Ancient ceramics offer glimpse into how Indians lived
July 14, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
American Indian house engraved from a watercolor by John White when he visited the Roanoke Colony, North Carolina in 1585. The shape is similar to that found as early as 900 B.C. in Virginia, the date of Alexandria's oldest ceramic fragments from the Stonegate Site.
In the last three articles I have been discussing how the archaeological study of the Stonegate property before development pushed back our knowledge of Alexandria's heritage 5000 years. The clues to this ancient prehistory came from thousands of stone flakes from tool manufacture and spear points dropped by hunters.
The ceramics excavated from the Stonegate Site date as early as 900 B.C. The Accokeek type ceramics represent one of the earliest kinds of Virginia pottery. The 106 broken ceramic fragments are a fragile link to the past when Virginia Indians were shifting to a more sedentary lifestyle while continuing their foraging economy.
All but one of the ceramic artifacts have been identified by specialist Mary Ellen Hodges working with the Eakin/Youngentob Associates, Inc. archaeologist Bob Adams. This pottery was made approximately between 900 and 200 B.C. The date range comes from radiocarbon testing of similar artifacts from Warren County, Virginia, and comparative site analysis. It is characterized by jar shapes with conical bases and straight or slightly everted rims.
Accokeek type ceramics were originally found, and take their name, from the Accokeek site on the Potomac River in Prince George's County, Maryland. They appear in archaeological sites in the Potomac River drainage from the Shenandoah Valley and Hagerstown Valley to the Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva Peninsula.
Most of the pottery fragments at the Stonegate site are cord marked. The marking occurred on the exterior of the vessel as part of the manufacturing process. After the clay coils had been wound to build up the sides of the vessel, the maker pinched the coils together and scraped the interior walls as a shaping device. Then the exterior was shaped by a paddle wrapped with cord, material or net. After the vessel dried in the air, it was backed in an open fire.
The cord which was wrapped around the paddles used by people making the Stonegate pottery nearly 3000 years ago can still be felt as dried impressions in the hard red-orange-brown clay. One fragment was shaped with a paddle wrapped with knotted net.
The archaeological study of the Warren County site shows that Indians were living in round or oval structures with internal support posts, hearths and storage pits. This evidence has led Virginia Commonwealth University archaeologist Daniel Mouer to write recently that people may have been more settled than previously thought at this early date.
The Stonegate Site will add more information to the current search to learn when and why Indians in Virginia turned from nomadic hunting and gathering to be sedentary dwellers who eventually started growing crops. It is this transitional time from one way of life to another that presents exciting possibilities for understanding human creativity and adaptability through the ages. Touching the 3000 year old cord impression lets us connect with those people who once lived on Alexandria soil and made their technological innovations just as we are today.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.