Development brings rich find in ancient Indian artifacts

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Development brings rich find in ancient Indian artifacts

June 30, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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A projectile point similar to the Holmes type which was used on a spear about 2500 B.C. when Indians were making stone tools on the Stonegate development near Braddock Road. Courtesy of Eakin/Youngentob Associates, Inc.
Last week I discussed Alexandria's ancient American Indian heritage. Amazingly, the remains from stone tool manufacture survived for thousands of years in Alexandria's West End before they were excavated by archaeologists prior to the Stonegate development. Today they have been carefully washed, counted, bagged and boxed for generations to come. The Stonegate developers, Eakin/Youngentob Associates, have donated them to the City of Alexandria for proper curation and public exhibition.

This site allowed the Stonegate archaeologist Bob Adams to present the first comprehensive study of Alexandria's prehistoric past. Archaeologists divide North America into three broad cultural periods of study--prehistoric, protohistoric, and the historic periods. The distinctions are drawn by the presence of written language and oral history to illuminate the past. The protohistoric is the transitional time when colonists and Indian groups wrote and recorded oral histories. The methods used for excavating, analyzing and interpreting sites from each time are different. Fortunately he was able to draw upon the vast amount of knowledge accrued by the Fairfax County archaeologists Mike Johnson and Larry Moore.

The earliest American prehistoric time is called the Paleoindian. The first Virginians occupied our area about 9500 B.C., nearly 2500 years after the first humans entered North America. However, new discoveries may push back this entry date for humans crossing the Bering Straits land bridge from Asia into Alaska to 25,000 B.C. A few artifacts have been found nearby dating the to Paleoindian time, even right near Tysons Corner mall.

These people hunted the large game such as bison and mastodon, as well as foraged from the diverse wild plant and aquatic life in this cooler, wetter and more wooded environment. The period is marked culturally by specific spear (projectile) point types made of high quality stone. Over time, more local stone was used and point types changed to have more notches and serrated edges.

Between 5500 and 6000 B.C. another warming trend occurred resulting in a forest condition similar to today. More grasslands and the increased deciduous nature of forests would have supported herd animals such as bison and elk, deer and bear. This Middle Archaic time is known for its quartz points, the appearance of atlatls (spear throwers), stone axes, mortars and pestles for crushing nuts and seeds.

Then about 2500 B.C. in the Late Archaic as the climate was cooling again. People lived in slightly larger groups of a few families, hunting and gathering along the rich river environments. They also started to raise squash and gourds and harvested oysters. It was in this time that Indians passed across the Stonegate property, selected cobbles from the stream and sat on top of the gravel terrace making a few spear points. In the process, thousands of waste pieces (debitage) were produced for archaeologists to find 4500 years later.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.