Thunderbird Museum

Digging Moorestown

Everyone who’s ever been there “digs” Moorestown, but Dr. Ilene Grossman-Bailey does it literally. At the April 10, 2014 Meeting of the Historical Society of Moorestown, Dr. Grossman-Bailey, who currently serves as the Senior Archaeologist at Richard Grubb & Associates, Inc., shared the details of her 2011 – 2012 archaeological excavation of the area around Oldershaw Avenue. She enlightened the group about the finer details about the craft of archaeological surveying. For the Society’s benefit she emphasized the digs at the Madeira I and II sites; both of which took place in our own back yard, literally.

Dr. Grossman-Bailey commenced her remarks with a brief tutorial on archaeology. She defined the field as “the study of past cultures through material remains.” Three items that they investigate are sites of past human activities, artifacts and features. She defined a feature as an artifact that’s located in the ground. Some examples would include building foundations and outhouses. She explained that many interesting items have been extracted from the latter. (Apparently, ancient societies had their share of politicians and musicians, as well.) The criticality of understanding the context of different artifacts came up during the course of her lecture.

For the benefit of us amateurs, Dr. Grossman-Bailey explicated the nomenclature for archaeological projects. She used the Madiera I Site, number 28BU740, as an example. The “28” means the dig took place in New Jersey. The “BU” indicates the county, in this case, Burlington. The last three characters mean that this is the 740th registered site in the state. To date the New Jersey State Museum has registered over 6,000 of them.

We’ve all heard the tales of Indian sounds coming from the bottom of Stokes Hill on dark nights. Now we’ve got the proof these hunter-gatherers spent time in our present day neighborhood. Dr. Grossman-Bailey displayed some of the artifacts recovered. They included hammer stones, which ancient people used for making stone tools. In addition the team found two ceramic pieces. They dated one at 2000 years old. The other was a relative newcomer at only 500 years. Some of these objects showed signs of being heated in a fire. This proved that early inhabitants of the area used them for cooking.

The objects she spent the most time discussing were the small pipe fragments. Some of the ones she unearthed had the appearance of wood grain. They tend to be popular finds at archaeological digs. Interestingly, historians can’t agree on why ancients used them. Some speculate the pipes served as musical instruments. Others hypothesize archaic societies used them as part of a ritual. There are even some researchers who suspect the pipes might have been even been used for smoking. (Imagine that.)

Someone at the HSM Meeting asked Dr. Grossman-Bailey if anyone knew what the ancients smoked. Regrettably, the current testing method (called FTIR) hasn’t been able to identify the substances. This explained why the artifacts she brought to the meeting hadn’t been cleaned.  With the way that technology advances, the hope is that future scientist will have more advanced testing systems to determine the contents of the pipes.

In terms of actual excavation methods, Dr. Grossman-Bailey explained that archaeologists will perform a Phase I Survey which she defined as a general search over a wide area. From there a Phase II Survey will focus on a precise range where the team discovers artifacts. Afterwards, data recovery, or a Phase III Survey will commence. At the Mariera I and II sites in Moorestown, they recovered 500 artifacts. In terms of digging a team will go two to three feet down. Should they discover artifacts or features, they’ll excavate another foot.

Dr. Grossman-Bailey is the latest in a distinguished line of people interested in Moorestown’s ancient past. She discussed how local resident Dorothy Middleton collected and displayed archaeological finds from the surrounding area. She spent fifty years digging into our history and displayed the items from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. According to Dr. O. Kirk Spurr, Ms. Middleton “compiled the fourth largest collection of its type in North America” at her Thunderbird Museum. (This is from the advertisement for his book Dorothy’s Dream: Dorothy Middleton and Her Indian Artifact Museum. For those interested, it’s for sale on the American Society for Amateur Archaeology’s web site.)  Unfortunately, her collection was sold off following her passing.  

Dr. Grossman-Bailey dug up a lot of interesting pieces of Moorestown’s past. She shared them with the society both literally and figuratively. Interestingly, she suspects that her team didn’t excavate the entire site. Who knows? Some lucky Moorestown residents may soon discover the archaeological find of this century in his or her back yard. We can all dig that.