updated 4/13/2006 2:57:57 PM ET 2006-04-13T18:57:57

Archaeologists are expected to begin searching thousands of acres on the Middle Peninsula this summer for Indian artifacts, marking one of the biggest investigations of its kind in Virginia history.

The area to be explored is the future site of a reservoir approved for construction last year, a project that has drawn fierce opposition from three tribes.

The tribes also are upset about the archaeological dig, which will focus on 6,000 acres of forests and fields.

''Let the poor people rest; let the artifacts rest,'' said Warren Cook, assistant chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe.

The Pamunkey, Mattaponi and Upper Mattaponi tribes have refused to sign an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which governs the archaeological project.

But their opposition is largely symbolic. Under federal law, the city of Newport News must locate archaeological resources under threat from the reservoir and protect them or mitigate their loss.

''We've felt all along that you cannot mitigate this sort of problem,'' said Upper Mattaponi Chief Ken Adams. ''We've been here ... 10,000 years and [Newport News] has been here 400 years, and they want us to mitigate? That's impossible.''

Impact on nearby tribes feared
The Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservations are within three miles of the reservoir site, and the Upper Mattaponi tribe owns acreage about eight miles away.

''This is not like digging up Aztec remains in Mexico,'' said David Bailey, a lawyer representing the Mattaponi in its fight against the reservoir. ''The tribe is literally two miles away, so it's very sensitive.''

Newport News proposed the 1,500-acre reservoir several years ago and offered the tribes $1.5 million in compensation, which they rejected. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the reservoir last year.

The tribes contend the reservoir will violate a 17th-century peace treaty that protects their right to hunt and fish.

Newport News has a state permit to divert up to 75 million gallons of river water a day into the reservoir, which the Mattaponi fear will hurt the local shad population. The city is studying the shad migration to determine safe times to pump the water.

The archaeological investigation could last for several years. Researchers hope it will give them a clearer picture of the evolution of Indian culture in Virginia, said Chris Stevenson, of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Archaeologists who surveyed the site of the proposed reservoir in 1996 found - but did not excavate - 112 camp sites. Artifacts revealed Indians had lived in the area for 8,000 years.

''There's going to be some really exciting stuff,'' said Tim Thompson, the corps' Norfolk District archaeologist.

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