Historic wooden picket fence.

Archeologists are piecing together a new understanding of residents and merchants who traveled through Delaware as far back as the late 1600s as part of the Delaware Department of Transportation’s US 301 construction project.

The 17-mile, $800 million project will provide a new connection from US Route 301 in Maryland to the existing Delaware State Route 1 corridor.

Spurred on by a tight deadline for construction, archeology work on the project is being conducted at lightning speed and is uncovering numerous archeological sites that are changing the understanding of early inhabitants, merchants, and trade practices in the region, according to David Clarke, an archeologist with DelDOT.

Clarke described the unique $12 million archeology program for the US 301 project, both in terms of the history uncovered at the archaeological sites as well as lessons learned by the state DOT. The large-scale archeological effort was conducted in a short timeframe, while maintaining compliance with requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

DelDOT has been able to “front-load” the archeology program with detailed background research and GIS mapping while keeping the project on time and on budget by following a process set forth in a memorandum of agreement among the transportation and resource agencies.

Holistic Approach

Clarke said the MOA for the project – developed and signed by the Federal Highway Administration, DelDOT, and the Delaware State Historic Preservation Office – is a key element in the “holistic approach” to the Route 301 archaeology program. The program includes a GIS-based predictive model, detailed background research that informed the sampling strategy, and intensive archaeological testing to identify archaeology sites.

“Once we got the record of decision we spent a lot of effort and a lot of money doing very detailed background research and historic research and GIS mapping, so when we had to put shovels in the ground we had so much knowledge already that we weren’t looking for needles in a hay stack,” Clarke said.

In addition, while 99 percent of the archeology work on the project is performed by outside contractors, the program is managed by DelDOT archeologists, giving an added level of confidence to resource agencies and the federal government. “It saves us so much time and money by having archeologists manage the archeologists,” Clarke said.

One of the major accomplishments has been the ability of the program to shift the alignment of the planned highway to avoid archeological resources and preserve sites in-place – a savings of about $5 million and a win-win accomplishment for all involved, he said.

These elements combined have allowed the archeology program to be conducted quicker, cheaper, and more effectively, and to get better results, he added.

“The hope is that at the end of this project this will be a kind of new gold standard both for FHWA and the Delaware Department of Transportation on how to manage the Section 106 compliance on a mega-project,” he said.

Rewriting History

Meanwhile, Clarke said archeologists are finding evidence of previously undocumented inhabitants and possible trade routes that may help rewrite the history of the area.

“We have found an amazing number of early historic archeological sites from the late 1600s and throughout the 1700s that we really didn’t expect to be on the landscape and a number of associated cart roads,” Clarke said.

Researchers are finding evidence that merchants likely were using secret trade routes along undocumented cart roads to avoid the more prominent routes that were subject to a tax by the King of England. Trade items from the merchants’ ships – remains of which archeologists are uncovering near the cart roads – were likely used as barter to local farmers and residents who provided access to their land and use of their ox-drawn carts, Clarke explained.

Clarke predicted that these early archeological sites will “completely rewrite and change what we thought we knew about the Delmarva region before the Revolutionary war and at the end of the 1600s and early 1700s – when our previous models told us there weren’t a lot of people living here.”

“We’re finding a lot more evidence of people here and goods trading between the Delaware and Chesapeake Bay – just a lot of it may not have been recorded.”

“Even though we found all of these amazing early archeology sites we are still going to be on-time and on budget, and get through the 106 process, because we set up our program to handle any kind of archeology; no matter what we found we had a way in our memorandum of agreement to work through it.”

Clarke said the new information and data from the U.S. 301 archaeology program will be synthesized and distributed to the public.

In addition to traditional mitigation for project impacts, alternative mitigation will likely include providing a new historic context for the state, journal articles, and possibly an entire book documenting the findings.

Clarke credited the success of the project to the joint effort of the agencies involved.

“We collectively worked very hard to write a memorandum of agreement that allows us the tools to do things differently, but it was also very strict on the roles each agency played, who was in charge, and the decision-making process. Without that legally binding agreement we really couldn’t do the things we’re doing now.”

For more information, link to the DelDOT archeology program website and the U.S. 301 Final EIS.