By Paula Neely
For years, Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock tribe, gathered with her people for ceremonies and summer fish fries at several locations along the Rappahannock River in Virginia. She didn’t realize the significance of the locations until they were recently identified as ancestral Rappahannock sites. “We had lost sight of the ancient towns,” Richardson said. “I had records of place names, but didn’t know where they were,” she said.
The tribe identified the ancestral sites with the help of a team of archaeologists led by Julia King of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who began collaborating with the Rappahannocks in 2015 on a project to find sites from the Late Woodland and Contact periods. Combining archaeological field work, historical research, and interviews with the tribe, King’s team identified or confirmed the locations of thirty-six Rappahannock sites. Previously very little archaeology had been done along the river, and Richardson said she knew the locations of only two ancient towns. “For the first time in 350 years, we saw the territory in a whole new light,” she said, adding that the research validated the tribe’s oral traditions. “It’s been very healing for the tribe.”
Funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the researchers are studying the area between the mouth of the river and Fredericksburg. They employed a geographic information system (GIS) model that included data about archaeological sites within ten miles of the river that dated from about A.D. 900 to 1600, elevation, slope, proximity to wetlands, access to navigable waters, and places with wide viewsheds. They also included data about soils that were good for growing corn based, in part, on the types of soils found at archaeological sites within the project area.
Archaeologists from St. Mary's College of Maryland dig shovel tests every twenty-five feet at the Hastings site. Located just west of Portobago, the site appears to have been occupied by an English household that acquired its ceramics from the Indigenous potters at Portobago. | Credit: Julia A. King.
Archaeologist Julia A. King measures ceramic fragments recovered from the Pissaseck site, while students process artifacts from the site. | Credit Patricia Samford
Archaeologists excavate test units at Fones Cliffs. The cliffs, which rise 100 feet above the Rappahannock River, mark the spot where, in 1608, Rappahannock warriors ambushed Captain John Smith as he made his way up the Rappahannock River. | Credit: Julia A. King
This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!
| The Archaeological Conservancy 2022