Future Site Of Saipan Casino Possibly Occupied 1,000 Years Ago

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Archaeological dig to be largest in CNMI history

By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, March 13, 2015) – The site in Garapan where Best Sunshine is constructing a 250-room casino-hotel may turn out to have been occupied more than 1,000 years ago.

Dr. Mike Dega, owner, Scientific Consultant Services, Inc. in Hawaii, and among the three lead archaeologists to undertake the biggest archaeological dig in the history of Saipan, told Variety, "This project could be one of the largest Archaeological Data Recovery efforts in Saipan history, for a single site, according to the HPO. That in itself sets the project apart."

Dr. Dega, who will be working with Dr. Mike T. Carson and Dr. John Peterson, and who has been conducting archaeological research in the Hawaiian islands and the Pacific Basin for over 20 years now, said the Garapan site, which he refers to as "Site SP 1-0762, has the potential to be quite fascinating, with early occupation of the site from c. A.D. 1000 through Spanish times into the more modern eras."

He said remnants of a former Spanish village are thought to lie in the project area, which is fairly rare in the CNMI.

"We hope to learn much more about Chamorro and Spanish occupation of the island from the site," Dr. Dega said.

With Best Sunshine’s support, Dr. Dega said they have been given the tools to conduct the work and reach conclusions on site habitation and the nature of the site’s use through time, both important to understanding the history of Garapan and that of the whole of Saipan.

The Garapan site could not be any older than 1,000 years old.

Dr. Dega explained, "While the Marianas archaeological sequence extends back to c. 1,500 BC, the present site most likely would not pre-date A.D. 1000, given the high sea stand (the ocean was further inland before that point)."

He said older archaeological sites are inland.

"Older sites, pre-A.D.1000 would occur more inland, as the current site would have been under water. Thus, the cultural layer noted above likely dates from A.D. 1000, the latte period, as the earliest date," he said.

According to Wikipedia, the history of the pre-contact Marianas is usually divided into three periods: Pre-Latte, Transitional Pre-Latte, and Latte.

Latte stones—or pillars unique to the Marianas—began to be used about 800 A.D. and became increasingly more common until the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, according to Wikipedia.

For Dr. Dega, part of the research they will be undertaking will test this hypothesis that the Garapan site dates to about A.D. 1,000.

"Radiocarbon dating will be done during the current project to assess different times of occupation on the site and we will be augering below the water table to retrieve sediments which far pre-date A.D. 1000," Dr. Dega said.

When asked if the earliest settlement there was any older than Ritidian, the House of Taga site on Tinian, Achugao or Unai Bapot, Dr. Dega said it is likely in the A.D. 600 range for the initial settlement of the Garapan area.

Citing the work of his fellow archaeologist Dr. Mike T. Carson, whom he described as an "exceptional archaeologist well versed in Mariana Island history," Dr. Dega said the sites further inland from the current coastal site would likely have been settled in the A.D. 600-800 range, the coastal areas not being stable land surfaces at that time.

"We are in agreement, based on our research in 2014 for Best Sunshine. So, in Garapan, it appears the older settlement dates would be more inland. These Garapan sites are not older than the ones you note above," he said referring to Achugao, Unai Bapot or Ritidian.

Like any previous archaeological undertaking, there are challenges.

According to Dr. Dega, "The challenge with any large archaeological project is to properly record/document all the significant cultural materials, burials, etc. within an appropriate time frame."

He said Best Sunshine understands the significance of the site and historic preservation in the CNMI, "and has given us the opportunity and a large team to work hard and more fully understand a complex, and very intriguing site."

He also noted that rain is another challenge to archaeology.

"We hope it doesn’t rain as much as it did during our study in October/November," he said.

Dr. Dega shared with Variety how they intend to conduct the recovery process.

"Three teams, composed of three archaeologists each, will be working on the site together, at the same time. Four teams would have been too crowded, given that some of the work will be involving mechanical clearance," he said.

He added that there are safety issues at any large job site, whether for archaeology or construction.

"We have to be cautious. As noted in the Data Recovery plan, the entire parcel will be gridded, which aids in the provenance of identified artifacts, burials, etc., with each team working on a grid each day. Given that 100 percent recovery will be done, it is simply easier to keep track of progress via a grid system," said Dega.

He added that any identified artifacts, ecofacts, burials, or other significant cultural materials will be "provenienced and recorded" in the field, and manually recovered.

"The artifacts will then go to a nearby laboratory/curation facility where the lab work will occur to study the finds. Any burials identified and dis-interred will be stored on-site in a secure housing area," he said.

The samples to be obtained from the site will be temporarily curated at a laboratory in Garapan where the samples will also be analyzed.

"We are in discussions with the HPO as to final curation for any artifacts on Saipan," he said.

As to radiocarbon dating of the artifacts, the samples that are uncovered at the Garapan site will be sent to Florida.

"Radiocarbon samples will be prepared in the laboratory on Saipan for submittal to a radiocarbon dating facility in Miami, Florida," he said adding that the facility, Beta Analytic, Inc., is recognized as the industry standard for radiocarbon dating in the U.S. and currently for research in the Mariana Islands.

Dr. Dega said the team will be bringing to Saipan two Filipina experts in the structure and function of the bones (osteology) from the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

"We will have two graduates of the Univ. of Philippines-Diliman joining the crew. Both these women are extremely versed in human osteology, that being their focus at the university. Given the potential for finding more burials, they will provide additional, expert analysis of any identified burials and will record them prior to dis-interment," Dr. Dega said.

He told Variety that their teams will be following the protocol in handling remains at the site.

"We will follow protocol as outlined in the ‘Procedures for the Treatment of Human Remains in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.’ When a burial is identified, we are to assess the age, sex, and ethnicity of the burial, then follow protocol per which classification the burials falls under," he said.

He said that he wasn’t sure whether they would find WWII remains at the site.

"There is always a possibility," he said.

Dr. Dega said that he agreed with Mike Fleming in his assessment that the site could not be less than 600 years old based on the artifacts so far gathered.

"Given the current state of information on the site and beach formation processes, I would agree with Mr. Fleming. It appears unlikely anything older than even A.D. 800-1000 would be found on the site," said Dega.

However, he pointed out that this is a hypothesis that has yet to be tested.

"We hope to find solid empirical evidence of Chamorro occupation of the area (from A.D. 1000 or earlier) as well as of Spanish Colonial times," said Dr. Dega.

He added that there was a Spanish settlement presence noted at the Garapan site in the project area.

"Exploring the settlement (all underground) and assessing the nature and chronology of the settlement will be fascinating as such features are rare on the CNMI landscape," he said.

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