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Diggin' up bones

Indian artifact discovery halts
Charlestown State Park expansion

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

CHARLESTOWN, Ind. (May 2006) – Many prehistoric artifact jewels are imbedded along the banks of the Ohio River. Some of these hidden relics from an ancient American Indian civilization surfaced recently when officials began working on a new marina project at Charlestown State Park.

Charlestown park map

An expansion project had been in the planning stages for some time, said Park Property Manager Larry Gray. This $3 million project to install a boat ramp, marina, picnic area, walking trails, a parking lot and additional roads has been temporarily halted because of the discovery.
An area was discovered that was used as a prehistoric kitchen for Native American Indians. A five-acre section of the park has yielded approximately 1,700 artifacts. Layers of silt deposited by floodwaters protected the site, which lies near Twelve Mile Island. The area is part of a 2,700-acre expansion project that is not yet open to the public.
“This particular area could have been used by a prehistoric civilization. It was not uncommon to have those groups there on a seasonal basis,” said Gray.
Charlestown State Park was established in October 1996. Indiana State Sen. Jim Lewis was instrumental in securing funding for the park. Lewis has been on the Natural Resources Committee in the senate for 28 years.
A Charlestown native, Sen. Lewis said he felt compelled to assist in this project in his hometown. He was interested in “preserving land for our future generations,” he said.
The park began with 2,339 acres and has since added 2,761 from the nearby decommissioned Indiana Army Ammunition Depot. A popular fishing spot is 14 Mile Creek, which flows through the center of the park. Several trails run through the park and showcase the areas cliffs, wetlands and creeks.
In the early 1800s, a stone fort or watchtower was discovered in the area. A date of 1187 was carved upon it. This may have been an indication of Welsh explorers in the area.
Artifacts dating to the Mississippian culture, a prehistoric Indian civilization, have been found in nearby Louisville, Clarksville and Shippingport Island. Artifacts collected at Charlestown State Park will have to be turned back over to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Findings could be housed at a state museum in the future, said Gray. Artifacts found include stone slabs used for grinding and cracking nuts, the remains of fire pits and charred bits of plant material. Various kinds of tools were unearthed, and now it must be decided if they were special or unique to the area in some way.
Dr. Robert McCullough is leading an archaeological survey team from Fort Wayne, Ind., that is studying the area. Experts from Indiana University-Purdue University-Fort Wayne are studying the habits of these nomadic hunters and gatherers from what they left behind.
Such archaeological work is required by federal and state historic preservation laws before a construction project can begin, said Gray. No human bones have been found, only evidences of a cooking area. It is known that tribes in the area would collect hickory nuts, crush them, and boil them to extract fatty oils that had a variety of uses.
McCullough is working on dating the site, which he guesses to be around 2000 BC to 3000 BC. He and his crew of professionals plan to work through mid-May on site.
Objects found include projectile points and large grinding stones, which would have crushed nuts and seeds, said McCullough. Some of the stones weigh as much as 66 pounds. Such a system was “prior to the cultivation of corn,” he said.
Also found were “burned areas that could have been cooking areas.” McCullough labeled the site a “special processing station,” a type of site that hasn’t been studied much before. A lot of people lived there at brief times of the year, but it was not habitational all year long.
There seems to be a large amount of Laurel churt, a stone similar to flint and from which stone tools can be created, in the area. McCullough said it also appeared to be an area of gender separation, possibly a woman’s area for processing winter food supplies. It is hard to make any concrete assumptions because it dates, “so far back in time,” he said.
This is a “very rich area” for artifacts, said McCullough. He would like to see the artifacts returned to the park to be encased in an interpretive center.
Through archaeological surveys, “It’s possible to find an archaeological object anywhere, anytime,” said Gray.
He added that a consultant has been sought to design a master plan for the area. This in-house proposal will outline future goals. Other state park projects were studied for inspiration.
Gray is optimistic that expansion plans will move swiftly along once the college has completed a survey. Investigations will reveal if the college needs to do more surveying.
Future funding is dependent upon the state budget committee, said Lewis. He said he would maintain a strong effort to continue improvements.
Though expansion work has been temporarily halted, visitors will be able to view this previously unopened area of the park in the future. An existing road, Utica Pike Road, will provide access to the area.

• For more information call Charlestown State Park at (812) 256-5600 or visit: http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/properties/park_charlestown.html.

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