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State kept Native American site in Norwalk under wraps

September 1, 2018

NORWALK — The significance of an artifact-rich, 500-year-old Native American fort and settlement on the east bank of the Norwalk River was kept secret for a year by the state Department of Transportation, which feared looters would scour and violate it, Hearst Connecticut Media has learned.

Now, the archaeological dig has fencing and video monitoring. But a year ago, when remnants of the fort were first found — indicating trading with the Dutch in the early 17th century — the potential of the wide-open site in the heart of the city, was so important that the DOT and its contracted archaeologists kept a lid on what they were uncovering.

In December of 2016, archaeologists involved in the billion-dollar rebuilding of the Metro-North Railroad bridge began unearthing clues to a location they knew was first used by natives 5,000 years ago.

In November 2017, they hinted there could be some farther-reaching historical importance uncovered.

Finally, last month, the DOT announced the vast extent of the find. Both the archaeologists and the DOT said the secrecy was warranted by the fragility of the site, and not out of deference to the bridge project.

“The awesome thing about this project team is they have involved me since the very beginning,” said Mandy Ranslow, the DOT’s archaeologist in its Office of Environmental Planning, who noted that the planning phase of the railroad bridge reconstruction is now only 60 percent complete. “And nothing we’re doing now is delaying the project.”

Find of the century

First, the archaeologists found a storage pit, yielding pottery with decorative etchings indicating that the site was more than just a point in the marsh where natives had hunted and fished for millennia. Then they found the signs of the walled encampment: the acidic soils where high wooden walls called palisades had been raised. Inside the perimeter are the remnants of posts from wigwams where indigenous families lived.

There’s widespread evidence of trade with the European explorers, including Dutch-made glass beads and an iron knife, as well as beads called wampum. Made by the natives from clam and oyster shells, the new arrivals to North America used wampum to barter for furs with upland tribes.

It’s being called the most-important discovery of indigenous life in New England in the 21st century and likely the last such find between the Connecticut River and New York City that in the early 1600s was part of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, during the early decades of contact with Native Americans.

“Given the urban location it’s pretty amazing that there was anything else at all,” said Sara P. Sportman, senior archaeologist at the Storrs-based Archaeological and Historical Services Inc., which has been involved in the bridge project since 2015.

After locating the fort through historic maps published as early as 1847, but based on generations of local word-of-mouth, the archaeologists took core samples. Later, about six inches of modern soil and fill, likely from the construction of the rail line, was scraped back.

The fort site, occupied by a since-disappeared tribe called the Norwalk Indians, was active from 1610 to 1641, when the land was sold to English settlers.

Questions abound

There is no evidence of burials or human remains, although Lucianne Lavin, director of Research and Collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut, believes that dog and bear bones found at the fort could indicate a ceremonial feast of some kind.

“The site also poses some important cultural-historical questions,” said Lavin, who recently visted the dig. “Why was the settlement palisaded and located in the middle of a protective swamp? From whom were the Norwalk Indians protecting themselves? Another important question that might be answered by the Native American pottery recovered from the site: What was the cultural affiliation of the Norwalk fort inhabitants? Were they a village-band of the Wiechquaesgeck tribe whose homelands included Westchester County, Greenwich and Stamford, or were they a village/band of the Poquonnocks to their east? Or were they a separate community altogether?”

The site reflects a period of transition, said Mary Guillette Harper, president and owner of Archaeological and Historical Services Inc.

“All native groups on the Connecticut coast were caught in the global crunch to explore the New World,” Harper said “The Dutch and the English were vying for it and the natives literally got caught in the crosshairs.”

The dirt from the site above the marsh on which the high-walled fort was perched, has actually helped preserve the fragile artifacts. When removed from the soil in which it was found, the early Dutch glass changes color, on its way toward returning to the sand from which it was made. So the artifacts are stabilized and sent in small containers to a laboratory, where they are washed, cleaned and given identification numbers.

The archaeologists expect to remain at the dig until December or later, to complete the recovery. It’s unlikely that the size of the settlement can be determined, because so much of it was obliterated by centuries of building. The site extends under the rail tracks.

The site won’t be preserved after the archaeological dig. State law requires that the artifacts become the property of the University of Connecticut, but Ranslow said the DOT hopes to work with local organizations such as the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion museum, the nearby Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk and the Norwalk Historical Society to eventually bring the material back for public display.

The archaeologists said they have experienced no pressure or prodding from the DOT to accelerate their excavations.

“The DOT deserves credit here,” Harper said. “This is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind find. Not every state DOT would pursue its due diligence as ConnDOT has. They’re much more savvy, much more amenable about using advanced technology, and it completely paid off.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT

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