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Archaeologists Unearth Native American Artifacts At I-95 Improvement Site

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Archaeologists dig at the Cramp shipyard site. (Credit: Pat Loeb)

Archaeologists dig at the Cramp shipyard site. (Credit: Pat Loeb)

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By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The I-95 improvement project could bring more than just a better commute. It could provide new insight into ancient Native American culture.

Because the work is taking place in a historically significant part of Kensington– site of such manufacturing landmarks as the Cramp Shipyard (once the nation’s largest) and Dyottville Glassworks — PennDOT performs an archaeological survey before it begins construction.

What the archaeologists have discovered are the long buried remains of the Native American civilization that occupied the area from as far back as 3500 B.C. until William Penn began settling it.

“People have always known that there were Native Americans here,” says Doug Mooney of URS Corp., head archaeologist for the project,  “but until about ten years ago, there were no known intact Native American sites in Philadelphia and everybody assumed that, with 300 plus years of historic development, how could something as fragile as a native American site survive?”

Mooney says the PennDOT excavations have turned up ten sites– but they are often located far beneath the current surface.

Most recently, they tested the ground around the former Cramp Shipyard, in advance of construction there for new on-ramps, and found, six feet down, an old, historic ground surface containing hundreds of Native American artifacts, including arrow heads, spear points, stone tools and pottery pieces, including a gorget — which was etched and drilled so it could be worn.

Artifacts found at the Cramp shipyard. (Credit: Pat Loeb)

Artifacts found at the Cramp shipyard. (Credit: Pat Loeb)

“This is going to tell us a huge amount of information,” says Mooney. “These new sites are going to help us learn what their cultures were like, how they survived in the landscape, a lot of information we didn’t have for the city itself. This is all brand new information.”

At the same time, he says, they’re discovering more recent artifacts as well.

“Not only was this a ground surface when Native Americans lived here thousands of years ago but also during the early historic period,” he says. “For example, we know this was an area, when the British occupied Philadelphia, where there was some skirmishing between American and British forces and one of the historic artifacts we found here was the tip of a bayonet.”

The archeologists have also found hundreds of relics of early manufacturing– glass vases and novelties from the old glassworks and machinery from the shipyard– and, from a privy in an old residential area, what is believed to be the oldest pair of spectacles in the United States.

Such finds are of interest to more than historians. PennDOT manager Elaine Elbich says some of the sites have been looted by what she called “bottle hunters.”

While most of the artifacts are being preserved and study, Elbich says some will be incorporated into the parks and pedestrian areas that will go around the finished highway. Large hooks and gears will be used for accent pieces and cranes may be used for seating.

Many of the finds will be on display at the First Presbyterian Church in Kensington from 6 to 8 p.m. on July 17th. You can also see them at URS’s online “Artifact of the Month” series online.

Hear more in this CBS Philly podcast:

Archeologists Unearth Native American Artifacts At I-95 Improvement Site

KYW Newsradio

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