History Unearthed in Road's Path

Archaeologist Jillian Smith screens soil looking for Native American tools during a dig at a portion of the proposed intercounty connector site.
Archaeologist Jillian Smith screens soil looking for Native American tools during a dig at a portion of the proposed intercounty connector site. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

Five thousand years ago, this sun-dappled stand of oaks was a place where Native Americans came to gather quartz and make tools. In the 1870s, an African American farmstead stood a few yards away. Now, archaeologists are working feverishly to learn all they can about those earlier chapters before this patch of Montgomery County assumes its next role in human history, part of the roadbed of the proposed intercounty connector.

Just off Georgia Avenue, north of Norbeck Road, field researchers hired by the Maryland Department of Transportation are in their final days of digging, sifting, photographing and cataloguing the proposed route's only known archaeological site. After 2 1/2 months, they've filled more than 175 boxes with artifacts, enough to fuel months', or even years', worth of laboratory analysis.

"We're very excited," said Julie Schablitsky, cultural resources manager for the State Highway Administration. "This gives us a chance to re-create the story of what happened here thousands of years ago."

Archaeologists found the site in 2003 as a part of a routine check of future highway lands. Historical land documents pointed them to the old homestead. And the presence of quartz boulders and a small wetland, conditions to which ancient people were often drawn, led them to sink a series of test holes. One of them turned up handfuls of the kind of quartz chips that archaeologists see as a kind of Stone Age sawdust. Someone had once made a lot of arrowheads, spear points and knife blades there.

Scientists have not found evidence that the area was ever an established settlement in prehistoric times. Rather, they think native folk visited periodically during the late archaic period to take advantage of the abundant quartz. They might also have harvested cattails from the nearby marsh, a material that once served as moccasin padding and diaper filling, Schablitsky said.

"I think this was probably a marketplace that people came to for thousands and thousands of years," said Chris Polglase, an archaeological consultant running the dig.

Schablitsky characterized the find as important -- not much is known about human activity from that era in this part of the county -- but not the kind of archaeological showstopper that would be preserved as a park. Road projects often turn up ancient sites, and Maryland has a strict set of rules that finds must be evaluated by archaeologists. If the route of the road cannot be changed, teams move in to "mitigate" the find by gathering as much data as they can before the bulldozers come.

More has been discovered at the site about ancient activity than recent farm life. Historians know that this stretch of Georgia Avenue was a common place for freed slaves to set up homesteads. But the artifacts from that era have been too mixed with modern trash, Budweiser bottles next to 19th-century glass, to tell scientists much.

Opponents of the intercounty connector, who are in federal court trying to stop construction of the road on environmental grounds, have not made the route's archaeological value one of their key arguments against it. Neither are local historians taking a stand against paving over the site.

"What is really important about archaeological sites is the information they contain," said J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, which works with the state to review about 4,000 sites a year. "It is not feasible to avoid impacts; excavation is certainly an acceptable alternative."

In coming months, researchers will sift carefully through the stone record they are carting away, in some cases even analyzing bloodstains that predate the Pharos to see what kind of animal might have been killed by a given arrowhead. The site has been particularly rich, they said.

"We've had days when we've had literally thousands of artifacts coming up," said Ben Perlmutter, a field technician picking through red clay dug recently from the site.

Perlmutter said he didn't have a strong opinion about the merits of the connector proposal, but he did appreciate that scientists probably never would have found this site if it had not been for the project. Still, working in the cool shade that had existed here for so many eras, he sometimes thinks about the possible changes ahead.

"In the back of your head, you know the whole site is going to be bulldozed over," he said.


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