1985 survey verifies late 19th-century finds

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1985 survey verifies late 19th-century finds

May 30, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Two prehistoric sites have been found in the Belle Haven area with artifacts dating back to 6000 B.C. Courtesy, the National Park Service.
More than 100 years ago geologist William Henry Holmes and others walked along the yet undeveloped areas of Washington D.C. and the Potomac River recording prehistoric Native American sites. Fortunately their writings and artifact collections are still curated by the National Museum of Natural History for our use today.

According to the book "Ancient Washington by Bob Humphrey and Mary Elizabeth Chambers, Holmes was an artist and geologist who turned to systematically surveying the D.C. area for evidence of Native American sites. His 1897 publication by the Bureau of Ethnology was a comprehensive study of his survey, as well as explorer accounts and numerous private collectors’ finds. Although most of the work centered in the District, people did survey in the Belle Haven area.

Paul Inashima’s 1985 survey for the National Park Service along the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway identified all the finds by 19th century collectors as well as his own. For instance, in the 1880s and 1890s William Dinwiddie studied a prehistoric site near the confluence of Hunting Creek and the Potomac. The site today is recorded with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources as 44FX31. This designation indicates (in reverse order) that it is the 31st site recorded in Fairfax County, Virginia. It was once located near 10th Street, Belle Haven Road and the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. Inashima’s field excavations also found evidence of another prehistoric site (44FX723) nearby.

The ceramics and stone tools found at 44FX31 document that the site was occupied as earlier as 6000 B.C. until the Late Woodland Period (A.D. 703-900-1600), although this use was probably intermittent. The ceramics fall into three categories: sand and grit tempered; shell tempered; and sand and quartz tempered. Some of the ceramics are plain, while others are cord-marked. This indentation of the clay happened when the exterior of the pot was shaped with a paddle wrapped with cord, fabric or net.

The stone projectile points were predominately made in the Late Archaic, ca. 4000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. Also interesting is the presence of points made out of rhyolite, which is not found locally. Thus, Inashima states that trade may have been occurring between groups even at this early date.

The other site discovered by Inashima dates to a more recent period, about 500 B.C. to A.D. 200 based upon the pottery found with net impressions. The stone artifacts are quartz which could be acquired locally and show that tool production occurred here. Rocks which have cracked from being heated are evidence of hearths.

Prehistoric peoples inhabited Belle Haven near the Parkway where they had easy access to wetlands and riverine resources for their livelihood. These particular sites were once on topographic high points near a gut that ran through the wetlands just to the west. The gut could have let them navigate through the wetlands directly into the Potomac.

By 1894 a grid system for New Alexandria can seen on maps, with cottages, a hotel and two factories. Fill soil now has raised the elevation of the swamp and wetlands which once existed close to the prehistoric sites. Holmes words in 1897 have come to be true 99 years later: "It may not then be too much to expect that the glimpses of aboriginal life afforded by this study will prove of interest...and doubtless be appreciated by future generations of Washingtonians."