Category: Archaeology

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Cactus Hill Archaeological Site

The Cactus Hill Archaeological Site is located on a wind-deposited (eolian) terrace of the Nottoway River in Sussex County. The site gets its name from the prickly pear cacti commonly found growing on the site’s sandy soil. Cactus Hill is one of the oldest and most well-dated archaeological sites in the Americas, with the earliest human occupations dating to between 18,000 and 20,000 years ago. It also contains one of the most complete stratified prehistoric archaeological sequences yet discovered in Virginia. Prior to the discoveries at Cactus Hill, which were made in the mid-1990s, most scholars believed that the earliest humans arrived in the Americas approximately 13,000 years ago. Representing the so-called Clovis culture, these people were believed to have come to the Americas from Siberia across the Bering land bridge. Cactus Hill has since given scholars cause to revise that theory; they now propose that people may have skirted along the glaciers located near the Pacific coast of North America, or they may have crossed pack ice from Europe to the Atlantic coast of America. Investigations done at Cactus Hill by the Nottoway River Survey and the Archeological Society of Virginia suggest that the people there may not have been the first, leading scholars to look for even older settlements.

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Ceramics, Virginia Indian

Indians have made ceramics continuously in Virginia for more than 3,200 years. Pottery manufacture in North America first arose more than 4,200 years ago in the coastal plain of Georgia and spread north from there. Pottery production was a cottage industry, conducted by families with the knowledge of manufacture handed down from mother to daughter. Archaeologists have defined more than sixty Virginia Indian wares, recording the variables in vessel size and shape, temper, surface treatment, and decoration of pottery. This wealth of pottery information provides archaeologists with ways to help date sites and to describe Indian social groups and interpret their interaction and movement.

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Crab Orchard Archaeological Site

The Crab Orchard Archaeological Site is located in the mountainous area of Southwest Virginia near Pisgah, on the Clinch River, about four miles west of Tazewell, in Tazewell County. Taking its name from a grove of crab apple trees found in the valley by the first English settlers in the 1770s, the site shows the location of a Virginia Indian town that dates to between ca. AD 1400 and 1600 during the Late Woodland Period. Excavations in 1971 and 1978 uncovered evidence that the settlement was surrounded by a palisade, or tall wooden wall, and contained approximately fifty houses, each typically with a central hearth along with occasional storage pits. Outside the palisade was a long, irregularly shaped, semi-subterranean structure probably used as a communal meeting space. Ceramics, stone tools, beads, and numerous human burials were also found at the site. Perhaps distinctive for its size—the town’s population may have been 400—Crab Orchard nevertheless resembles other known Indian settlements throughout Virginia. The purpose of the palisade is uncertain, but may have been to protect the Indians from their enemies or from wild animals. It may also have been symbolic of the town being the home of an important leader or chief.

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Early Archaic Period

The Early Archaic Period (8000–6000 BC) is sometimes viewed as a transitional period from the first occupation of North America around 15,000 BC to a more settled time. In fact, some archaeologists include it as part of the Paleoindian Period (15,000–8000 BC), but the climate and ways of life in Virginia suggest important differences. As the temperatures rose and precipitation increased, deciduous forests spread, providing a greater variety of nuts, berries, and fruits for foraging. Mammoths and mastodons were by now extinct, but the Early Archaic people hunted deer, elk, and bear, banding together in larger groups but staying within smaller, resource-rich areas. (Archaeologists have proposed settlement clusters that more or less coincide with the routes of present-day Interstates 81 and 95.) Technology, meanwhile, responded to the changing environment and growing population. New, notched-point spearheads and arrowheads may have followed the invention of the spear-throwing atlatl, and the chipped-stone axe may have been a response to the newly forested areas.

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Ely Mound Archaeological Site

The Ely Mound Archaeological Site is located adjacent to Indian Creek, near Rose Hill, in Lee County, and dates to the latter part of the Mississippian Period (ca. AD 1200–1650). Lucien Carr, the assistant curator of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, excavated approximately one-sixth of the nineteen-feet-high mound in the 1870s. Although the lower half of the mound contained few indications of human occupation, the upper half yielded ash, shell beads, pottery, small gaming disks of stone or pottery, and a large, polished, sandstone bi-concave discoidal used to play the game of “chungke.” Since then, no further excavation has occurred. The mound, which Carr has connected to Cherokee Indians or their ancestors, provides evidence counter to the so-called Lost Race theory, which argues that American Indians were not sophisticated enough to build such mounds. Early archaeologists suggested that the mound-builders were instead Vikings or others such as the “lost tribes of Israel.”

