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© Ed Hille
Field archaeologist Amadeus Zajac screens dirt from the dig looking for artifacts belonging to American Indians.
Beneath the roaring traffic of I-95 near the Delaware River in Bucks County, archaeologists are slowly unearthing the remains of another era - arrowheads, chunks of pottery, and perhaps even the remnants of a fire pit used by American Indians up to 1,000 years ago.

And they're just getting started.

During the next few months, workers will continue to strip away layer after layer of rich brown soil on a small piece of what used to be farmland in Lower Makefield, and they could find artifacts dating to 8000 to 10,000 B.C.

"It takes a lot of patience," said John W. Lawrence, senior archaeologist at the excavation site along River Road, where a new bridge is scheduled to be built in the coming years to replace the Scudder Falls Bridge between Bucks County and New Jersey.

The $322 million Scudder Falls project is the largest ever undertaken by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. Such archaeological digs are required by federal law when a construction project may threaten historic and archaeological artifacts.

In the first three weeks of excavation this month, the archaeologists have dug 13 holes, which so far are about two feet deep, and found what they think are bits and pieces of makeshift stone tools, along with arrowheads and other items, from roughly the years 1000 to 1500, long before William Penn set his sights on Bucks County after laying out the city of Philadelphia in 1682.

Lawrence said they intended to dig to depths of 14 feet - and that could potentially lead them to items dating to 10,000 B.C. "There's the potential to find artifacts dating that far back," he said. But even if the discoveries are not that ancient, they fully expect to find artifacts older than what they have discovered so far.

"We just haven't dug deep enough yet," Lawrence said.

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© unknown
Among the finds are arrowheads and chunks of pottery.
To some, watching the team gingerly comb through the dirt might seem about as interesting as watching paint dry. But for Lawrence and others involved in the dig, it is all about finding pieces of a puzzle and trying to use those pieces to paint a picture of what life had been like for American Indians in the area.

"It's really rewarding," said Brian Albright, the field director at the site, who likes the challenge of trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle to learn more about history.

The artifacts found at the Lower Makefield site will be cleaned, cataloged, and then shipped to the State Museum in Harrisburg. Lawrence said a similar dig on the New Jersey side of the bridge site yielded 14,000 artifacts that will be housed at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.

The final tally of the artifacts will help the team figure out what type of settlement existed at the Lower Makefield site - was it a hunting or fishing outpost, or a village for families?

"We know they were here," Lawrence said of the American Indians. "Now the question is, what kind of settlement was it? What were they doing when they were here, and how does this fit in with the overall way of life of Native Americans at different periods of time?"

The first significant discoveries have started to emerge over the last week or so, and Lawrence said they also had found some dark spots in the soil that might have been round posts in the ground.

"Over here, we have what may have been a fire pit," said Lawrence, tracing the outlines of what could be remnants of chunks of charcoal.

American Indians, he said, had an interesting cooking technique in which they would heat stones in the fire pit and then put the stones inside a pot to heat the food. They have also found remnants of a plant known as a cattail, which are edible and grow in the spring.

That might mean that the excavation site might have been a settlement used in the springtime, a place where the inhabitants came to catch fish to replenish the food supply after winter.

"That's one of the possibilities we're investigating," said Lawrence, who works for AECOM, the Trenton-based design consultant for the project.

Lawrence said they were confident they would find a slew of interesting items because such sites along a river, especially with a nearby creek, were attractive settlements hundreds and thousands of years ago because American Indians could find food and water.

Back then, he said, the rivers were the highways of the day - much as I-95 is today.