The majority of drivers speeding past Exit 15X on the New Jersey Turnpike have no idea they’re rolling over a fascinating archaeological site, let alone one that highlights a unique—if macabre—slice of history.
When the Turnpike Authority built the interchange in 2002, giving drivers access to the Secaucus Junction train station, dozens of archaeologists were called in to join the massive effort because of what was located deep below: hundreds of bodies from a graveyard dating back to the 1880s.
“If you want to go all Sopranos about it, there are bodies everywhere. …Hey, it’s Jersey!” jokes Gregory D. Lattanzi, who has served as New Jersey’s state archaeologist for five years. “But seriously, you’re always walking or driving on streets built on land used by humans for thousands of years.”
Discoveries at the Secaucus site stem from a history that looks nothing like the busy Turnpike of today. When the Turnpike was initially constructed in the early 1950s, the stretch was built over Potter’s Field, an old burial site used by facilities including the now-shuttered Hudson County Lunatic Asylum and a tuberculosis sanitarium. The graveyard was later covered by a landfill and then the roadway for the Turnpike.
In 2002, archaeologists were able to uncover the remains, as well as hundreds of thousands of artifacts, including glass eyes, clay smoking pipes, coins and military medals, using historical maps and burial ledgers. The bodies were disinterred and reburied in Hackensack.
These kinds of discoveries are inevitable, says Lattanzi, as development has increased in New Jersey over the decades. Take, for example, the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrenceville. The shopping center was built in 1975 along Route 1, which, Lattanzi says, was previously Kings Highway, a route with many taverns, stagecoach stops and historic houses.
Lattanzi knows all about these discoveries. After all, he spends his days surrounded by more than 2 million artifacts in the collections of the Bureau of Archaeology & Ethnography at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. But he is also well aware that many Garden State visitors and residents have no idea that the state boasts so many finds from nearly a century of excavation.
“The mid-Atlantic hasn’t been talked about as much as other archaeological regions,” says Lattanzi, 52. “Plus we’re New Jersey, so of course there are people who think there isn’t much to offer beyond the Turnpike.”
The truth is, however, that New Jersey is a veritable archaeological treasure trove, with over 11,000 years of evidence of humans living or traveling through the state. The first people to live on the land now known as New Jersey were the Delaware people, also known as the Lenni Lenape. New Jersey was also one of the first places colonial Europeans settled, with the Swedes being the first to build in southern New Jersey in the 1630s, followed by the Dutch and the English.
New Jersey has prehistoric settlements, stone quarries, fish weirs and historic sites including Princeton Battlefield and Monmouth Battlefield State Park in Freehold. There are even underwater archaeological sites related to shipwrecks and Native American settlements submerged due to rising seas. Prehistoric tools and pottery have been found off the coast of Sandy Hook.
In 2014, a post-Hurricane Sandy beach-replenishment project north of Beach Haven helped a 10,000-year-old spearhead wash up on shore. A 10-year-old boy on Long Beach Island found the point, and his mother asked Lattanzi to identify it. In general, “the intensity of storms is churning up sites that have been buried for so long,” he says.
One reason New Jersey has such a rich history, Lattanzi explains, is because it is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, with a flat coastal plain as well as other environmental zones. “All of the natural resources were here for hunting and fishing,” he says. “It was considered the breadbasket of the East Coast.”
New Jersey archaeology began as a state-sponsored effort in the 1910s, as individuals contributed artifacts related to the state’s period before European contact. But in the 1930s, New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Association began funding archaeology surveys and excavations in New Jersey.
Today, thanks to federal and state regulations that require developers to conduct archaeological surveys, evaluations and excavations of sites in order to obtain environmental permits, there is as much or more archaeological work done every day in New Jersey compared to most states.
“Archaeology is really about uncovering deep, rich stories where there is little or no written record,” Lattanzi says. “Many communities and stakeholders in New Jersey had most of their history wiped off, so archaeology is a way to learn and tell their stories.”
Lattanzi, who grew up in Bellmore, Long Island, says he was always interested in the stories behind old objects. His parents often took him and his sister to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to hunt for antiques.
His father, a dentist, also had a mischievous side. One day, a 10-year-old Greg was helping to dig up a small tree in the family’s backyard when his shovel hit something strange. He discovered a skull poking up out of the dirt.
“My mother was freaking out, but then I noticed there were metal springs and hooks in the mandible—my father had buried his [dental] teaching skull as a joke,” he recalls with a laugh. “That piqued my interest in digging for artifacts.”
Lattanzi first dug in New Jersey several years after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at SUNY Binghamton and CUNY’s Hunter College. As an archaeologist for a cultural-resource management company in Highland Park, he helped uncover Native American sites.
“What’s exciting is you’re just putting a shovel in the ground and don’t know what’s there,” he says. Lattanzi says he and his team often uncovered residential camps with charcoal remnants of hearths, hammerstone tools and fire-cracked rock.
One of Lattanzi’s passions is getting people excited about archaeology.
He works regularly with New Jersey’s Department of Education to bring school groups to the State Museum and provide hands-on teaching about objects from the archaeology collection. (He has also provided virtual show-and-tells throughout the pandemic.) “I think it’s really important for fourth- and fifth-graders to actually touch a 4,000-year-old object,” he says.
Lattanzi also works closely with the Archaeological Society of New Jersey—a nonprofit organization of professional and avocational archaeologists, as well as students and those with a general interest in archaeology—which celebrates its 90th anniversary this month. The society leads public archaeology digs, public tours of site excavations, and both virtual and in-person archaeology presentations.
In 2017, for example, 600 people visited an active archaeology dig at Thomas Edison’s home in Menlo Park. And at a June 2021 event in Ringwood State Park, an archaeologist showed off a variety of stone tools from as early as 6,000 B.C.
“Over the past few years, we’ve tried to offer more public archaeology events and network with cultural-heritage groups across the state,” says Michael Gall, the Archaeological Society’s president. “It’s so important for people to know how different groups have interacted and influenced the way we live as a state today, especially groups that were disenfranchised and didn’t have their voices heard.”
Lattanzi and Gall both say that, for those who are interested in getting involved in New Jersey archaeology, reaching out to the State Museum, the Archaeological Society and local universities are smart places to start.
Visiting small historic museums is also a great way to see how archaeology connects to issues that matter to people today, says Lattanzi. The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum in Skillman, for example, tells the story of the African-American community of the Sourland Mountain Region of Central New Jersey. The museum evolved after amateur history detectives at the local cemetery association worked with an archaeologist to prevent the construction of a driveway over a historic African-American burial ground.
Lattanzi never stops digging deep into New Jersey archaeology. He received his PhD from Temple University in 2013, with a dissertation focused on Native American copper artifacts in New Jersey and the rest of the mid-Atlantic region. A new academic text based on his findings will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in the spring of 2022.
But what keeps him excited, he explains, is exploring the unknown. “There are still archaeological questions that remain unanswered—for example, we are still getting closer to a full, rounded picture of what prehistoric life was like in New Jersey,” he says. “I want to be a part of bringing it to the public, whether I have the answer or someone else does.”
Sharon M. Goldman is a Metuchen-based freelance writer who now wonders if there’s anything interesting hidden beneath the Menlo Park Mall.Click here to leave a comment