Located on an unremarkable spot by the Ohio River, the Willow Island archaeological site challenged all expectations. In 2011, excavation at the site, which was triggered as part of an NHPA mandate, involved logistics so complex (and costly) that it likely never would have been carried out as a purely research-driven investigation. First of all, archaeologists had to excavate up to 30 feet deep - almost the height of a three-story building! Second, the location of the site next to the river meant flooding, and even collapse, were serious concerns. This led to a unique partnership between archaeologists and engineers, who collaborated to design and build a cofferdam to keep water from flooding the excavation.
As remarkable as the logistics for the excavation were, the findings were even more so. An amazing array of artifacts, including spear points, pottery, and stone bowl fragments were scattered among layers of soil deposited by floods over 5,000 years. Surprisingly, many of the artifacts are not typical of local cultures, but instead are characteristic of the Susquehanna Tradition, from the northeastern United States. These unexpected finds have led archaeologists to conclude that people were traveling hundreds of miles to visit Willow Island repeatedly over the course of many years and trading goods much earlier than we previously thought.