological project without having an archeologist as a member or consultant.” Despite that, she noted, very few historical preservation commissions actually have archaeologists as members.

While sounding a somber note on what archaeology is (“a destructive art; you can only do it once”), Mr. Maresca struck a humorous note in his overview of what it isn’t, offering an image of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones wielding a bull whip. “We also don’t steal cultural artifacts from indigenous peoples,” he observed.

What the archaeologists actually do, Mr. Maresca said, is “study past peoples, their lifeways, their cultures, and their relationships with the environment.” In the case of New Jersey, “past peoples” fall into two main periods: the first, or “Native American” era, which began 12,000 years ago and ended with the first European contact, and the “post-contact” era, which is thought to have begun around 1620.

Examples from the “Native American” era include, Mr. Maresca reported, a “potter’s field” of over a thousand bodies discovered during a Secaucus turnpike expansion in the early 20th century.

Mr. Maresca described likely sites for archaelogical findings as “areas of maximum resource overlap.” Proximity to a river, well-drained soil, and availability of food resources can all add up to “areas of high sensitivity.” Doing “deedwork” and looking at historic maps helps with the process of identification.

The work of archaeologists is guided by both federal and state regulations. The National Register of Historic Places, for example, lists “criteria for evaluation” in deciding whether or not a site is eligible for landmark status. These include, Mr. Maresca said, the place’s “contribution to the broad patterns of history”; its associations “with the lives of significant persons”; and whether or not it “embodies distinctive characteristics.”

Mr. Maresca likened the study of soil strata to a “layer cake,” with identifiable layers and artifacts within each one. “Removing an artifact from its context damages our ability to identify its layer, and takes its story away,” he observed. He sited the work in the 1930s of then-New Jersey State Archaeologist Dorothy Cross, who found artifacts below plow levels, where they had remained intact.

When asked about getting help from the State Historic Preservation Office, Ms. Tingey reported that they “don’t have the staff to act as consultants.” While it might be helpful to ask the State Museum for known sensitive spots in one’s area, “you still need someone to interpret those locations.”

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