Fragments help track development of skills

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Fragments help track development of skills

July 7, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Soapstone bowl fragments illustrated in a reconstructed form were excavated by County of Fairfax archaeologists. Similar ones were found in Alexandria at the Stonegate development prior to construction. Photo Credit: Eakin/Youngentob Associates, Inc. and William Holmes, Bureau of Ethnology 1897.
It was long thought that the development of ceramic production in Native American groups related to permanent occupation in one place. This line of reasoning stated that as Virginia native peoples became more sedentary, grew corn, and then they started making pottery.

Years of archaeological research in Virginia have shown that pottery was made and used while the Indians were still hunters and gatherers. In fact, the Indians began changing before their permanent villages became a way of life. By the Late Archaic period (2500-1200 B.C.), the Virginia natives numbered in the tens of thousands and lived in larger groupings than before. While still foraging for food, rather than planting, many groups migrated toward the riverine environments with their rich food sources.

The small hamlets that formed during this time had 25 to 50 residents. Some individuals took on leadership roles, clearly different from the more equalitarian structure of the earlier hunting/gathering bands. They also traded with one another and traveled into western Virginia searching for good stone needed in tool making.

Soapstone was found along the Blue Ridge foothills and brought back to the coastal plain. Easily carved and heat resistant, soapstone was carved into cooking pots. The rock was hollowed into bowl shapes with stone and bone tools. Two fragments from soapstone bowls have recently been found on Stonegate development in Alexandria's West End.

Archaeological work, which preserved artifacts before development occurred, was sponsored by Eakin/Youngentob Associates, Inc. before Stonegate construction began. While most of the excavations centered upon a temporary manufacturing area, another site on the property yielded stone tools, ceramics, and the soapstone fragments associated with a longer habitation.

The ceramics recovered from the Stonegate site provide information about the next phase of Virginia Indian prehistory. Indians started manufacturing fired clay vessels during the Early Woodland period (1200-500 B.C.) It is thought that the technology for making the pottery was introduced to the Virginia groups from people living along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Pottery dates in these locales to 2500 B.C., the earliest known ceramic vessels in North America.

The first clay vessels resembled the shape of soapstone cooking bowls. Quickly, the clay pots took on greater importance in daily life than the heavy soapstone, which had to come from such a great distance. The clay could be dug easily from the nearby river bank. Then with the addition of water and a tempering agent like crushed rock or shell, the vessels could be fashioned by hand. Over time the Indians learned to build up the sides of the vessels by coiling the clay. The exterior was shaped with a paddle wrapped with cord or fabric. After baking in an open fire, the pot could be used for cooking or storing foods. Broken vessels could be easily replaced. And for archaeologists today, the broken pieces allow us to trace the development of the pottery technology, shapes and decorations from 1200 B.C.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.