Caminada Headland, La. Cleanup after the BP oil spill has turned up dozens of sites where archaeologists are finding human and animal bones, pottery and primitive weapons left behind by pre-historic Indian settlements — a trove of new clues about the Gulf Coast’s mound dwellers more than 1,300 years ago. But they also fear the remains could be damaged by oil or lost to erosion before they can be fully studied.
So far, teams of archaeologists hired by the oil giant have visited more than 100 sites and sent back a growing list of finds to labs for radiocarbon dating and other tests, though extensive excavations haven’t been done. Scholars have also accompanied cleanup crews to make sure they don’t unwittingly throw away relics.
The disaster that began when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April of 2010 has highlighted the urgent need to protect the sites, but a government scientist says neither their discovery — nor the money to study them — would have come as quickly without the spill.
“We’re filling in gaps. There is some pioneering archaeological work going on as a result of the oil spill,” said Larry Murphy, lead archeologist for a council of government agencies and trustees overseeing the oil cleanup.
He said uncovering the sites, many of them prehistoric, represents “a great leap in cumulative knowledge” about Native Americans in coastal Louisiana, who have been less studied than their counterparts in other regions.
Still, the oil represents an added threat to an area that already was under siege from land loss and rising sea levels. Oil has contaminated some artifacts and can interfere with radiocarbon dating, a primary technique for determining the age of an object. Many shores are still scattered with tar balls.
Louisiana’s state archaeologist, Charles McGimsey, said the extent of the oil damage to artifacts isn’t known, but he doesn’t expect it to be disastrous.
The Associated Press was given a rare glimpse of several sites in June during a guided tour of the Caminada Headland by land warden and amateur archaeologist Forrest Travirca III.
Prehistoric artifacts had been found and recorded on the headland before the spill, but not to the extent now being done. Travirca began finding more of them while keeping watch for BP’s black oil last summer on a remote stretch of beach that looks onto the silhouettes of oil rigs and platforms. The headland was one of the hardest-hit spots.
“I was walking on marine shell, rangia clam shell, walking out on a point I know, when I looked down, found a pot sherd, and then I started finding more and more,” Travirca recalled.