‘Lithic scatters’ unearthed at Stonegate tell of prehistoric tool-makers and hunters

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‘Lithic scatters’ unearthed at Stonegate tell of prehistoric tool-makers and hunters

June 23, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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A great deal is known about the prehistoric Americans who once inhabited Virginia. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has published an easy to read overview to the Native American past entitled First People, the Early Indians of Virginia. The book includes information about the state's Indian tribes today. VDHR has sent copies to public libraries and schools to foster awareness of Virginia's past and present Indian cultures.

Driving along Van Dorn Street or Braddock Road it is difficult to imagine Indian groups hunting the abundant wildlife when you look at the speed of travel around Highway 395. Yet, tucked away for centuries a few parcels of land in Alexandria still have traces of Alexandria's earliest residents.

The Stonegate development near this intersection offered the opportunity to study and preserve information from one of these ancient Indian sites. The 22 acre tract had slumbered for years, undeveloped as townhouses and high rises grew around it. In September 1992, Eakin/Youngentob Associates hired International Archaeological Consultants to determine whether any archaeological resources still lay buried before development proceeded.

For the next 10 months, Bob Adams and a team of archaeologists walked the site, dug test pits and isolated the most important parts of a prehistoric site situated along a terrace overlooking a small creek. Three separate "lithic scatters" were discovered that date back as far as 5000 years ago. These scatters represent the waste products generated from the Indian manufacture of stone tools. Amazingly untouched by historic agriculture, the Civil War and modern buildings, the three manufacturing areas date to the Late Archaic period of Virginia's prehistoric past (3,703-000-1200 B.C.).

Bob Adams in his report for Eakin/Youngentob Associates reconstructs the formation of the gravel terraces in Alexandria's West End. He states that about 15,000 years ago the vestiges of the last ice age were melting. The Potomac River would have been a "vast waterway" carrying an enormous amount of glacier melt water, sand and gravel. The sea level of the ocean was 300 hundred feet lower than today. In the cooler climate, moose, mastodon, elk and bison roamed through the Jack pine and spruce woods. As the Potomac meandered from side to side and receded in size after the glaciers melted, gravel and sand terraces were left above water.

The earliest known humans in Virginia date to 9500 B.C., although it is difficult to find traces of these people. The oldest artifacts found on the Stonegate development date to 7500 B.C. Hunters must have been moving across the area when they lost two stone spear points. Then, 4500 years later there is evidence that hunters again visited the terrace and manufactured stone tools. The artifacts have been excavated before the townhouse construction, but the story they tell will endure.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.

American Indian stone spear points excavated from the Stonegate development are evidence of Alexandria's earliest occupants, dating back to 7500 B.C.