Archaeology dig unearths clues about Indian villages


PINTO -- For hundreds of years Indians returned to the broad, rich bottom lands along the Potomac River. They built their homes and planted their corn, beans and squash in the deep soil deposited by the river.

With the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century, the native people traded for a time, acquiring glass beads and metal arrow points. Then they vanished, leaving only their trash and the faintest traces of their towns beneath the river silts.

Hundreds of artifacts and clues to the lives of these earliest of Maryland's inhabitants came to light in 11 days of archaeology that ended this week at the old Indian village sites southwest of Cresaptown.

"I would consider it one of the more important sites in the state," said Dr. Robert D. Wall, professor of physical anthropology and archaeology at Towson State University and principal investigator on the project.

The cornfields along the river -- called the Barton Complex -- hold evidence of many Indian occupations and "artifacts from probably every major stage in prehistory, from the beginning 12,000 years ago to European contact," he said.

Archaeologists have explored these bottom lands before. But "it's such a large site, we're still in an exploration phase," Dr. Wall said.

Nearly 100 volunteers turned out for the dig as part of the 25th Annual Field Session of the Archeological Society of Maryland Inc. The work was co-sponsored by the Maryland Historical Trust, Frostburg and Towson State universities.

Their challenge was to open enough excavations so that archaeologists could begin mapping the overlapping village sites and clarifying when and how each was built.

The earliest occupations began 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, after the last ice age. Local collectors have found spear points from that period, but most of those "paleo-Indian" sites are believed to be buried beneath 3 feet to 6 feet of river deposits.

Archaeologist Maureen Kavanagh of the Historical Trust said most of the current dig involves Late Woodland Indians -- agricultural people who lived here between 1000 and 1600. They built "a series of villages, one after the other" along the river.

"Maybe they were here 20 years and left, then returned 40 or 60 years later. We don't know," she said.

The earlier Woodland people made pottery using limestone tempering in the clay. After about 1300, people in the area began using a thinner, better-made, shell-tempered pottery. Volunteers unearthed both pottery types.

Also about 1300, the Indians began building defensive wooden palisades around their villages.

Dr. Wall pointed out a swath of dark soil and debris that traced one such palisade.

"They [the Indians] dig the trench out for putting the posts in, and then pack all kinds of stuff in there" to support them, he said. "They'll throw the village refuse into [the palisade trench], and that's why you see all this bone and all these rocks in there," he said.

Trash and fire pits were uncovered that contained the butchered bones of deer, elk and smaller game, fish bones and mussel shells. The soil also yielded bone beads and decorative sea shells obtained in trade with coastal groups, stone projectile points and fragments of pottery, a few as big as a man's hand.

In the most recently occupied sites, archaeologists identified glass beads and a triangular copper arrow point dating from around 1600, before the English landed in St. Mary's County. They may have been obtained in trade from the Great Lakes, where Europeans came earlier.

One excavation revealed a small pit containing charred corn cobs, possibly used to produce smoke for tanning hides.

Most puzzling was a wall trench associated with a dwelling. But it didn't match the round huts typically used by local Indian groups. "You do find them in western Pennsylvania sites" where Indian houses were more rectangular, Dr. Wall said.

This one may have been built by Susquehannock people who came from the Pennsylvania area around the time of European contact to take advantage of the fur trade, he said.

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