BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. Archaeologists believe they have uncovered evidence of an ancient village, possibly dating back to the time of Christ, that once thrived along the shores of this Gulf Coast community.
The artifacts were unearthed during recent efforts to rebuild a thoroughfare and major bridge heavily damaged last year by Hurricane Katrina.
Marco Giardino, an archaeologist acting as the city's liaison on a dig to preserve the ancient remains, said as many as 400 people may have lived in the village. "That area was very strategic and would have allowed them to travel, fish and hunt," he said. "It's on high ground at the entrance to the bay, which would allow them to see people coming and they could defend themselves a lot easier."
Giardino said spearheads and pottery found in the area suggest an Indian tribe established the village sometime between 200 B.C. and 400 A.D.
The first sign of the ancient Indians was found while workers were repairing parts of Beach Boulevard that Katrina destroyed last year.
Experts say the center of the village would have been somewhere around the foot of the U.S. 90 bridge over the Bay of St. Louis, where archaeologists have discovered an Indian mound that is believed to be a burial site.
Several tiny man-made vaults or pockets may have been cut through the mound to bury the bodies of high-ranking village members and possibly their belongings.
One reason the mound has remain unearthed for more than 2,000 years is its lackluster appearance. Early French settlers likely believed the mound, at about 50 feet wide and less than six feet tall, was a natural ground formation.
For most of the previous century, the mound was covered by large oak trees and hidden behind massive beachfront homes. Katrina destroyed most of the homes in Bay St. Louis, including the ones that had protected the mound for so long.
The mound is essentially off limits to researchers because it sits on private property, but a lot of the relics found so far have been scattered through the village area.
If human remains are discovered in the village area, federal law requires researchers to locate and return the sacred discovery to whatever Indian tribe may have occupied the village at that time, which could be a tricky thing to do.
Giardino said the hunt for exactly which tribe established the village could last even longer.
"We know that the ancestors of the Choctaw Indians were here when the French came, but whether they were the same group here hundreds of years earlier, it's hard to tell," Giardino said. However, scientists have located ancient garbage heaps, archaeologically known as "middens," next to places where they believe village dwellings once stood. Archaeologists can often find evidence left in a midden of what the villagers ate, which could give important clues about the civilization itself.
Mississippi transportation department archaeologists, who are leading the search for artifacts, declined to comment on the work for fear of grave robbers and treasure hunters.
"We don't need to call attention to it because of looters and we are not able to speak to it due to federal law," said Lisa Siegel, a department spokeswoman.
What impact the discovery may have on the rebuilding of the area is uncertain.
City leaders are working with state and federal transportation officials to cut a temporary beach road, while several agencies work to rebuild a 30-foot bluff and the bay bridge.
By law, the Mississippi Department of Transportation could rebuild the beach road over the artifacts, so long as the project doesn't disturb the historic relics in any way.
Buz Olsen, the city's chief of operations, said the roadwork includes replacing old water and sewer lines that for years ran underneath the road.
"We were disturbing the ground where these artifacts were," he said. "Our trenching for the new utilities may be as deep as five feet and some of the artifacts are just four feet below the ground."
Olsen said the only portion of the project that could be compromised is laying of the utilities because the digging required could disturb the area.
"With the utility corridor, (archaeologists) are going to want to sift through every piece of dirt," he said.
"Things like this have been known to hold up projects for years," Olsen said. "Hopefully, it won't hold up the temporary road and the beach project."
The scenario changes if human remains are found.
Sherry Hutt, a program manager at the U.S. Department of Interior, said such a find could temporarily shut down the massive repair project on Beach Boulevard.
"If human remains are found (on federal land) and there's federal money being spent, then you would have to stop activity immediately and instigate consultation with the possible descendent groups," she said.
Hutt, national program director of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which regulates the return of certain cultural items, said the stop-activity consultation period is at least 30 days.
However, David Seyfarth, a project engineer with state transportation department, said neither the village nor the archaeological excavation is likely to slow work on the U.S. 90 bridge.