Updated, 8:06 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – A “giant blank spot” in historical knowledge could be filled in with “incredible detail” thanks to archaeological work underway on a Norwalk site, Ross Harper, Ph.D., said Thursday. The site’s discovery — a result of the Walk Bridge Program — will yield new information about Native Americans who lived in the area now known as East Norwalk.
“It’s a very rare site, first of all. There’s maybe half a dozen throughout the entire Long Island Sound area and a lot of those have actually been developed and they no longer exist,” Harper said at a press conference called by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT).
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Harper is a senior archaeologist with Archaeological and Historical Services of Storrs, a company hired by ConnDOT to screen for potential impacts of the Walk Bridge Program, which involves rebuilding the 122-year-old Norwalk River railroad bridge (Walk Bridge) and other railroad bridges in Norwalk.
ConnDOT archaeologist Mandy Ranslow said the archaeological investigation is mandated by federal law, and all of the artifacts found on the site will be removed before construction starts.
Researchers could work for decades on what is being dug up, Ranslow said. “This little piece of the landscape was a valuable part of the landscape for native people for really thousands of years.”
The site contains evidence of a wooden Native American fort that Harper said was built in “a really critical period in human history,” the “earliest period of European settlement,” and had been thought to be “gone” due to the construction of the railroad. Nevertheless Ranslow and the team performed “really extensive testing just to make sure,” she said.
“This is going to play a really important part in not just Norwalk history, but really, not even the history of New England but really, even a more global scale,” Harper said, because the world changed when the European, Asian and Native American cultures met in what is referred to as the “Contact Period.”
A 1690s deed used the fort as a property boundary and 19th century maps reference the fort. “We wanted to see if any of it could be left given the amount of heavy development that has happened in this area,” Sarah Sportman, also a senior archaeologist with Archaeological and Historical Services, said.
The federally-mandated process to research possible impacts from the Walk Bridge program began in 2015 and involved “geoprobes,” thin tubes which were pounded 20 feet into the ground to get a sampling of what might be down below, Sportman said.
“There’s actually a remnant glacial landform here called a esker, it’s a little spit of land that was surrounded by salt marsh on the edge of the river,” she said. Once archaeologists found evidence of the esker they knew that some of the fort could still exist.
The “esker,” was a spit of land that stuck out into the marsh, allowing Native Americans to trade with Dutch settlers from what is now New York. The land was high and easily defensible, with a view in all directions, Ranslow said. There’s evidence that Native Americans ate deer, duck, skunks and racoons, and came to the area to catch shellfish. They maintained their own culture while buying trade axes and iron knives in what was clearly “a very selective kind of trade” with the Dutch, she said.
“We are not even near finished with the excavation. We have recovered more Native American pottery than in the last 30 years combined” in Connecticut, Harper said.
Very little is known about Native Americans in the Norwalk area, he said, describing it as a “giant blank spot” in historical knowledge. Materials being uncovered will allow researchers “to construct their daily life in just incredible detail,” Harper said.
Researchers don’t even know if Norwalk’s Native Americans were more closely related to the Mohegans and Pequots or the Delaware tribe in New York. Evidence discovered on the site might reveal their language, Harper said.
ConnDOT worked closely with then-Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland, the Norwalk Preservation Trust, the Norwalk Historical Society, the SoNo Switch Tower Museum, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes to study historic impacts of the Walk Bridge Program, and the process is ongoing, Ranslow said.
“We did a thorough investigation to determine whether we could avoid (the site),” she said. “We worked closely with John Hanafin and his team, the engineers, to see if there was a way we could go around it. Unfortunately, there is not. But fortunately, we do get to do this excavation and we do get to recover and preserve a great deal of really important information.”
The work will continue for at least a couple of months, and everything that is found will belong to the state, she said.
“Artifacts that are found on state land go to the state repository, which is at UConn (University of Connecticut),” she said. ConnDOT will keep working with Westmoreland, and, “The Historical Society has some great plans about some exhibits and some educational things that they want to do so there will be a lot of opportunities to share information.”
ConnDOT has requested that the location of the dig not be made public.