Thursday, April 18, 2013


You may recall that last April I spent a few weeks digging on a wonderful archaeological site along the Potomac River in Washington, pulling bushels of Indian pottery out of the ground.

Since then we have gotten a radiocarbon date from the pit most of the sherds came from (about 770 BCE) and done some analysis. I have given a paper about the site, and a public lecture. It turned out that besides being a lot of fun to dig, the site produced a bit of real historical knowledge. The most common model of how people in eastern North America lived between 2500 BCE and 800 CE goes by names like fission-fusion. This means that we think they spent much of the year wandering in small groups of maybe 50 to 100, but at some point during the year they came together for weeks or a few months in larger groups at certain prime sites, mostly along rivers. Lots of hunter-gatherer and primitive agricultural peoples have lived this way, including many Indians, and it fits the pattern of a few large and many small camp sites that we find from this period. But the evidence for this model really isn't very good. At our little site on the Potomac we found, in our single pit, large amounts of three closely related but nonetheless quite distinct kinds of pottery. From what we know about hunter-gatherers, they are very conservative about such things, and tend to make their pots exactly the same way for centuries. So why three different types in one pit? One explanation would be that this is one of these "base camps" where separate bands of people who spent much of the year apart, and each made pottery in their own way, came together for their annual meet-up. Such gatherings usually involved a lot of feasting, marriages, religious rites, and so on, so lots of chances for pots to get broken or to be intentionally smashed.

Anyway, the artifacts from the site eventually made their way to the the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, where stuff from Navy properties in the Washington region ends up. My colleague Greg was down at the MAC Lab yesterday, and he found that they were working on the sherds from our site, trying to reassemble the vessels. So he took these pictures.

All of this fits into the general category of Accokeek pottery, but you can see even from these pictures that there is a lot of variety in our sample.

It's quite exciting to see it all coming together in this way. What we did was not a formal excavation of the site but only an evaluation (Phase II, in the lingo), and the important part ended up being preserved. That means we didn't get to dig he whole site or do the full analysis that would have been part of such an excavation. Wonderful to see that this great collection is getting more work, and is not just being filed and forgotten. Even if I would rather be reassembling these puzzles myself.

No comments: