Archaeology and Alexandria's First People
Archaeology and Alexandria's First People
13,200 years ago to ca.1675 CE
For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans and the founding of Alexandria in 1749, Native Americans seasonally lived in and traveled through the lands that would become the City of Alexandria. Just upriver from Alexandria, the river tumbles over a series of cataracts known as Great Falls, its last obstacle to the Chesapeake Bay. These falls form a barrier to fish traveling upstream to spawn each year, which in turn makes the area just downstream a good fishing ground for local people.
The types of artifacts discovered in Alexandria indicate that Native Americans visited the area beginning about 13,000 years ago. Evidence of these periods of time are seen archaeologically, including changes in stone tool technology.
Traditionally, archaeologists in the region have divided the Native American past into three major periods: Paleo-Indian (ca. 15,000 BCE - 8,000 BCE), Archaic (ca. 8,000 BCE - 1,000 BCE) and Woodland (ca. 1,000 BCE - 1,600 CE). The arrival of Europeans in large numbers during the 17th century marks the beginning of what archaeologists define as the Contact Period.
The Paleo-Indian Period
ca. 15,000 BCE - 8,000 BCE
In the Paleo-Indian period, small bands of Native Americans moved frequently within territories throughout the area, hunting game and collecting plant resources in the spruce/pine forests and grassland environments which predominated as the Ice Age ended.
The earliest evidence of human occupation in Alexandria found to date is a broken spear point dropped by a hunter on a bluff overlooking Hunting Creek at the southern edge of the City. The characteristic shape of this find, with a flute removed from each of its faces, identifies it as a Clovis point--the earliest Paleo-Indian type, named after a site in New Mexico where it was first discovered.
The Clovis Point
The Clovis Point, pictured here, was found at the site of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial (site 44AX179). In addition to important information about the cemetery itself, archaeologists discovered that, in the 19th century, the cemetery was dug through an important prehistoric site. While most of the tools are from the Archaic period, Alexandria's earliest artifact, a Paleoindian Clovis Point, was found here.
When the cemetery was in use in the 1860s, the gravediggers were probably unaware that they were digging into an important Native American site. Archaeologists discovered thousands of Native American stone artifacts, indicating that the site was used for the manufacture of stone tools over a period of thousands of years. The oldest artifact ever found in Alexandria, a 13,000 year-old Clovis spear point, was recovered here in 2007. A buried portion of the western slope of the cemetery continues to protect a significant Native American archaeological site.
This was the first time that archaeologists found a Clovis Point in Alexandria. The Clovis Point is a diagnostic marker for an era known to archaeologists as the Paleoindian period that lasted from as early as 13,000 to about 10,000 years ago. During this period, when mammoths still roamed North America, small bands of Native Americans moved frequently through this area, hunting and collecting plant resources. The Clovis Point is the first evidence of their presence in Alexandria.
The Archaic Period
ca. 8,000 BCE - 1,000 BCE
The hunting and foraging way of life of the Paleo-Indians persisted into the Early Archaic period, as the climate warmed and oaks and other deciduous trees began to invade the evergreen forests. By the Middle Archaic, sea level rise caused by the melting of the glaciers created ponds and inland marshes which became focal points for settlement. People of the Archaic Period developed new tools for exploiting the changing environments, such as ground stone axes for woodworking, mortars and pestles for grinding nuts, and weighted spear throwers called atlatls, which provided hunters with added power. During the Late Archaic, Native Americans began to settle in seasonal camps to exploit the shellfish and spawning fish resources which became abundant at this time.
Excavations on Jones Point at the confluence of Great Hunting Creek with the Potomac River have provided insight into the long period of Native American occupation of the area. Investigated prior to the reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the site was covered by about 4 feet of fill during the early twentieth century. The underlying soil levels yielded an Early Archaic spear point with serrated edges probably dropped by a hunter in the expanding deciduous forests about 9,000 years ago. At this time, the shorelines of the creek and river were much farther to the south and east, and the landscape continued to change as the water level rose and the banks were eroded. By about 4,000 years ago, Native Americans began to visit the site on a regular basis. They collected cobbles from the nearby river and stream beds and created stone tools, leaving behind thousands of quartz and quartzite flakes, the byproducts of tool manufacturing. They also used the stones to form hearths for fires, as evidenced by the many fragments of fire-cracked rock found at the site. Artifacts recovered include spear points, knives and fragments of stone bowls made of steatite (soapstone) left by the site’s inhabitants during the Late Archaic period from about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Middle Archaic Period.
Catalogue number AX185-3-3879
The Kirk Point is the second oldest artifact found in Alexandria. One of the characteristics of this quartzite point is its serrated edges.
The Kirk Point is from the Archaic Period, 10,000-3,000 years ago. This period saw the continuation of the hunting and foraging way of life of the earlier Paleo-Indians. These people lived in seasonal camps while fishing and gathering shellfish. The Archaic Period is also characterized by the development of new tools such as ground stone axes, mortar and pestles, and weighted spear-throwers called atlatls.
