FORT HANCOCK, N.J. — FORT HANCOCK, N.J. - For most underwater archaeologists, the big dream these days is finding a shipwreck full of gold and antique treasures. But for Daria E. Merwin, the goal has a bit less glitter: discovering a 10,000-year-old heap of shells and some ancient arrowheads, spear points and cutting tools in the waters off New Jersey.
Merwin, a 33-year-old doctoral student in anthropology, says such artifacts would help prove her thesis that prehistoric Indians lived 6,000 to 10,000 years ago on the exposed continental shelf before it was inundated by water from melting glaciers.
Merwin and a dozen undergraduate students in underwater archaeology are searching in 30 feet to 60 feet of water for clues on the Atlantic Ocean floor a few miles off Sandy Hook, N.J. The project is part low-budget exploratory survey, part learning experience for the students and part trailblazing adventure on the ocean bottom.
Merwin said her budget for the search was $15,000, most of it from the $800 fee each student paid to participate in exchange for six college credits in underwater archaeology. There was not enough money for sonar equipment or other high-tech underwater-sensing devices. So the search will consist of the team's diving from a boat usually chartered by scuba divers, scanning the bottom and excavating up to about a yard deep on any sites that look promising.
A long shot
Professional archaeologists in New Jersey say the search is both groundbreaking and a long shot.
"They're trying to do something that hasn't been done," said Dr. Lorraine E. Williams, New Jersey's state archaeologist and curator of archaeology at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. "People for years have tried to figure out how to explore the ocean bottom. Nobody's really come up with clear evidence of prehistoric sites offshore."
Williams said that bottom currents were strong off Sandy Hook and over thousands of years had no doubt scattered, or buried, any ancient remnants on the continental shelf. Merwin agrees that her quest will be difficult.
"It's a pilot study," she said. "It's all exploratory." She said she knew of no similar systematic search in the New York region. And she likened the task to finding a prehistoric Indian needle in the haystack of the Atlantic.
But she is undeterred by the long odds. "We know there are sites," she said. "It's just a question of finding them. If we get really lucky, we'll stop looking and concentrate on excavating. It would be something I could work on with students for years and years and years."
New Jersey officials have given Merwin a permit to search in waters up to three miles offshore. Any artifacts uncovered, she said, will eventually be given to the state museum. In recent days, the team prepared for its offshore search by conducting an underwater archaeological survey here at the site of a ferry dock the National Park Service wants to build for visitors to the Sandy Hook part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
Merwin has loved the ocean since childhood in Bayport, on Long Island. In the late 1990s, she said, she worked at a major underwater prehistoric Indian site found by experts at Florida State University beneath the Aucilla River near Tallahassee. In 2000, she got a master's degree in nautical archaeology from Texas A&M; University, which, she said, is one of the few U.S. colleges offering graduate programs in underwater archaeology. She lectures on that subject at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she is studying for her doctorate.
Her thesis is that Indians in the Early Archaic period (10,000 to 8,000 years ago) and the Middle Archaic period (8,000 to 6,000 years ago) were far more prevalent on the now-submerged continental shelf than many archaeologists believe. She said it was widely believed that the ancient Indian population along the coasts of present-day New Jersey and Long Island did not grow profoundly until the Late Archaic period, from 6,000 to 3,000 years ago.
"Maybe those changes in the late period aren't so radical and intensive," she said. "The population may have been higher in the early and middle periods, but very few sites have been found because they're submerged."
Hints supporting her theory do exist, experts said. Williams, the New Jersey state archaeologist, said that for years bones from mastodons that lived on the outer continental shelf have been dredged up by fishermen or washed onto beaches. Presumably, she said, ancient Indians hunted them. But, she added, no preserved underwater Indian settlements or clusters of artifacts have been found - and no one has looked.
Perhaps the most important clue was about 200 arrowheads and other artifacts that a woman from West Long Branch, N.J., Helene Corcione, said she found in 1995 while walking along the beach in Monmouth Beach, a few miles south of Sandy Hook. A few months earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers had rebuilt the beach in Monmouth Beach by pumping sand there from the bottom of the Atlantic about a mile off Sandy Hook.
Merwin and others say they believe the Corps project dredged up the artifacts. Corps officials say they have no way to verify or disprove that notion.