Digging for the truth: Roundabout project stirs archaeological hunt, lawsuit and public outcry

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  • John Skibiski, 89, of Florence visits land on the west side of Hatfield Street in Northampton, just down the hill from his childhood home on Thursday. A planned roundabout at the nearby intersection with North King Street triggered an archaeological dig that found Native American artifacts estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Skibiski, 89, of Florence talks about a rotary planned for the intersection of Hatfield and North King Streets in Northampton. The project triggered an archaeological dig that discovered evidence of early Native American activity at this site in the 400 block of Hatfield Street. Photographed on Thursday, June 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Traffic on Hatfield Street, left, in Northampton waits to turn onto North King Street on Thursday. A roundabout is planned for the intersection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Skibiski, 89, of Florence gestures toward land in the 400 block of Hatfield Street in Northampton that is to be used for a planned roundabout at the nearby intersection with North King Street (Route 5). Photographed on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The construction project triggered an archaeological dig that found Native American artifacts estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking south at the intersection of North King Street (Route 5), left, and Hatfield Street, right, in Northampton, where a roundabout is planned. Photographed on Thursday, June 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield Street in Northampton, looking southwest from the intersection of North King St. (Route 5) where a roundabout is planned. Photographed on Thursday, June 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Skibiski, 89, of Florence visits land on the west side of Hatfield Street in Northampton, just down the hill from his childhood home, on Thursday. A planned roundabout at the nearby intersection with North King Street (Route 5) triggered an archaeological dig that found Native American artifacts estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking southwest down Hatfield Street in Northampton from its intersection with North King Street (Route 5), in foreground, on Thursday. A roundabout is planned for the intersection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A southbound cyclist turns right from North King Street (Route 5) onto Hatfield Street in Northampton on Thursday. A roundabout is planned for the intersection. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Looking east from the Skibiski land in the 400 block of Hatfield Street in Northampton. Directly across Hatfield street is Marks Motors and beyond that is North King Street, then U-Haul of Northampton and, finally, the tree-lined bank of the Connecticut River. The Skibiski land would be used for an approach to the planned roundabout at the intersection of Hatfield and North King Streets. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Some of the artifacts found at the site. MASSACHUSETTS DOT

Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2020 6:40:32 PM

NORTHAMPTON — An online petition calling for officials to prevent construction of a roundabout at a Native American site estimated to be at least 8,000 years old is spreading through the city and social media. “Do Not Destroy the 10,000 Year Old Ancient Village in Northampton,” reads the petition, written by Greg Skibiski, that’s gathered over 10,000 signatures.

More than 500 Native American artifacts were found last fall during an archaeological dig on the side of Hatfield Street near North King Street at the site, which experts trace back to the early Archaic period. The dig was triggered by the roundabout project planned for that intersection that is still moving forward next month.

What the petition doesn’t mention: Skibiski’s father, John Skibiski, owned the land in question and filed a lawsuit earlier this month arguing that the state did the dig before it formally took his land. John Skibiski wants to see the site preserved and the artifacts, which he claims are his, in a museum. Additionally, an archaeologist he brought on as a consultant believes there are more important artifacts to be uncovered.

The site could reveal information about the early Archaic period, “a period that is understudied in New England due to the scarcity of sites,” according to a 164-page report written by David Leslie, an archaeologist with Archeological and Historical Services Inc. (AHS), and submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in May 2019 (it was updated in February 2020). The Gazette recently obtained a copy of that  report.

The state contracted AHS to do the dig, and a team worked at the site on and off for two years, wrapping up in October 2019. The team found projectile points, tools, evidence of hearths and crescent tools that are common around the world but that have never been found in the Northeast before, according to the report. The archaeological team recommends in its analysis that the site “be avoided by project activities,” and if not, that impact mitigation be done.

But federal and state officials determined that recovering the articles “was an acceptable form of mitigation at the site as neither preservation in place nor avoidance through project redesign was feasible,” reads a November letter sent to John Skibiski from David White, acting director of MassDOT Environmental Services. “No further significant site information remains to be preserved.”

The $3.8 million roundabout project is planned to go through the archaeological dig area, according to Leslie’s report. MassDOT spokesperson Judith Reardon Riley said she couldn’t provide a specific date for when construction will start next month.

AHS told the Gazette on Wednesday that Leslie needed permission from MassDOT to speak about the site. The Gazette repeatedly asked MassDOT for permission to speak with Leslie in December 2019, January 2020, and this month, but the requests were not granted.

When the Gazette asked MassDOT a series of questions about the project and the report this week, spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard replied in an email that “MassDOT does not comment on pending litigation.”

The lawsuit and the landowner

John Skibiski’s lawsuit, filed June 19 in Hampshire Superior Court, demands that the roundabout construction be paused so that an archaeologist he retained can conduct an archaeological investigation at the site, look at the artifacts already found, determine “the site’s archaeological and historical value” and preserve it.

A hearing for the case is scheduled for July 13.