The Kirk Point was found at the Jones Point Site, on the banks of Hunting Creek. While Jones Point was inhabited in the Archaic period, Woodland Period artifacts (3,000 to 400 years ago) were more prevalent. Jones Point Park, owned by the National Park Service, and the nearby Freedmen’s Cemetery Site were both excavated as part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.
The Woodland Period
ca. 1,000 BCE - 1,600 CE
Archaeologists have hypothesized that the structures represent the remnants of a small seasonally occupied village or camp site. Geomorphological studies indicate that by this time, the erosional processes had molded the landscape into a long narrow peninsula extending out into the Potomac River. The peninsula was separated from the mainland by an extensive swamp or pocosin, which was drained by a small creek. In fact, the edge of this marshland could be seen as a dark organic area near the western and southern borders of the excavation. The cluster of houses with the associated storage or trash pits adjacent to the swamp was situated on a small rise or terrace overlooking the marsh. Given this environment, archaeologists have speculated that Native Americans visited the site to exploit the marsh resources, perhaps in the early spring to harvest tubers at a time when other food resources were scarce. In the spring and early summer months, they may have also settled on the site to take advantage of the seasonal fish runs, as the shad and other species headed into the small streams to spawn.
The first manufacture and use of pottery ushered in the Early Woodland period, and by the Middle Woodland, Native Americans began to gather in more permanent settlements on the shores of the larger rivers. The beginnings of agriculture brought maize, squash and beans into the Late Woodland diet and resulted in permanent year-round settlements near the fertile soils of these riverine floodplains.
At the Jones Point site, archaeologists found pottery sherds and other diagnostic stone projectile points from Woodland occupations. Several small triangular arrow points provide evidence that Native Americans were still visiting the site just prior to European settlement of the area.
While most of the Jones Point artifacts were recovered from a layer of soil that had been plowed during historic times, a number of archaeological features extended down into the underlying natural soil layers. The features appeared as dark soil stains which resulted from human activity on the site. Some were pits that could have been used for food storage. Perhaps the most exciting were small circular stains, which represented the remnants of decayed wooden posts. The stains form oval patterns, each measuring about 9 by 12 feet, and are thought to represent one or more 1,000-year old houses dating to the Late Woodland period. The structures, significant as Alexandria’s first houses, were probably erected by bending saplings to form arches and covering the posts with bark or mats. Other larger features, depressions dug for storage or trash, were uncovered outside of the house patterns.
Potomac Creek Pottery
Cord impressed. Late Woodland Period.
Catalogue number AX175-C-1930-0001.
Potomac Creek Pottery was manufactured some time between 1300 CE and the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century. This fragment is the rim of a vessel with a round base. It is cord-impressed, with the texture made by wrapping a rope around the wet clay pot.
The Woodland Period, 3,100-400 years ago, is characterized by the beginnings of agriculture, with Native Americans cultivating corn, squash and beans. In this period, they began manufacturing pottery, and some groups established more permanent camps or villages on the shores of larger rivers.
In the 1930s, a neighborhood boy found this potsherd and other artifacts of the Native American past in a creek bed at the Shuter’s Hill Site. Alexandria Archaeology has been excavating this site, on the grounds of the George Washington Masonic Memorial, for a number of years, concentrating on an 18th and 19th century plantation. Archaeologists have found a Native American hand-axe and several other stone tools amidst the historic artifacts of the plantation site.
The Stonegate Archaeological Preserve
A Multi-component Site
A group of Native American sites was intensively studied in Alexandria prior to construction associated with a townhouse development project known as Stonegate. Three of the Stonegate sites were located on bluffs overlooking a small stream near the intersection of Braddock Road and I-95. Projectile points found at the sites provide evidence that Native American hunters passed through the area in as early as 8,500 years ago and during the Late Woodland period which began about 1,100 years ago. The main occupations, however, occurred between about 3,600 and 2,500 BCE and between 1,800 and 1,200 BCE. During these periods, Native Americans went to the bluff tops to manufacture stone projectile points. In the earlier period, they usually brought quartz cobbles to the bluff top, undoubtedly collected from the nearby stream bed, to use as the raw material for tool manufacture, while in the latter period, they carried partially made quartzite tools to the bluff, where they finished the process of manufacturing. While on the bluff, they built camp fires, possibly for warmth or for cooking their meals. They left behind the remnants of their hearths as fire-cracked rock along with thousands of flakes from this tool-making activity as well as numerous points that were broken or discarded during the manufacturing process. Test excavations also discovered a fourth Stonegate site situated below the bluff on a terrace overlooking the creek. This site contained projectile points and Accokeek pottery and may have been a temporary or seasonal camp site dating to the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods. Since the developers pledged not to disturb this site, it was not intensively investigated. Instead, it became Alexandria’s first legally designated Archaeological Preserve, and it remains protected as part of a park on the Stonegate property.
Archaeological Site Reports
Selected listings from the Alexandria Archaeology Bibliography.
