Indians trashed landfill 6,000 years ago


To the surprise of archaeologists, American Indians were trashing the Millersville Landfill nearly 6,000 years ago.

Anne Arundel County's prehistoric inhabitants apparently camped, hunted and fashioned tools along a small stream that once ran through what has become the county's largest trash facility.

However, all they left behind was trash of their own.

"Typically, archaeologists only find what prehistoric people threw away," said Amy Friedlander, a project manager for a team of archaeologists who unearthed the prehistoric campsite at Millersville this spring.

Beneath the layers of dirt, they found bits of shattered pottery, pointed tools and stone flakes -- presumably the discards of tool-making -- that give archaeologists clues as to how prehistoric man lived in the region.

"These primitive peoples kept themselves warm, fed themselves and died," said Mrs. Friedlander, of Louis Berger & Associates, a New Jersey-based archaeological consultant. "It was really a simple life."

Simple or not, the discovery of the campsite -- which was in use between 4,000 B.C. and 1,000 B.C. -- startled archaeologists.

The site is located in an upland forest area, away from the flooding that buries and preserves such signs, Mrs. Friedlander said. And the site has been heavily farmed, which normally would have destroyed its value by plowing under artifacts.

"Merely that it was there was a big deal," said Mrs. Friedlander. "We knew there were people running around this area. The thing was that this site was intact and buried. That challenges the assumptions that nothing should have been there."

Chief archaeologist Bill Barse said, "It's probably one of the few sites that haven't been obliterated by modern cultivation and development. Sites like that are especially rare on Maryland's western shore."

Archaeologists may discover more sites, thanks to the find at Millersville. "With this, they may be able to predict the location of similar sites in the county," Mr. Barse said.

Mrs. Friedlander added, "This really means that we have to think again before writing off whole areas."

This site was found after the county applied to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment to build a new trash disposal area at the Burns Crossing Road landfill. Federal and state environmental laws require archaeological surveys before permits can be issued.

Initially, about a half-dozen sites were identified though only one was considered significant, said Gary Shaffer of the Maryland Historical Trust. The survey initially found bits of pottery, dating back to the Late Woodland period, 600 to 1,000 years ago in a proposed access road to trash cell 8. Later, slightly deeper, archaeologists discovered the really "neat stuff," Mrs. Friedlander said.

"The pottery was noise," Mrs. Friedlander said. "The Archaic tools were the meat and potatoes of the site."

The dig took 21 days in February and May. The findings will be analyzed, written into a report and distilled into a slide show, which will be made available to schools this fall, Mrs. Friedlander said.

The intact, Late Archaic campsite offers new insights into an era which hunting and gathering gave way to agricultural life. Mr. Barse said previous digs have focused on the larger communities prehistoric people built by the bay and the county's larger tributaries.

The Millersville site provides a glimpse of everyday life, when small hunting and foraging parties fanned out through the upland forests, Mr. Barse said.

The site's early visitors apparently shared some traits with its current inhabitants, Mr. Barse said. They didn't particularly care where they threw away trash as long as it was out of sight.

Stone debris was found in defined circles around piles of fire-cracked rock, which archaeologists believe were small hearths used for cooking and warmth. As the Late Archaic

hunters sat around their fires, whittling bits of quartz into spear heads, Mr. Barse believes they routinely threw the flakes over their shoulders.

"Out of sight, out of mind -- that seems to have been the operating procedure," Mr. Barse said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the slide show for school children should contact Amy Friedlander at (202) 331-7775.

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