The 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve may be the largest body of open space between Boston and Richmond, but it has a long history of human habitation.
And the Pinelands Commission is charged with protecting that cultural history, as well as the wilderness.
“While a lot of people might know about the commission’s role in reviewing development applications, few are familiar with our efforts to protect cultural resources,” said commission spokesman Paul Leakan.
He said the commission has placed a renewed effort on cultural resources in the last year, and in October held its first cultural resource symposium in conjunction with the Archaeological Society of New Jersey that attracted 50 participants and seven paper presenters.
Recently, the commission's cultural resource planner Tony McNichol reviewed the application by Ocean County to renovate the historic Cedar Bridge Tavern in Barnegat Township. The commission required the applicant to conduct an archeological excavation at the site.
Built in about 1807, Cedar Bridge Tavern is on both the national and state registers of historic places and is a designated Pinelands cultural site. It was part of a town called Cedar Bridge settled by Europeans in about 1740.
The building, on a small dirt road in the woods about a mile south of Route 72, contains what is believed to be the oldest intact example of an early 19th century bar, and the area around the tavern has long been associated with the last recorded land battle of the Revolutionary War in 1782, according to the Ocean County Cultural and Heritage Commission web site.
There will be a reenactment of the battle at the tavern site in December.
Ocean County bought the building from a private owner and is now turning it into an education center. Improvements such as a septic field, utility lines and a parking lot were going in, said McNichol.
The excavation found mostly 19th and early 20th century artifacts, said McNichol, 49, of Philadelphia, who has a master’s degree in archaeology from McGill University in Montreal. He has worked largely in the private sector in resource management for the last 20 years, and has also worked for the state historic preservation office, he said.
That included redware ceramics, flatware and glass associated with a tavern, he said.
There were also signs of a possible late 18th century “post in ground” structure.
McNichol said the Cedar Bridge excavation helped researchers better understand how people ate and traveled through the area for a long time.
Some Pinelands artifacts will be incorporated into a new visitor center being constructed at the commission’s headquarters in the New Lisbon section of Pemberton Township, Burlington County.
McNichol has been the commission’s cultural resources planner for about a year. Before he arrived, the position was part-time. Now it’s full-time and the commission is putting more emphasis on cultural issues, McNichol said.
McNichol’s job involves assessing development applications for impact on resources of cultural importance to the Pinelands, “specifically historic buildings, districts and archaeological sites,” he said.
“If I identify an area as potentially significant or see there could be a resource there that could be significant, I call for a cultural resource survey,” said McNichol. “It comes back to me from the consultant and I would make a decision if it’s eligible for a Pinelands designation.”
Then he decides how the resource will be treated. It can be preserved in place, moved to another location or recorded and the site covered by the development.
“That happens a lot with archaeological sites,” he said. “Often there is no way to avoid hitting the resource, so we do data recovery. All information is removed from the ground and subsequently analyzed.”
McNichol said the commission would like to have regular speakers on cultural and historical issues, in a program similar to the commission’s regular science program that brings in speakers and researchers on a variety of topics.
The October symposium was the first of what McNichol hopes will be many.
“We had a number of well-known archaeologists in the Pinelands there,” said Leakan, including Jack Cresson; R. Alan Mounier, who teaches at Stockton University and wrote “Looking Beneath the Surface: The Story of Archeology in New Jersey”; and Tony Ranere, of Temple University’s anthropology department.
McNichol is also trying to develop a collaborative effort with Monmouth University to establish field schools in the Pinelands, where students would learn field methods and techniques, and professors would teach stratigraphy, soils and artifact interpretation.