Monday, September 10, 2018


The discovery of a rare and important Contact Period Native American fort in Norwalk has made national news, including coverage by the Associated Press.

The 500-year-old Native American fort and settlement on the east bank of the Norwalk River was kept secret for a year by the state Department of Transportation, which feared looters would scour and violate it, Hearst Connecticut Media has learned. Now, the archaeological dig has fencing and video monitoring. But a year ago, when remnants of the fort were first found — indicating trading with the Dutch in the early 17th century — the potential of the wide-open site in the heart of the city was so important that the DOT and its archaeologists kept it under wraps.

In December of 2016, archaeologists involved in the billion-dollar rebuilding of the Metro-North Railroad bridge began unearthing clues to a location they knew was first used by natives 5,000 years ago. In November 2017, they hinted there could be some farther-reaching historical importance uncovered. Finally, last month, the DOT announced the vast extent of the find. Both the archaeologists and the DOT said the secrecy was warranted by the fragility of the site. “The awesome thing about this project team is they have involved me since the very beginning,” said Mandy Ranslow, the DOT’s archaeologist in its Office of Environmental Planning, “And nothing we’re doing now is delaying the project.”

First, the archaeologists found a storage pit, yielding pottery with decorative etchings. Then they found the signs of the walled encampment: the acidic soils where wooden palisades had been raised. Inside the perimeter are the remnants of posts from wigwams where indigenous families lived. There’s widespread evidence of trade with the European explorers, including Dutch-made glass beads and an iron knife, as well as beads called wampum. Made by the natives from clam and oyster shells, the new arrivals to North America used wampum to barter for furs with upland tribes. It’s being called the most important discovery of indigenous life in New England in the 21st century and likely the last such find between the Connecticut River and New York City.

In the early 1600s this was part of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, during the early decades of contact with Native Ameri-cans. “Given the urban location it’s pretty amazing that there was anything else at all,” said Sara P. Sportman, senior archaeologist at the Storrs-based Archaeological and Historical Services Inc., which has been involved in the bridge project since 2015. After locating the fort through historic maps published as early as 1847, the archaeologists took core samples. The fort site, occupied by a since-disappeared group referred to as the Norwalk Indians, was active from 1610 to 1641, when the land was sold to English settlers.

There is no evdence of burials or human remains, although Lucianne Lavin, director of Research and Collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT, believes that dog and bear bones found at the fort could indicate a ceremonial feast of some kind. “The site also poses some important cultural-historical questions,” said Lavin, who recently visited the dig. “Why was the settlement palisaded and located in the middle of a protective swamp? From whom were the Norwalk Indians protecting themselves?

Another question that might be answered by the pottery recovered from the site: What was the cultural affiliation of the inhabitants? Were they a village-band of the Wiechquaesgeck tribe whose homelands included Westchester County, Greenwich and Stamford, or were they a village/band of the Poquonnocks to their east? Or were they a separate community altogether?” "For me, it's like a gold mine," said Kevin McBride, an anthropology professor at UConn and research director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. "I think the reason the site is so important is that there's a lot of material here. It's definitely one of the most important sites we've found in a long time." McBride said items found at the site provide some insight into Native Americans' first interactions with Europeans.


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