Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

Dig yields ancient quarry in path of ICC

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Kelly Arford-Horne, an archaeologist with URS Corp. in Gaithersburg, uses a screen to sift buckets of soil during an archaeological dig for artifacts near Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road in south Olney.
Tucked deep into a pocket of forest in south Olney, archaeologists were working furiously last week to unearth and catalogue Native American artifacts before the patch of woodland becomes part of the proposed Intercounty Connector.

Under a canopy of trees just off Georgia Avenue and north of Norbeck Road, field researchers hired by the Maryland Department of Transportation were in their final days of digging, sifting, photographing and listing artifacts from the site before it needs to be cleared in anticipation of the Intercounty Connector (ICC), the planned 18-mile highway that will connect Gaithersburg and Laurel.

According to the State Highway Administration (SHA), the first seven-mile segment of the ICC is scheduled for completion in late 2010, while the ICC segments east of Georgia Avenue are slated to open in late 2011 or 2012.

Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist and cultural resources manager for SHA, said archaeologists have been working to unearth the remains of the ancient Native American quartz quarry since the end of August. The dig, she said, has yielded a number of artifacts, filling more than 175 boxes with spear points, knife blades and arrowheads.

Schablitsky said that number is quite large, considering 200 boxes of artifacts are usually collected by SHA every 10 years.

The site was initially discovered in 2003 as part of the ICC study, she said. The quartz quarry is believed to date back 5,000 years.

‘‘In this case, we really hit the jackpot,” Schablitsky said. ‘‘We went out here digging small holes, and we literally came up with fistfuls.”

Chris Polgase, an archaeological consultant with URS Corp. in Gaithersburg who is running the dig, said archaeologists do not believe the area was ever an established settlement. Instead, he said, archaeologists think Native Americans visited the site from time to time to take advantage of the large amount of quartz available for making hunting tools.

Besides quartz, Schablitsky said, Native Americans might have also harvested cattails from the nearby marsh, a material that once served as moccasin and diaper lining.

While Schablitsky jokingly said she would not categorize artifacts from the site to be in the same league as ‘‘the Holy Grail,” she added that they would reveal clues about Montgomery County’s distant past.

‘‘It’s a wonderful site,” she said. ‘‘It’s got a lot to tell and we only have about half the story with our field work. I think once we get back into the laboratory and look at some of the artifacts and start doing some counts and doing our blood-residue analysis, we’re going to have a better story and a better understanding of how people lived here thousands of years ago.”

And while Schablitsky does categorize the site as having importance, she said it is not the kind of significant site that would be preserved as a park. Other quartz quarries have been discovered throughout the county and other road projects have been known to turn up ancient sites.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Elizabeth Cole, an administrator with the review and compliance division of the Maryland Historical Trust, said if ancient sites do surface, Maryland has a strict set of rules that finds must be evaluated by archaeologists. If the route of the road cannot be changed, teams of archaeologists move in to mitigate the find by gathering as much data as they can before the site needs to be cleared out for construction.

In this case, she said, SHA was not able to work around the site, which is why mitigation was implemented.

‘‘Yes, we would have liked to have seen it be avoided, but, on the other hand, we’re getting some good information that otherwise we would not have gotten from this site,” Cole said.

Schablitsky said if it were not for the ICC, the artifacts might have never been found at all. If the property had been utilized for a private housing development, she said, the builders would not have been required to conduct excavations and the site may have remained untouched.

‘‘You really try to thread the needle in the least damaging way,” Schablitsky said. ‘‘By the time the ICC comes through here, there’s going to be nothing left to save.”

Opponents of the ICC, who are in federal court trying to stop construction of the highway on environmental grounds, have not included the route’s archaeological value as one of their key arguments against the road. U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr. said on Oct. 29 that he would issue a ruling by Nov. 8 on those two lawsuits.

Working in a square-shaped pit split up into different levels, Peter Holmes and Susan Peltier, archaeologists with URS Corp., used hand trowels to remove dirt and deposit it into buckets on Oct. 31.

Holmes said this is the first time he has worked at the site of a prehistoric quartz quarry.

‘‘It’s very interesting. I’d never really had seen so much quartz before and so much activity,” he said. ‘‘There’s a lot of evidence of long periods of activity here.”

Schablitsky said after researchers piece together the story behind those activities in a laboratory, the artifacts will eventually be on exhibit at the Maryland State Fair and at the Jefferson-Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County. She added that some of the collection could also be taken on tour to Montgomery County schools to educate students about the county’s past.

As of Gazette press time, Kellie Boulware, a spokeswoman for SHA, said archaeologists were expected to finish up their work at the Olney site today.