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Archaeologists began an investigation Tuesday afternoon alongside stranded tunnel machine Bertha, where a deposit of shells appeared last week roughly 20 feet below street level.

The shells turned up while workers were excavating a 120-foot-deep vault that will be used this winter to lift away the machine’s front end so it can be repaired. The shells may have been discarded by Duwamish people who lived in a nearby village, by other tribes who visited what is now Seattle by canoe, or by settlers.  Several tribes are conferring with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) as the archaeological study proceeds.

WSDOT has turned off its two webcams at the access pit. “It’s a matter of being respectful to the process, not having discoveries being made through the cameras,” said project spokeswoman Laura Newborn. “This is our way of shielding the site.”  WSDOT hasn’t encountered human remains and isn’t expecting that it will, she said.

A brief update from the Highway 99 project office is linked here. Officials have no estimate yet as to how long the study will take.  Mechanical and hand shovels are being used, WSDOT says.

The $2 billion tunnel is at least a year behind its scheduled late-2015 completion. A  lengthy archaeological investigation could further jeopardize Seattle Tunnel Partners’ ability to fix Bertha, resume boring in March and finish the roadway by the new goal of late 2016.

Meanwhile, STP’s planned March restart for tunneling will likely be pushed into at least April. The settlement hasn’t stopped work, but progress has generally been slow to excavate the huge access shaft, and a layer of shells caused a one to two-week investigation.