14 January 2011

Filling in holes in New Jersey

It is disappointing to hear the news that the excavations at the Petty's Run site in Trenton, New Jersey, are going to be filled in. This particularly exciting early industrial site was excavated a couple of years ago by Richard Hunter and Ian Burrow of Hunter Research Inc., who discovered an early eighteenth century steel furnace, as well as a plating mill and a paper mill, amongst many other interesting buildings and structures.

The picture shows the site during excavation - the story of which is still accessible on the Petty's Run web journal. Some provisional findings were also presented in an excellent paper at the 'Footprints of Industry' conference in 2009, which is imminently about to be published in the conference proceedings. The site is extremely important to the history of Trenton, and also to the development of an independent industrial economy in what was to become the United States.

Unfortunately the New Jersey Department of Environmental Preservation seems to have decided to stop short of creating an 'archaeological park' with the well-preserved remains at its centre. The 'archaeological park' was actually the reason for the excavation programme in the first place, and the State has already spent more than US$1m on the project. Criticism of this decision has been widespread. Richard Veit, President of the New Jersey Archaeological Society is quoted as expressing surprise that "after the extensive, well-publicized high-quality excavation that took place at the site in preparation for creating this new urban park, that the governor’s office would be reconsidering it at such a late date. The archaeological finds provide an opportunity to celebrate our state’s past and to look forward to the future" (link to full article).

There is no doubt that the site is of international importance (the photo above shows the site being discussed at the 2009 Coalbrookdale conference by colleagues from the UK, Canada and the United States). Of course the archaeological research and publication programme will continue, and some would argue that burying the remains is the best way of preserving them. Certainly an 'archaeological park' would require ongoing support, which the state of New Jersey is clearly not prepared to commit. However such support would be an investment, not just in telling the story of the remains themselves, but also inspiring new generations about the historic environment. Moreover, as the Trenton Trenton Historical Society has pointed out, the cost of filling in the site (an estimated US$400,000) would go a long way to creating a viable tourist attraction.

It does seem quite short-sighted to have done most of the work already and then pull the plug at the last minute. The steel furnace in particular was one of only five in north America at the time, and is the only one to have been excavated. There is now less of an opportunity to tell the story to a wide audience, and it seems as though a lot of peoples' hard work over many years has been disregarded.

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