The lawsuit also alleges that the dig occurred before the state formally took the land. “Mr. Skibiski is challenging the state’s right to retain those artifacts,” said Skibiski’s lawyer, John Connor of Greenfield firm Stobierski & Connor. “The state claims it has the right to retain them ... He (Skibiski) is the rightful owner of those things.”

“We’re really trying to prevent the destruction of the site,” Connor said. “We want to determine a few things: Is there more to be discovered there? What is the value of those discoveries — monetarily, scientifically, archaeologically?”

Skibiski expressed concern about the project at a public hearing in 2017, specifically questioning the cost of the roundabout and how it would affect his property before the dig was completed.

His current lawsuit states that the artifacts found at the site are valued between $80,000 and $120,000, an estimation made by the archaeologist Skibiski consulted. The state told Skibiski he would be offered $57,600 in damages for his land, which he has not received, according to the lawsuit complaint.

If he were to win the lawsuit, Skibiski said the artifacts would be intended for museums. “The artifacts should be preserved in some fashion for the public benefit,” he said.

Richard Michael Gramly, the archaeologist working with Skibiski, believes there is more to be found at the site. The retired archaeologist lives in North Andover and has worked on excavations all around the world — including at the base of South Deerfield’s Mount Sugarloaf — and published numerous papers and books in his field.

“The facts are, this is an important early village site that has escaped reoccupation,” Gramly said. “There’s a good deal of material still there.” He suspects more habitation areas there and a hearth, which could reveal information including the inhabitants’ diet.

Gramly is angry with MassDOT and said he was shocked to learn from Leslie’s report that the entire site wasn’t excavated. “I’m sick and tired of these bureaucrats telling me what science is all about,” he said.

He says the state illegally took the artifacts. Gramly himself illegally excavated human remains and cultural artifacts from a Native American burial site in western New York in the late 1990s, according to a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general, the Seneca Nation of Indians, and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation; that lawsuit was settled in 2000.

According to a press release from the New York AG’s office, Gramly improperly stored human remains, and, “At least one of the cultural items was used to decorate Gramly’s office, while others were given to friends and family members.” As part of the settlement, he must “obtain written permission from affected Indian tribes prior to excavating any other Native American archaeological site in New York.”

Round and round

Mark Andrews — a tribal cultural resources monitor for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head who was at the archaeological dig in Northampton last fall — goes out on digs to make sure they are in compliance with the law and reports the findings to his tribe’s historic preservation officer.

The Wampanoags are located mostly on the Cape and Islands, but because there are few federally recognized tribes in the state, they speak for many other native groups, Andrews told the Gazette in the fall. Groups including the Nonotuck are indigenous to Northampton.

Speaking of the roundabout project, Andrews said, “We don’t feel entirely comfortable that all has been done to establish exactly what and where the impacts may or may not be going forward with the construction,” he said Wednesday.

In general, “our role, from the tribal historical preservation standpoint, we are for preservation and protection of whatever resources we discover during the archaeological phase,” Andrews said. “Whatever is going to provide the most preservation, the most protection for what is still lying underground, we would prefer.”

Andrews underscored the importance of what was uncovered at the dig site: “When you’re coming across the belongings of people who lived that long ago, it’s extremely special. It’s something that has to be given the proper respect.”

He also takes issue with what he says is an inaccurate statement made by Leslie in a November Gazette article about how, “The site is no longer there, we excavated it. It’s not going to be paved over — it’s gone.”

That’s not the case, Andrews told the Gazette late last year. “It’s really out of character for an archaeologist to say something like that … There’s no foolproof way of lifting each and every artifact out of the ground.”

Leslie’s recent report says the team found charcoal and other signs suggesting that it is “highly likely” that hearths are preserved in the area “but were outside the bounds of the shovel testing and excavation plan.”

Considering what was found in the dig, Skibiski said, “We just want to see the site preserved and a traffic light put in,” he said last Thursday. A traffic light is an “easy alternative” for the intersection, he said.

The upfront cost of a stoplight would be cheaper, said Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s director of planning and sustainability, but a stoplight would not be ideal for preventing accidents because Hatfield Street comes toward North King Street at an angle. “A stoplight still needs a long, perpendicular access. You can’t do a stoplight at an angle,” Feiden said.

Part of the roundabout project involves constructing a sidewalk component that would go to River Valley Co-op and Big Y, Feiden said. Without a car, there is not a safe way to get to the co-op, one of the city’s major grocery stores, making it an equity issue, he noted.

But putting in sidewalk isn’t sufficient, he said, as the road crossings wouldn’t be safe. “This is a pedestrian/bicycle/generally a safety issue.”

As of Thursday, the city hadn’t received a copy of Leslie’s archaeological report, Feiden said, adding that he is not sure when construction will begin. The city paid $110,000 for the project’s design using money that came from traffic mitigation provided by the River Valley Co-op when it was first approved and from several other King Street projects, according to Feiden. The rest of the project is paid for by state and federal funds, he said, and the project is now under MassDOT control.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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