- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

CROTON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. - It was tough digging for archaeology students Erin Head and Matt Napolitano. Cold seeped through their wet suits. Dislodged river muck swirled through the water like cream being stirred into a cup of coffee. Visibility was only a few inches.

“Some days you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” said Miss Head, standing waist deep in a Hudson River bay.

So it goes in the submerged world of underwater archaeology. Instead of wearing khakis, diggers this summer at Croton Point Park donned wet suits and scuba gear as they dug up discoveries beyond the reach of landlocked archaeologists. Daria Merwin and a team of students found buckets of submerged stone artifacts where the Croton River flows into the Hudson, about 30 miles north of New York City.

“I know it’s stone tools, but it’s stone tools people haven’t seen in a few thousand years,” said Miss Merwin, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University.

The prehistoric tool makers didn’t live underwater. Rather, creeping sea levels over thousands of years are thought to have submerged settlements that stood by the water’s edge.

The dig site today is a peninsular park by a commuter train station and the suburban bustle of Westchester County. But thousands of years ago, it was a wild area with easy access to sturgeon, berries, oysters and fresh water — a great spot for hunters and gatherers, Miss Merwin said. She was enticed to the site by a local man’s discovery of washed-up artifacts.

Miss Merwin, whose underwater work has included shipwreck searches in the Hudson, recently devoted the first half of a six-week summer course in underwater archaeology to the Croton site.

The work is typical archaeology — sites are meticulously mapped into grids and methodically dug out. Complications come from doing it underwater.

Pairs of divers follow a tape line about 150 feet out, then dig exploratory holes every 15 feet as they work back to shore. They use the same type of scoops found in hotel ice machines. Metal screens are used to sift the silt. Results are logged on clipboards, though divers write on waterproof Mylar instead of paper.

Low tide allows the divers to use snorkels.

The work can be time consuming, but one advantage of working underwater is that organic materials such as leather and wood are better preserved, said Donny Hamilton, head of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M; University.

Miss Merwin said finding artifacts in the water does not necessarily mean that there was a settlement on that spot. Objects could have washed up there. But, she says, the artifacts from the Croton site have minimal signs of wear, which usually means little or no water movement.

The group’s next exploration will be off New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, the aptly named peninsula jutting into the Atlantic just south of New York City.

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