Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Beach artifacts boost preservation


By Molly Murray
December 13, 2004

The News Journal/GARY EMEIGH
These pieces of early pottery were found
near Roosevelt Inlet.

Discovery galvanizes interest in archaeology

The shards of colored glass, glazed pottery and yellow brick pumped onto Lewes Beach this fall during a sand renourishment project are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle bearing an image of Delaware's earliest Colonial days.

But state and amateur historians want to do more than solve the puzzle and learn the exact origin of the 300-year-old artifacts.

They also will be sifting for ways to protect other undiscovered troves from Delaware's early recorded history that might remain beneath the Delaware Bay or elsewhere in the Lewes area.

Somehow, they said, they can't allow a repeat of the misadventure that allowed a historic site to be turned into beach debris by a sharp-toothed dredge mining sand to rebuild an eroded shoreline.

State officials and local amateur historians contend there is a need for a comprehensive historical survey of the Lewes area to identify potential historic sites on land and offshore. And more thorough, detailed assessments are needed before similar bottom disturbances by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The last detailed archeological study of Lewes was done in the early 1950s, said Brian Page, Sussex County's historic planner.

As an important commercial center for Colonial-era ships entering Delaware Bay, a thriving fishing port and the site of the first European settlement in Delaware, Lewes is "the cradle for the state," Page said.

The $3.9 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to rebuild Roosevelt Inlet beaches dug into either a 1600s land settlement or an old shipwreck on the floor of the bay about 2,000 feet offshore - an area that may have been above water 300 years ago.

The sand-pumping operation in September and October was preceded in 1996 by a survey using side-scan sonar and a magnetometer that concluded that the site contained nothing significant.

State archaeologists signed off on that survey and the plan to use the dredge site, based on the Corps findings.

But Daniel Griffith, the director of the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said he was troubled after he reviewed the survey results last week.

"There was one very suspicious target that they missed," he said. "They said it was a cluster of round objects. My suspicion is that what they were picking up were stoneware vessels."

That should have triggered a dive on the site, he said. But that didn't happen, and a second miscue followed once sand pumping started shortly after Labor Day, Griffith said.

Workers misidentified remnants of damaged artifacts as they were piped onto the beach, he said.

"It was obvious to me and I'm a prehistoric archaeologist," he said. Procedures should be in place for work to "stop immediately" for investigation, Griffith said.

Normally, such procedures are in effect, said Robert Dunn, an archaeologist in the Corps' Philadelphia District. But dredge crews thought the survey had cleared the site and a Corps inspector who saw artifacts on the beach thought they were modern-day trash. He contacted the Philadelphia District to report the find but no one told Dunn, the district's only archaeologist.

Previous error
Griffith and other state historians said the Lewes incident is the latest in a series of mishandlings of some of Delaware's most historic sites.

In 1964, an Adena Indian site was discovered during the development of a dirt pit near Frederica. Concerns about damage to that site led to the hiring of a state archaeologist, Griffith said.

The recovery by private treasure hunters of the 18th-century British ship HMS DeBraak in 1984 and 1985 led to concerns about underwater historic areas that attracted national and even international attention. The DeBraak, it turns out, has given historians an unparalleled look at life in the British navy in the late 18th century.

The collection, now in the hands of the state, includes everything from a 40-ton section of the hull to metal spoons etched with the initials of seamen to a delicate glass condiment bottle that once held ketchup.

The DeBraak salvage, which most archaeologists believe was handled poorly because so much was disturbed when the hull was raised, led to passage of a federal law regulating the salvage of historic shipwrecks.

Griffith said the lesson that may come from last week's discovery of what still could be one of Delaware's earliest settlements or the wreck of a ship bringing goods and people to the earliest settlements on Delaware Bay and River, is the need for more detailed work before underwater areas are disturbed.

Lewes Harbor, where there are dozens of shipwrecks, should be surveyed, with wrecks and sites of interest marked for future study, he said.

And "one of the things Delaware ought to be thinking about is establishment of an underwater archaeology person," he said.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials are trying to work out a plan for what happens next at the Lewes site.

Rather than second-guess what could or should have been done, Corps officials say they would like to move forward, secure the beach site and work up a plan to study the offshore dredge location - about 2,000 feet off the beach in front of Lewes Yacht Club near the Roosevelt Inlet.

Corps spokesman Ed Voigt said the Corps would work with state officials on a thorough survey of the site. Planning of that work has already been done.

That work, including sending teams of divers down to the dredge site, will likely give state officials a better picture of whether the artifacts are coming from a shipwreck or a settlement that was once on land.

Initially, state archaeologists including Craig Lukesic and Charles Fithian thought the artifacts came from a settlement that once was on land. They were in near-perfect condition, had no sign of marine growth and didn't smell of salt water. Nor were there artifacts that would typically have been seen from a shipwreck site such as rigging, blocks or copper sheathing that might have protected a wooden hull from damage by marine worms.

But now they aren't so certain. In either case, the discovery gives historians a rare glimpse of early life in Colonial Delaware.

Lukesic said there are few examples of 17th-century artifacts in the state, even though the Swanendael whaling settlement was established in Lewes in 1631.

The discovery has fueled excitement among professional historians, amateur archaeologists and even casual beachcombers.

"Every time you have one of these finds, everybody gets excited," said longtime archaeologist Ned Heite, "My big concern is we are not going to get sustained interest. Let's get excited all the time."

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