Skip to main content

Connecticut housing site could hold ancient graves, artifacts

MADISON, Conn. - The Connecticut state archaeologist has asked the private developer of a high-end residential complex to conduct an archaeological survey of the site, which is located near the mouth of a tidal river where indigenous people hunted, fished, grew corn, beans and squash, and buried their dead thousands of years ago.

State archaeologist Nick Bellantoni said the 42-acre Madison Landing site near the Hammonasset River, where LeylandAlliance LLC, of Tuxedo, N.Y., plans to build 127 units of age-restricted houses and condominiums, has a ''high probability'' of being an ancient American Indian site.

A pre-contact Native site located on the property is documented in the state's archaeological site files. The site was reported to the state more than 30 years ago by people who said they had found stone tools there. The property includes a small-plane airport that recently shut down after 60 years of operation.

Bellantoni has written to the developer and to state and local officials, urging that an archaeological reconnaissance survey be conducted ''to identify and preserve significant cultural resources prior to any land use activities.''

''I've talked to their lawyers. They're looking at the legal requirement they have in terms of compliance. I'm telling them I have a known site on the property. I'm hoping they will comply voluntarily, but if they chose not to do an archaeological survey, I'll seek help from the attorney general,'' Bellantoni said.

Since the site is on private property, it may not fall under the protection of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Bellantoni said. The owner may not be legally required to perform an archaeological survey.

Howard Kaufman, a principal and General Counsel for LeylandAlliance, said the company is studying the request and would likely undertake an archaeological survey.

''We're under no obligation. It's on a voluntary basis. We're going to take a good look at it, talk to the authorities and have an archaeologist give us some advice as to what they think should be done and if it's something we can do to preserve cultural resources; if there are any cultural resources there, we'll certainly do our best to comply,'' Kaufman told Indian Country Today.

Under state statute, each town can formulate regulations to preserve historic or ancient sites; but of the 169 Connecticut municipalities, only 50 have done so, Bellantoni said. Madison is not one of them.

''This really highlights the fact that we need to protect our cultural heritage, and we're not, all across America. The idea that these are significant resources, that they're important, that they need to be preserved, is a hard thing to get across in America where we're forward-looking and just can't wait to get on to the next generation of shopping malls,'' Bellantoni said.

Bellantoni and Kaufman had differing views of the likely archaeological value of the site.

''Historically, the only use of the property was for potato farming, and then they filled in the area of the runway; so any below-ground archaeological sites should have good integrity,'' Bellantoni said.

''The site was used for a long time and has been disturbed quite significantly through potato farming and, more recently, as an airport; so the nature of it is it's not an undisturbed site and as I understand it, artifacts that have been disturbed have a limited value,'' Kaufman said.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

When asked if the property could be a burial site of the ancient ones, Bellantoni reiterated that he could not predict what, if anything, will be found.

''I don't know that there are burials there. There may be, but I don't have the information. That's why an archaeological survey is needed. But if there were known graves there, believe me, they [the developers] would not be able to move forward,'' Bellantoni said.

Leyland proposed the development to the town in 2002. At that time, both Bellantoni and David Poirier, an archaeologist with the State Historic Preservation Office, reviewed the project and independently came to the conclusion that an archaeological survey was needed.

''When you look at the nature of the soils and the environment at the mouth of the Hammonasset River tidal salt marsh, and the fact that it's right across the street from the Hammonasset State Park when I have three archaeological sites of Native American origin, there is no question when I say this is an area of high sensitivity,'' Bellantoni said.

Since the project did not immediately move forward, the archaeologists assumed it had been set aside. Bellantoni learned in January that the Madison Planning and Zoning Commission had approved the project, but he discovered the archaeological survey had not been done.

''I'm coming back in now after the fact that it's already been approved. Had they taken care of it in 2002, we wouldn't be having this conversation,'' Bellantoni said.

The fact that a survey was requested four years ago may add weight to Bellantoni's request that it be done now before any earth is disturbed.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued a preliminary approval for the project's wastewater system.

''That decision is environmentally based,'' DEP spokesman Dennis Schain said. ''It has nothing to do with archaeology. The state archaeologist will determine if there are any sites or artifacts of archaeological significance at that site. If such a determination is made, the state archaeologist will initiate steps deemed appropriate to protect them,'' Schain said.

Local residents have opposed the project for years, on the environmental grounds that the huge development would threaten the delicate coastal area and on their belief that the property was once home to the local Hammonasset Indians, who farmed the area long before European colonist/settlers arrived in the mid-1600s. Hammonasset means ''where we dig the ground'' in the Algonquian language.

In response to their urging, the DEP will hold a public hearing on the project on April 11 in Madison Town Hall.

One of the project's most ardent opponents is Dr. Dan Rankin, a retired surgeon who teaches Native American history at Hammonasset Park.

''There is more than an excellent chance that this site was either a seasonal camp or a year-round village going back 7,000 years or more. To me, the fact that we're looking at construction over this sensitive American Indian site has national and historic significance. These are very valuable resources, and once they're developed over they're gone forever.

''We have such an opportunity to learn from the materials that are in the ground there. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity for the sake of a development that doesn't belong there in the first place,'' Rankin said.