Market Square construction yields archaelogical find


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ST. THOMAS ­- Archaeologists monitoring V.I. Public Works Department's Market Square construction project in downtown Charlotte Amalie have discovered a site containing thousands of artifacts from a settlement dating back an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 years.

A 200-foot trench on Krondprindsens Gade between Strand Gade and General Gade gives access to a midden, the archaeological term for a dumping ground where people deposited food waste, excrement and discarded broken pots and tools.

The site will be hand-excavated during the next several weeks by a team of archaeologists called in for their expertise in the "Saladoid" period, which dates from 500 B.C. to 545 A.D.

Artifacts already extracted from the dig include hundreds of whelk shells, hundreds of pottery fragments and some bones of fish, birds, hutia and marine mammals.

Strand Gade will be closed to vehicles at its intersection with Curaçao Gade within the next two days and will remain closed for the duration of the dig. The street will remain accessible to pedestrians, according to Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls.

Smalls said his department was erecting signs and fencing to protect the area and that eventually the public would be invited to tour and view the work site.

The discovery has been hailed by local archaeologists, Public Works and the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office as a valuable opportunity to learn more about the people indigenous to St. Thomas during the pre-Columbian period and well worth any delays or expense it creates.

"We have a major site here, one that is rich in the history of St. Thomas," said David Hayes, the archaeologist hired by Public Works' contractor to monitor the construction. "It takes priority over everything else because once the water lines are put in, the site will be completely destroyed. We have to extract as much information as possible."

While a trench for the installation of water lines was being dug on Jan. 22, Hayes noticed hundreds of whelk shells and pottery shards pouring out from the newly disturbed soil. The discovery led him to call a halt to the construction and to begin testing the materials to establish how old they are.

The significance of the find has prompted Public Works to forestall construction around the trench until archaeologists complete their extraction of artifacts, which will be turned over for storage to the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office.

The people associated with the newly discovered site are believed to have migrated from the Orinoco River valley in South America. The first settlers in the Virgin Islands are believed to predate the Saladoid people by 1,000 years.

Archaeological evidence of these first settlers was discovered in Krum Bay. The people of the Saladoid period were more advanced than these first settlers in that they practiced agriculture and had more advanced stone tool technology.

The Saladoid people may have been indirect ancestors of the Taino population native to the islands at the time of Columbus, according to Emily Lundberg, an archaeologist who has done work at the Krum Bay site and the new site.

The Federal Highway Administration funds the downtown infrastructure improvement project and will, because of federal laws regulating the preservation of historic resources, be obliged to pay the extra costs associated with the archaeological work.

The Public Works Department has to comply with the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 in allowing sufficient time for archaeologists to glean as much as they can from the site, according to Sean Krigger, the acting director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office.

Hayes said the costs of excavating the site could run "between $100,000 and $1 million" depending on how many artifacts are culled and what kind of research needs to be done on them.

"This is a complex project where the archaeology has to be done and the infrastructure has to be done, and we are all working together to achieve both the knowledge of the past and the infrastructure for a modern St. Thomas," Hayes said.

In the early 1980s, a small sample of similar artifacts was unearthed in the same area during a much smaller construction project. The findings indicated the area is significant to the history of the Saladoid period, but archeologists had no idea of the wealth of evidence in the area until the recent discovery.

"We had a small peek into this area's value in terms of the period many, many years ago," Hayes said. "But nobody realized how big the site was until we started to see the enormous deposits of shells and pottery coming out of the trench."

In 1990, the construction of Tutu Park Mall unearthed remnants of a village dating to the same period. In about a year of excavation work where the Kmart and the parking lot adjacent to it now exist, archeologists uncovered skeletons and round houses from the Tutu site before the developers began pushing to continue their project.

Experts have said the new Main Street discovery is comparable in terms of significance and size.

Krigger said that the Main Street discovery potentially could be even more fruitful in terms of what could be learned about the culture of the Saladoid residents of St. Thomas because of the number of artifacts and because the archaeological team will not be under pressure from private developers to rush the extraction of artifacts.

The Tutu project became the "banner or poster child" for the V.I. Legislature's passing the Antiquities and Cultural Properties Act of 1998 to protect archaeological discoveries not connected to federal money and therefore not protected by federal law, according to Krigger.

"We don't have sufficient information of what their lifestyle was, and what we do have is not specific enough. This is why this is such a golden opportunity for us to conduct this archaeological investigation," Krigger said. "Circumstances didn't allow for the full investigation of Tutu Park site. Now we have time to really do it right and to get another snapshot of the lives of these people and what their contribution to island history was."

- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email anorris@dailynews.vi.

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