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Houses in Early Virginia Indian Society

Houses in early Virginia Indian society became necessary after the Ice Age, when the Indians began depending less on the hunt for survival. Among the Powhatan Indians, especially, but elsewhere in the region, too, a house, or a yi-hakan in Algonquian, typically had a circular or oval floor plan and was rarely if ever longer than forty feet. (The Powhatans designed special houses for their weroances, or chiefs, and their kwiocosuk, or shamans.) Built by women, Indian houses consisted of long, bent sapling poles that were covered with either woven-reed mats or bark. They had a single door, which also served as the only source of light and ventilation. Construction was labor-intensive and time-consuming, and Englishmen, who often were hosted by the Powhatans, complained that they were dark, smoky, and flea-infested. Within a hundred years of the landing at Jamestown, the Indians had begun to adopt English-style houses, but adapted them to native methods and materials (building, for instance, bark-covered cabins). After another hundred years, Indian houses had become largely indistinguishable from those built by non-Indians.

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Indians in Virginia

Indians have lived in the area now known as Virginia for thousands of years. Their histories, ancestral connections, and traditions are intertwined with the 6,000 square miles of Tidewater land the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Virginia called Tsenacomoco. The early inhabitants of Virginia were hunter-gatherers who followed the migratory patterns of animals. Over time, and as the region warmed, they settled into towns along riverbanks and outlined their homelands, developing intimate, balanced relationships with the animals, plants, and geographic formations. They hunted, fished, and farmed, and developed complex social and religious systems and vast trade networks. By the early 1600s, Virginia Indians lived in three broad cultural groups based on the language families found in the area: Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan. Scholars know most about the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco, who eventually grouped together into a paramount chiefdom. Led by Powhatan, the polity ultimately included twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes, stretching from the James to the Potomac rivers and encompassing much of Virginia’s coastal plain. In 1607, Englishmen arrived and changed Indian life forever. In the midst of a severe drought, the colonists’ demands for food and their inability to fully understand Indian cultural practices led in part to three protracted and violent conflicts over four decades, ending in 1646 with the Algonquian-speaking Indians largely subject to English rule. The General Assembly set aside land for the former tribes of Tsenacomoco, although in subsequent years some Indians were forced to move and some groups became dispersed. In the years that followed, they contributed to the developing American culture while working to maintain their own traditions during difficult periods of disease, hunger, forced relocations, and restrictive colonial and later statewide policies that curtailed their rights to travel unmolested through lands now occupied by settlers, to visit their traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and to testify in court on their own behalf. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a cultural renaissance bloomed and some scholars began to study Indian history more closely. At the same time, the General Assembly did much to deny Indian identity, including passing in 1924 the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, which criminalized interracial marriage and separated Virginians into two simplified racial categories: white and colored. These wrongs were addressed in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967) and by state legislation in the late 1980s that allowed Virginia Indians to change the racial designation on their birth certificates without cost. Virginia Indians in the twenty-first century actively cultivate their own culture while educating others about their history.

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Jane (d. 1609 or 1610)

Jane is the name given by archaeologists to a fourteen-year-old English girl whose partial remains were discovered at the site of the Jamestown settlement in 2012. Those archaeologists believe that she was consumed during the Starving Time in the winter of 1609–1610. A report issued by a forensic scientist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., points to marks left behind on the skull and a severed leg bone that clearly suggest cannibalism. The identity of the woman is unclear, although she likely was lower-class and may have come to the colony in August 1609. Multiple accounts from the period mention a wife who was murdered and eaten by her husband, but it is unclear whether Jane was this particular victim.

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Jefferson’s Mound Archaeological Site

Jefferson’s Mound Archaeological Site is a Virginia Indian burial mound located near the Rivanna River, north of Charlottesville in Albemarle County, although its exact location is unknown. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson directed the excavation of the mound, one of a cluster of thirteen in the Piedmont, Blue Ridge Mountains, and Shenandoah Valley. He found the human remains of adults, children, and infants, and estimated that the mound was the burial site of as many as a thousand people. The jumbled arrangement of bones suggested that the mound was a secondary burial site, where remains were deposited in groups years after people’s deaths. According to a map published by John Smith, the mound was in Monacan Indian territory, and may have been built by Monacans or their ancestors. About 1754, Jefferson observed Indians conducting a ceremony at the mound, and his association of the mound with eighteenth-century Indians provided an inadvertent argument against the prevailing “Lost Race” theory that the mounds were the work of an earlier, supposedly more sophisticated people. Written up as part of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Jefferson’s investigation—systematic, in search of answers to specific questions, and published—was the first example of scientific archaeology in the United States.

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Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650)

The Late Woodland Period lasted from AD 900 until 1650. It was a time when Virginia Indian societies underwent important social and cultural transformations. It traditionally has been dated from the supposed widespread adoption of maize agriculture. During this period scattered populations consolidated into large villages and towns, occasionally fortified; they also built burial mounds or ossuaries (large burial pits) and developed into some of the most socially and politically complex groups on the Atlantic Coast. The period’s end date comes almost five decades after the establishment in 1607 of the English colony at Jamestown. The new settlement eventually upended Virginia Indian societies, including the once-powerful Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco. Written records by John Smith and other English colonists have helped modern historians reconstruct those early Indian cultures, especially those on Virginia’s Coastal Plain; however, because such records reflect the writers’ European biases, archaeological evidence is critical to a full understanding of Virginia Indians during this period. This is especially true for regions west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where earlier Indian cultures had vanished by the time English explorers and colonists had moved this far west.

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