Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: November 18, 2009
Byline: Jennifer Lin
Treasure trove of history found at SugarHouse site
Under a tent on the grounds of the future SugarHouse Casino, archaeologists sift through buckets of debris, picking out and bagging the choicest broken bits.
Half a teacup. The neck of a blue bottle. A shard of thick brown pottery.
The artifacts come mostly from 18th-century brick privies, the colonial equivalent of Dumpsters.
But the items are practically newfangled compared with what the archaeologists have uncovered in a nearby plot about the size of a tennis court.
In the last month, they have found hundreds of relics left behind by people who lived along the Delaware River not 300 years ago, but 3,500. The cache, found in the southwest corner of the property, constitutes the largest single discovery of Native American artifacts in Philadelphia.
In 2007, the SugarHouse developers were required to record the history of the land in order to get a federal permit to alter the waterfront. At the time, the project's archaeologists dug up 182 Native American relics on the 22-acre site, on Delaware Avenue in Fishtown.
This latest, more comprehensive excavation began last month and has doubled the number of recovered Indian items, according to Mark Shaffer, a preservation specialist for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which advised the federal government on the project.
Significant recoveries of Indian artifacts have been made in Bucks and Chester Counties, but the building of modern Philadelphia has disturbed the land and much of what was in it.
Amazingly, the SugarHouse artifacts were found just a few feet below the surface.
Within the 50-by-30-foot plot, archaeologists found evidence of an ancient fire pit with remnants of organic materials that scientists will be able to carbon-date. Shaffer said the latest dig had recovered more than a dozen small tools, chips of stone from toolmaking, and bits of rocks that had been cracked by fire.
Most objects were found in what had been the backyard of residential dwellings from the 18th century. At some point, those homes were demolished and the land used for a rail yard.
"That's why this material has been found," said Terrence McKenna, project manager for Keating Consulting, which is building the casino. "[The land] wasn't disturbed."
The dig will not interfere with construction of the SugarHouse Casino, which started last month. When the work is completed, and the artifacts removed, the site of the ancient Indian meeting place will have a new use: a parking lot for gamblers.
This part of the Delaware River was long known to be an early settlement of the Lenape Indians, who signed a peace treaty with William Penn in 1682 that opened the way for the development of Philadelphia.
But the relics unearthed at the SugarHouse site date back three and a half millennia, long before the first Europeans sailed up the Delaware River.
The native people who gathered on the SugarHouse grounds were nomads, not farmers. They moved with the seasons, encamping by the river in mild weather to fish for shad, hunt, and socialize.
They built fires in stone-lined pits. They made tools, using round river rocks to chip pieces of quartz. They fashioned arrowheads and crude knives.
"We're not talking here about the Lenape Indians," Shaffer said. "We're talking about their ancient, ancient ancestors."
Early last month, SugarHouse's chief executive, Gregory A. Carlin, signed an agreement with the state historical commission to complete the archaeological work started two years ago.
SugarHouse hired archaeologists from A.D. Marble & Co. of Conshohocken. Based on their initial discovery of Native American relics dating to 1500 B.C., the state commission recommended further excavation, noting the site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
But SugarHouse changed its casino design last spring, scaling it back and pulling it away from the river's edge. No longer needing a federal permit, the developers decided to put off any archaeological work.
Shaffer said the state commission urged them to finish the work, arguing it would be "good stewardship" of the historically significant land. The agreement signed last month spells out how SugarHouse will recover and record the artifacts, which will be turned over to the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
"They've gone well beyond a good-faith effort" to finish the work, Shaffer said.
McKenna, of Keating Consulting, said the SugarHouse investors have spent "over a million dollars" on archaeological work — "more than any private developer" in the city's history.
The developers concluded it would be "easier and have less of an impact on construction" to finish the recovery work now instead of later, McKenna said.
SugarHouse has agreed not only to completely excavate the Native American site, but also to investigate seven privies dating from the 18th to 20th centuries. After the work began, archaeologists found two additional privies, which SugarHouse has agreed to excavate, Shaffer said.
SugarHouse archaeologists also will look for evidence of a 1777 British fort, thought to be located under what was once Penn Street. McKenna said live underground utility lines would have to be turned off before that work can begin.
According to the agreement with the state, once an excavation of Penn Street begins, the developer will consult with the state historical commission on whether the site requires further recovery work.
McKenna said the search for the fort could begin in the next two weeks.