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Bertha tunnel dig: What CSI experts could tell us

What we find could tell us more about our history than we expect.
Crews drill to look for an obstruction in front of the tunnel-boring machine on Seattle's waterfront.

Crews drill to look for an obstruction in front of the tunnel-boring machine on Seattle's waterfront. Washington State Department of Transportation

With a preliminary plan for digging the pit to save Bertha in hand from Seattle Tunnel Partners, the Washington Department of Transportation's archaeologists are testing the ground where the big dig is going to take place. Last week, some press reports suggested they were going to be digging for artifacts, which brings to mind images of Indiana Jones.

WSDOT clarified that by saying their test drilling is really an effort to get a sense of what kind of ground they'd be digging into, the lay of the land underground. The project's cultural heritage expert Steve Archer calls in a "inventory" that must be done to comply with federal law. They have done such testing in the general vicinity of Bertha, but not as extensively as they now are doing, says Archer: "We just did not anticipate such a deep/broad impact" in the current location.

Prior to digging the big pit, WSDOT is in the process of drilling approximately 60 holes, anywhere from 20 to 40 feet deep, according to spokesperson Laura Newborn. They will be checking out two areas above Bertha between Main and Jackson streets on Alaskan Way. One is a patch 150 feet long (north/south) and approximately 110 feet wide. The other is 130 feet long and 50 feet wide. Can they get better and more specific clues about what to expect during excavation?

Truth be told, the tunnel builders would likely be happy if no artifacts whatsoever were found, because any finds might lead to further delays. Still, while the state has tested the soil at various points along Bertha's route, officials need better information about what lies underneath Alaskan Way in this spot because they never planned to dig a giant pit there. Bertha was tunneling along, for the most part, at a depth where the soil predates human history.

The rescue pit, however, will be dug through ground that is located along the shoreline of original Seattle, an area that included important wharves, landing sites, possible native encampments, etc. It also include tidelands that might have been used by Native Americans for fishing, gathering shellfish and innumerable other activities. The testing, Archer says, will tell WSDOT "what sensitivities exist, not that we think there are specific artifacts or sites at the shaft location and are trying to find them." 

WSDOT's says that it is cooperating closely with the local tribes. In testing nearby, only one known native artifact has so far been recovered — a bit of cedar rope — but there could be more. The state's surveys along the length of the waterfront indicate the possibility of indigenous use and earlier finds in many places. Paul Dorpat's excellent history of the waterfront gives a good example of how complex it all can be.

In 1998, human remains were uncovered during the construction of the Port of Seattle's Bell Street Harbor project. Historians know that a native burial ground existed near the foot of present day Seneca Street, which suggest that burials were known near the present waterfront, but Dorpat reports that the Bell Street bones were quite possibly in soil that was dumped there as landfill much later. In other words, they might have been inadvertently relocated during one of the early 20th century's re-grades. In addition to flattening the city's hills and filling in tidelands, ravines along the water were filled in and built over. The remains were found near the entrance of an old ravine that was filled as part of extending Elliott Avenue in 1912. If nothing else, it's a fascinating snapshot of the complexity of the creation of the modern waterfront.

The top tiers of soil where Bertha is stuck are almost certainly composed of various layers of fill, and who knows what might be in them? No one is expecting an Indian village or graveyard or Doc Maynard's whiskey bottles, but excavating can frequently turn up surprises like Bell Harbor's or South Lake Union's recent mastodon tusk. (For a real bonanza, check out what soil testing just turned up in Los Angeles.)


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 18, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh, lordy, the tribes. Here is a thought, how about if they have to stop and do inventory (and it is not required, what is required is for the tribes to be consulted) that the tribes pay for a delay past a day or three?

I want them to know their stuff, but I don't want to pay for it. They have more money than we do.

Geezer

Posted Tue, Mar 18, 2:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article Knute! Now we need to hear from the whole archaeological community on how important this site is for so many reasons.
From the SHPO in Olympia to the archaeologists hired to perform the dig, all should heed the importance of this site.

We need big eyes on WSDOT who would love nothing better than to trash this site overnight when noone is looking. Post a guard 24/7!
Resist rushing it along. This may be the once in a lifetime to excavate a preeminent site with so much potential for pre-white and early settler habitation/cohabitation.

And, when the artifacts are our, conserved and documented, they should be on public display in Pioneer square for all to view and interpret.

Imagine, THE PIONEER SQUARE MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY, ANTHROPOLOGY AND HISTORY. Brought to you by the WSDOT Tunnel project.

Arties4453

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I, for one, know the area in question was a buffalo jump used by the natives when the glaciers were retreating. They stampeded them off the glaciers, butchered them and then stored the products of their labor in shelves craved out of the glaciers. I found this information on a website, sanctum sanctorum, that the NSA, FBI, CIA, CBS, BHO, DNC, and ESPN sponsor.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Mar 19, 5:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Art - We don't know if there is anything there yet. You are jumping to conclusions too quickly. All that is being done is testing. There may or may not be something there. We are actually looking to see if there a potential buried surfaces that could contain cultural resources more than anything else.

Posted Tue, Mar 25, 11:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Shouldn't the testing have been done years ago before the project was a go? To use a stuck Bertha as an excuse to test smacks of a backdoor approach to being done with this tunnel.

And, I am 100% pro being done with this tunnel.

Posted Wed, Mar 19, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I can't imagine a senario that would NOT show up cultural material/strata.
This is ground zero and it should be treated with the utmost sensitivity. This is not rocket science. We all know that this is whete it all happened. White settlets met Native popilation. The birth of Seattle. The fire. Etc.
Even test boring is intrusive. Start laying out an excavation plan and get the best crew in there. Yunnel schedule has to take a back seat to recovery.

The fox is in the henhouse. WADOT must not dictate how to proceed. The SHPO is our champion on these issues. Don't let us down.

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 6:57 a.m. Inappropriate

"... archaeologists are testing the ground where the big dig is going to take place."

Did you really have to use the term "big dig," Knute? Not that this project won't have Bostonian-sized cost overruns (it will), but why do anything to make it more obvious?

Oh, and we don't need CSI for this one. Digging a tunnel through what used to be Denny Hill on the way to what used to be the Seattle waterfront (after the tribes might have used it first), you're going to find stuff. Oh, well, what are more delays on top of trying to figure out what to do with Bertha? It's only money (and only taxpayer money at that). As long as Seattle pays for it, I'm fine, but that's not how it's going to play out in the end...some farmer riding a combine in Waitsburg is going to foot the bill because the people who wanted this tunnel the most are going to make sure they're not responsible to actually pay for it.

Posted Sun, Mar 23, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Tsewhitzen was a village and burial site the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe knew all about on the shores of Angeles Harbor. Unfortunately, the DOT never consulted the tribe and moved full speed ahead on a graving dock project to build pontoons to replace half of Hood Canal Bridge. The remains of more than 300 native peoples were uncovered, shutting down the project for good. Given this recent history, DOT should not be trusted for its "digs." The upside of the Tsewhitzen tragedy was an incredible archaeological find and the tribe's reconnection with its ancestors. Many of these ancestors died of horrible diseases the white settlers brought to them and then covered over with industrial structures, even concrete slab-foundations. The downside is DOT's reckless and
inept tendency to repeat history.

EastWest

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