- Adams, Robert M. Preliminary Archaeological Investigation of the Stonegate Development (Parcel C) West Braddock Road, City of Alexandria, Virginia. International Archaeological Consultants, Rawlins, Wyoming, 1996.
- Adams, Robert M. The Archaeological Investigation of the Undeveloped Upland Terraces in Mark Center, City of Alexandria, Virginia. International Archaeological Consultants, Rawlins, Wyoming, 1994. Public Summary
- Adams, Robert M. The Archaeological Investigations of Two Storm Drain Corridors at the Stonegate Development, Alexandria, Virginia. International Archaeological Consultants, Rawlins, Wyoming, 1993.
- Adams, Robert M. [et al.] Archaeological Investigations of the Stonegate Development (Including Sites 44AX31, AX166 and 167), City of Alexandria, Virginia. International Archaeological Consultants, Rawlins, Wyoming, 1993. Appendices A-C. Appendices D-M. Public Summary
Barse, William P. and Jeffrey Harbison. Phase III Archeological Mitigation of the Prehistoric and Historic Components of Site 44AX185, Jones Point Park, Alexandria, Virginia. URS Corporation, Florence, New Jersey, 2006.
- Barse, William P. and Jeffrey Harbison. Phase II Archaeological Testing on the Prehistoric and Historic Components of Site 44AX185, Jones Point Park, Alexandria, Virginia. URS Corporation, Florence, New Jersey., 2000. [DRAFT]
Blondino, Joseph R., Kevin McCloskey and Katherine Watts, Phase I Archaeological Survey of the Strawberry Run Project Area and Phase II Evaluation of Site 44AX0240, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, Fredericksburg, VA, 2020. Public Summary
- Gardner, William M., Kimberly A. Snyder, and Tammy Bryant. Phase III Data Recovery Excavations of the Prehistoric Component of 44AX177 and 44AX176, Stonegate Development, Parcel C, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Thunderbird Archeological Associates, Inc., Woodstock, Virginia, 1995. Public Summary
- Gardner, William M., Kimberly A. Snyder, Tammy Bryant and Gwen J. Hurst. Phase II, Archeological Investigations of an Historic Area Within 44AX177, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Thunderbird Archeological Associates, Inc., Woodstock, Virginia, 1995.
- Ferland, Sara C., Mike Klein and Emily A. Lindtveit. Cultural Resources Investigations of the 4-acre Mark Center VI Parcel (Area A) and One Acre o the 6-Acre Mark Center Buildings 2A, 2B and 3 Parcel (Area B) within the Mark Center Complex on Seminary Road in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. Cultural Resources, Inc., Fredericksburg, Virginia, 2009. Public Summary
- Koski-Karrell, Daniel.Background Study and Archaeological Evaluation for the First Addition to Colonial Park Development Project at the Mount Ida House, 2404 Russell Road, Alexandria, Virginia. Karell Archaeological Services, Arlington, Virginia, 1993.
- Koziarski, Ralph, Peter Regan and Scott Seibel, Virginia American Water 12-inch Water Line, Phase I Archaeological Investigation and Archaeological Monitoring, St. Mary's Cemetery and Freedmen's Cemetery, Alexandria, Virginia. AECOM, Germantown, MD., 2017. Public Summary
Pappas, Madeleine, Janice G. Artemel and Elizabeth A. Crowell. Alexandria Federal Courthouse Phase I Historical Archaeological Investigation, Alexandria, Virginia. Engineering-Science, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1991. Public Summary
- Parson, Kimberly and Caleb Christopher. Phase II Archaeological Investigation of Sites 44AX127 and 44AX128, Witter Street Recreation Complex, Alexandria, Virginia. URS Corporation, Florence, New Jersey, 2004.
- Petraglia, Michael D., Catharine B. Toulmin and Madeleine Pappas. An Archaeological Survey at the Alexandria Business Center, Alexandria, Virginia. Engineering-Science, Washington, D.C., 1993. Public Summary
- Pfanstiehl, Cynthia, Elizabeth A. Crowell, Eugene Goodman, Donald Hull, Edith Baird and Ray Wood. Winkler Tract Phase I and II Archaeological Investigations. Engineering-Science, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1988.
- Sipe, Boyd, with Francine W. Bromberg, Steven Shephard, Pamela J. Cressey, and Eric Larsen. The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Archaeological Data Recovery at Site 44AX0179. Thunderbird Archaeology, a division of Wetland Studies, Gainesville, VA and Alexandria Archaeology, Office of Historic Alexandria, 2014. (Contact Alexandria Archaeology Museum to view report.)
- Walker, Mark K., Madeleine Pappas, John Bedell, Janice Artemel and Heidy Fogel. Archaeological Investigations at the Alexandria Federal Courthouse Site (44AX164), Alexandria, Virginia. Engineering Science, Chartered, 1993. Public Summary
- Ziegler, Danica L. and Thomas W. Bodor. Archeological and Historical Investigations at the Bryan Property, 2826 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia. Greenhorne & O'Mara, Inc., Fairfax, Virginia, 1998.