Note: The following information is from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and used with permission.
People lived in Virginia for about 17,000 years before European contact. The native people had no written language. They recorded their historic events through storytelling and symbolic drawings. Through patient work in the field and in the lab, archaeologists have reconstructed some of the history and lifeways of these first people by uncovering buried clues of their unwritten past.
Archaeology is the scientific study of the remaining traces of past human culture, technology, and behavior. Archeology is about studying the people who lived and worked on a site and who made and used those artifacts. Archeologists recommend research questions to learn how specific ways of life developed and how they changed over time. Training and skill are required to analyze and interpret these artifacts.
Scientists are not in agreement as to when people entered the New World. Some controversial findings being discussed among archaeologists across the Western Hemisphere are the pre-Clovis dates and tools from a site named Cactus Hill in southern Virginia. Here a small band of people lived on top of a sandy hill overlooking the Nottoway River. One piece of white pine was dated to almost 17,000 years ago using radiocarbon dating. Associated with the pine were stone tools and the raw material from which the tools were made. These findings are challenging prevailing theories regarding human settlement of North America.
By the Late Archaic Period, the people in Virginia totaled perhaps in the tens of thousands. Their growing numbers caused them to intensify their hunting and gathering practices. Concentrations of bands settled along the rich floodplain, which some researchers describe as the "supermarket of the prehistoric world." Archaeologists have uncovered at riverside sites large hearths of fire-cracked rock, proof that the Late Archaic people prepared large amounts of food there.
In the Coastal Plain, the people started to harvest large numbers of saltwater oysters, a custom that would continue to the historic period. Especially in the early spring, before plants came up, oysters were a rich food source. The discarded shells formed thick middens or refuse heaps that archaeologists find to be a rich source of household debris.
In their quest for food and raw materials, the people ventured into every section of Virginia. Soapstone, commonly found along the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge, was one of the most sought-after materials around 2,000 B.C. Because it was a type of soft rock that carved easily and did not break when heated, it made excellent cooking pots. The people quarried large mushroom-shaped pieces of soapstone from outcroppings, and, with stone and bone tools, hollowed out bowls. When people started making heavy soapstone cooking vessels, they were probably more settled, as the vessels were too heavy to move often. Archaeologists have found fragments of soapstone vessels across Virginia, sometimes hundreds of miles from a quarry.
In a similar fashion, cobbles of quartzite along the Fall Line, and outcrops of quartzite and rhyolite in the mountains were mined for the production of large points and knives. These tools, like the soapstone bowls, also found their way across Virginia, confirming the widespread trading in Virginia between people living in the mountains and along the coast.
The Woodland period refers to the more sedentary cultures that lived in the extensive woodlands of what is now the eastern United States. A major innovation occurred about 1,200 B.C. when the people began making fired clay cooking and storage vessels. Archaeologists believe this technology was introduced to Virginia from the people along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. There, the earliest pottery in North America may have been made as early as 2,500 B.C. The shape and size of the first pottery in Virginia was patterned after that of soapstone vessels. Clay pots quickly proved to be more versatile and practical than soapstone. Though pottery vessels were fragile and easily broken, they could quickly be replaced. Superior cooking pots, they also provided drier storage than earlier fiber or skin vessels. Archaeologists have recorded the changes over time in the size, shape, temper, surface treatment, and decoration of pottery from 1,200 B.C. to the present. This wealth of pottery information provides archaeologists with ways to help date sites and to define Indian groups and interpret their interaction and movement
Populations grew in Virginia so that diverse tribes now lived in scattered settled hamlets along major rivers that wound through the mountain valleys and down through the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain.
One example of the great diversity can be found in the Stone Mound Burial culture in the northern Shenandoah Valley. This culture, dating from 400 B.C. to A.D. 200, placed hundreds of low stone mounds in clusters on ancient bluff-like river terraces overlooking the floodplain. Only a few people were buried with great ceremony in each mound. Sometimes, the Stone Mound people placed rare and sacred objects made from exotic materials in the graves. These objects included tubular and platform pipes, copper beads, hematite cones, pendants, basalt celts, spear-throwing stones, and caches of projectile points. The people placed the objects within the mound for the deceased to use on their afterlife journeys. The few graves within each mound, the few clusters of mounds, and the special objects suggest that the Stone Mound Burial culture gave only higher-ranking people this preferential treatment.
One of the best-stratified sites in southwestern Virginia is the Daugherty's Cave site, Russell County (Benthall 1990). It is located on Big Cedar Creek, a tributary of the Clinch River, and it provides some data on Woodland period habitation in southwestern Virginia. The earliest Woodland occupations occurred from approximately 500 B.C. to A.D. 1. During this period, the cave was used by people penetrating the Clinch River valley and the Big Creek watershed area from upper Eastern Tennessee. The pottery found at Daugherty's Cave for this period is similar to ceramic types defined in the Tennessee River Valley. Benthall (1990) designated this limestone-tempered pottery as Long Branch Fabric Marked. The projectile points found at Daugherty's Cave are also comparable to types defined in the Tennessee Valley. The assemblage includes Ensor, Camp Creek, Ellis, Nolichucky, Greenville and Ebenezer. This occupation zone exhibited an intensified use of the site during this period evident by the increased number of shallow pit features found in this zone. Most of the features are thermal in appearance and are all shallow. Some of the features appear to be smudge pits that were used to smoke-cure hides or fire pottery. Activity areas could be distinguished at the site. Food preparation is suggested by the presence of charred food remains in a hearth. Flint knapping activities were indicated by large quantities of lithic debitage next to the hearth, and a nearby smudge pit surrounded by postmolds implies that pottery making or hide tanning was undertaken in this area. The site was probably a temporary food procurement station during this time.
During the Middle Woodland period, the people slowly replaced their spears with the bow and arrow as a hunting weapon. Evidence for this change is found in smaller projectile points, particularly the triangular shapes. Further advances came as people redesigned the grooved axe and used what is called a celt, or ungrooved axe. Sleek and polished the celt enabled people to refine their woodworking techniques.
The Late Woodland people achieved a richness of culture that was unmatched to date. Sophisticated craftsmanship created a wide range of pottery forms, stone artifacts, and bone tools such as awls, fishhooks, needles, beamers, and turtle shell cups. Accoutrements for the rich, such as beads and pendants, were made from imported shell and copper. Ceremonial and symbolic objects of stone, copper, and shell were also manufactured. A wide range of rather elaborate burial customs reflected the people's fascination with the passage from life to death.
Since the preservation of artifacts from the Late Woodland period is outstanding and the cultures are rich and dynamic, archaeologists have been able to collect much information about group variation across Virginia. Although many of the pieces are missing, we know certain things about a few of the more prominent groups.