Harold Martin walks near Native American burial mounds built about 800 years ago and talks about artifacts and skeletal remains found on his Clark County farm over the years. / Angela Shoemaker, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Indiana officials are weighing archaeological and environmental concerns as they consider two possible routes for a $22.5 million road for large trucks near Utica.
The area is rich in Native American artifacts that have led to numerous archaeological digs in the past century.
"It's certainly a challenging area of the state for a new transportation project," said Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation.
Projects in other areas of the state bring environmental concerns, he said, but the area around Utica, Charlestown and Jeffersonville in southeastern Clark County has a combination of historic sites, difficult terrain, wetlands and other natural factors.
In a soybean field near what is now the River Ridge Commerce Center, for instance, archaeologists have found four mounds and part of what they believe is a fortification wall built by Native Americans.
The property, owned by retired oral surgeon Harold Martin, has been studied in past decades but little detailed research has been done in recent years, complicating state efforts to pick a route.
"The area could use a detailed study," said Indiana University archaeologist Cheryl Munson, who in 2003 began studying Martin's property, dubbed the Prather site for a former farmer who lived there in the 1800s.
The area has seen development explode at the commerce center, formerly the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant. But more is expected in anticipation of the eastern bridge, one of two spans being built under the $2.34 billion Ohio River Bridges Project.
The heavy-haul corridor will help move oversized rigs, other vehicles and trains between River Ridge and the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville. The road is projected to open in 2016 in conjunction with the bridge, though it is separately funded.
Wingfield said the state is still looking for the best route as part of the environmental review.
Clark County engineer Brian Dixon said the state's engineering consultant told officials in May there were "environmental concerns" that cannot be mitigated north and west of Utica. But he said he doesn't know the exact limits of the area of concern.
Jeffersonville redevelopment director Rob Waiz said he had heard mounds were found along an original route for the road, prompting the need to explore alternate routes. That led to the city's redevelopment commission withholding the second of three scheduled annual payments of $866,666.66 for the project until more is learned.
State consultants also are looking at routes closer to the port, the former Clark Maritime Center, where Munson began archaeological investigations in the mid-1970s, discovering buried sites from the Archaic and Woodland periods.
"These are highly sensitive sites," Munson said.
She and other archaeologists believe that Native Americans who lived in the area were drawn to streams and creeks leading to the Ohio River. Those who lived in the Falls of the Ohio region built mounds for burials or to elevate such structures as places of worship.
She said Martin was the first farmer to own his site who used no-till farming rather than plowing, which wore down the mounds and is the main reason they aren't prominent.
"He's the one who saved those mounds," Munson said.
She said she would like to see Martin's farm added to the National Register of Historic Places and eventually become part of the state park system.
For now, she's focused on applying for a National Science Foundation grant in hopes of taking more detailed samples, studying them further and moving artifacts already collected from Martin's farm from the University of Louisville to Indiana University.
"They'll be back home again in Indiana," she noted.
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