RIVERHEAD, N.Y. – James Richeson was checking out erosion damage on eastern Long Island after days of torrential rain last month when he made a fascinating discovery.
"I ... saw little bits of bone down the hillside and some of it had washed away in the surf already," said Richeson, the parks supervisor at Indian Island County Park (search) — named in honor of the local Shinnecock (search) and other tribes that have inhabited Long Island for as much as 12,000 years.
A closer inspection uncovered skull and bone fragments, as well as several artifacts, including a ceramic bowl and pipe covered with ornate geometric markings. The artifacts date at least 500 years — and possibly as far back as 700 B.C. — according to one expert who says such finds are becoming more common.
David Bernstein, director of the Long Island Institute of Archaeology (search) at Stony Brook University, said such discoveries are a clear sign of the impact of global warming.
Park officials said there has been considerable erosion in the area in the past several decades. Concrete barriers that were once part of the parkland are now under water, two dozen or more yards from shore.
"It's no secret the level of the oceans is rising, something that's been accelerated by climatic warming," says Bernstein.
"So areas that were high and dry even a few centuries ago ... a lot of these settlements are now under 10 feet of water," added Bernstein, who said he receives a call about once a year from someone telling him they found an ancient artifact while walking along a beach.
The bones have since been collected by the Suffolk County (search) medical examiner office for scientific study, and the artifacts are being held by the county parks department until it can be determined what to do with them, said Parks Commissioner Ronald Foley.
The area is now surrounded by snow fence and is patrolled regularly by parks police to prevent treasure hunters or curious onlookers from damaging what is considered hallowed ground.
Foley said county officials plan to meet with Shinnecock tribal leaders for advice on what to do with the items after they have been studied.
Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile (search), a Shinnecock leader, said she was pleased with the respectful manner of county officials.
"This discovery was made by nature, however unintentional," she said. "The fact they are being carefully tended to by the parks commissioner and his staff is very much appreciated."
A member of the graves protection committee of the Inter-tribal Historic Preservation Task Force (search), Haile said the discovery of the small clay pot — about the size of a soup bowl — and pipe near the bones indicates the items were probably buried with their owner, likely as part of a cremation, as was custom with her ancestors.
Cemeteries of the time "would be put in beautiful spaces like the islands at the head of an estuary, or just as possible on the highest hills nearby," she said.
Haile said that after a scientific review is complete, she would prefer that the items be reburied near where they were found.
She noted that for an ancient society, the issue of reburial is something that never had to be considered until modern times.
"The ancient people had many, many ceremonies, but they never had one on what do with a reburial; they had never unearthed each other," Haile said. "Now, we have to address that. We'll probably have to use the ancient burial ceremony and adapt it to a reburial."