State works to record history before it's paved over

Road yields route to past

November 01, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

ASPEN HILL -- Someday soon, this rock-strewn path under a canopy of trees in suburban Washington will likely be a major highway. The rocks and many of the trees are expected to be cleared. In their place would run the Intercounty Connector, a road that has been in the works for nearly a half-century.

But for another week or so, the small patch of ground belongs to state archaeologists. For two months, they have been feverishly washing, weighing and cataloging artifacts from shallow pits in the earth, digging up the remains of an ancient Native American quartz quarry that was discovered in the path of the road.

The quarry is considered a major historical find, a trove of ancient arrowheads and spear points in various stages of completion. It is the only site of major significance that was found along the planned 18-mile, east-west highway through Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which is in the early construction stages and expected to be completed in 2010.

The site's existence has been known for several years and is not expected to delay the project, state officials said.

"In this case, we really hit the jackpot," said Julie Schablitsky, cultural resources manager for the State Highway Administration. "We went out here digging small holes, and we literally came up with fistfuls."

The highway administration has known about the potential at the site - about seven miles from the western terminus of the ICC in Montgomery County - since 2003.

By law, because the highway project is receiving federal funds, the state is required to seek out cultural resources and try to preserve them if possible, said Beth Cole, an administrator with the Maryland Historical Trust, part of the state's Department of Planning.

Most of the time, when archaeologists find something significant during an excavation, the state can work around the site. But in the case of the ICC, that wasn't possible, so the archaeologists are doing the next best thing, taking the artifacts back to the lab.

There, researchers can take samples of blood trapped in the quartz to determine what animals might have come into contact with it. Eventually, the artifacts will be on exhibit at the Maryland State Fair and at the Jefferson-Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County, a repository for many of the state's treasures.

Ideally, Schablitsky said, the state would be able to preserve the site, too. But if it weren't for the ICC, the artifacts might not have been discovered at all. If it had been a private housing development, officials said, the builders would not have been required to conduct excavations, and the quarry might have remained unknown.

"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."

Cole said her office negotiated "extensively" with highway administration officials to get them to provide as much information as possible about the findings and to hold yesterday's event, at which media representatives were allowed to walk around a makeshift archaeology lab. Rocks were being sorted and placed into boxes or large cat-litter buckets, and about a dozen workers were digging into the ground or weighing and cleaning the pieces of quartz.

Cole said she knew the discovery wouldn't stop the project but had hoped the highway administration could work around it.

"You hate to see the site destroyed," Cole said. "On the other hand, we're getting some good information that we wouldn't ordinarily get."

The Intercounty Connector has been the state's most contentious highway project in recent history, with forces lining up for and against it for nearly 50 years.

Environmentalists recoil at the thought of plowing through the remaining greenery in the heavily developed Washington suburbs, and mass-transit advocates say the $2.4 billion it will cost to build the road would be better spent on improving train and bus travel. Others have long said that the road would not relieve congestion on the Capital Beltway and is not an appropriate priority for a state in the midst of a budget crunch.

Business groups have supported the road through its long odyssey, but politicians have been divided.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening tried to kill the project, but his successor, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., revived it during his term. Gov. Martin O'Malley campaigned on a promise to build the road and has continued his support since he took office in January.

Last month, state officials agreed to limit construction while a federal court hears a lawsuit challenging the project.

Longtime ICC opponent Tiffin Shewmake, a Montgomery County resident, said she wasn't surprised that the discovery of a Native American quarry would not stall the road.

"Not to be cynical here, but the people who want the road don't care. They don't care that it won't alleviate traffic. They don't care about lost parkland. Why should this bother them?" Shewmake said. "It's sad. We are not going to know all that we've lost. Once it's paved, we won't know that land. Our kids won't know that land."

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