Before Breaking Ground for Restoration, Digging for Signs of the Past
Birds flying over flooded fields with a nuclear plant in the background.
Glossy Ibis flocking to an accidental wet meadow, left by the farmer's plow in early spring 2003 at Mad Horse Creek. Salem Nuclear Power Plant in the distance. (NOAA)

NOVEMBER 25, 2014 -- Looking across the open fields of the surrounding farm community, Carl Alderson of NOAA's Restoration Center is reminded of the long history of both European and Native American settlement in this portion of southwest New Jersey. Before Europeans arrived in the 17th century, this area was part of Lenape Indian territory. Today, however, it is the site of a future restoration project at Mad Horse Creek Fish and Wildlife Management Area. In partnership with the State of New Jersey, NOAA is involved in an effort to restore nearly 200 acres of degraded marshland, wet meadow, and grassland in this part of Salem County. The restored habitat will provide food as well as roosting and nesting habitat for birds. This is one of many projects NOAA and our partners have developed as part of the restoration plan in the wake of the 2004 Athos I oil spill, which killed nearly 12,000 birds along the nearby Delaware River.

The Artifacts of Nature

Numerous historical artifacts have been uncovered on lands surrounding Mad Horse Creek, so it's important that before we begin to restore the natural habitat, we make sure we are preserving any colonial or Native American artifacts that might be hidden beneath these fields. Alderson has been been working with Vincent Maresca, a Senior Historic Preservation Specialist with the State of New Jersey to develop plans for a Phase I archaeological investigation of the area. Using a disk cultivator (a machine typically used to cultivate soil between rows of plants), they will be disking all 200 acres of the restoration site, turning over the soil at a depth of 18 inches. After a rainstorm, they can expect any artifacts in the soil to be revealed. At that point, it will take a team of 12 people two weeks to walk the site, one person to a row, looking for exposed shards of pottery or other objects. Anything found will be placed into collection bags and identified with the GPS location. If they find historical artifacts at the Mad Horse Creek restoration area, they will begin a Phase II archaeological investigation. This likely would involve digging more extensive excavation pits in the immediate area of each find to uncover other potential artifacts. The people who do this work are known as field archaeologists. They typically have a degree in anthropology or archaeology and receive specialized training in testing and excavating archaeological sites; screening the soil for evidence; washing, bagging, and labeling artifacts; and completing field inventories of their findings.

When Restoration Meets Preservation

No restoration work will begin until they complete this archaeological search. At all times, NOAA makes sure to consult with historic preservationists on each of our sites in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act. In the first part of the process we ask for input from state experts like Vincent Maresca. Those experts determine whether we should do an archaeological evaluation of the site based on the likelihood of finding artifacts, as was the case at Mad Horse Creek. If the likelihood is high, we then seek input from the federal agency known as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Alderson doesn't know what they're going to find at Mad Horse Creek, if anything, but with Thanksgiving around the corner, he is particularly thankful to be working on a project that is working to restore and preserve both our natural and cultural treasures.