CAMINADA HEADLAND, LA. (AP) - Cleanup after the BP oil spill has turned up dozens of sites where archaeologists are finding human and animal bones, pottery and primitive weapons left behind by pre-historic Indian settlements _ a trove of new clues about the Gulf Coast’s mound dwellers more than 1,300 years ago. But they also fear the remains could be damaged by oil or lost to erosion before they can be fully studied.
So far, teams of archaeologists hired by the oil giant have visited more than 100 sites and sent back a growing list of finds to labs for radiocarbon dating and other tests, though extensive excavations haven’t been done. Scholars have also accompanied cleanup crews to make sure they don’t unwittingly throw away relics.
The disaster that began when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April of 2010 has highlighted the urgent need to protect the sites, but a government scientist says neither their discovery _ nor the money to study them _ would have come as quickly without the spill.
“We’re filling in gaps. There is some pioneering archaeological work going on as a result of the oil spill,” said Larry Murphy, lead archeologist for a council of government agencies and trustees overseeing the oil cleanup.
He said uncovering the sites, many of them prehistoric, represents “a great leap in cumulative knowledge” about Native Americans in coastal Louisiana, who have been less studied than their counterparts in other regions.
Still, the oil represents an added threat to an area that already was under siege from land loss and rising sea levels. Oil has contaminated some artifacts and can interfere with radiocarbon dating, a primary technique for determining the age of an object. Many shores are still scattered with tar balls.
Louisiana’s state archaeologist, Charles McGimsey, said the extent of the oil damage to artifacts isn’t known, but he doesn’t expect it to be disastrous.
The Associated Press was given a rare glimpse of several sites in June during a guided tour of the Caminada Headland by land warden and amateur archaeologist Forrest Travirca III. The beaches are closed to the public, and the locations of archaeological sites are being closely guarded to prevent looting.
Prehistoric artifacts had been found and recorded on the headland before the spill, but not to the extent now being done. Travirca began finding more of them while keeping watch for BP’s black oil last summer on a remote stretch of beach that looks onto the silhouettes of oil rigs and platforms. The headland was one of the hardest-hit spots.
“I was walking on marine shell, rangia clam shell, walking out on a point I know, when I looked down, found a pot sherd, and then I started finding more and more,” Travirca recalled.
Travirca, of coastal Louisiana Indian heritage himself, works for the Wisner Foundation, a New Orleans-based public land trust that owns vast tracts of the headland. He’s also a member of the Louisiana Archeological Society, and has submitted his research to it.
Travirca believes many artifacts he’s finding come from middens, or mounds where families lived and buried their dead. Perhaps, he says, some of the dwellings were built along a meandering bayou that’s been lost to sea level rise and land loss. Many artifacts appear to be washing in.
Archaeologists say the sites date to around 700 A.D., well before the earliest known European contact in the 1500s.
Remains of larger Indian villages are known to have existed further inland, which would make the sites here more like a suburban neighborhood, he theorized.
“To me it would have been like a small subdivision,” Travirca said as he walked the sands and looked for artifacts. “You would have had three, four family units, huts; the women making pottery, the men making (weapon) points.”View Entire Story
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