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Cover of Spring - Summer 2003 Issue

 

Occoneechi Ned

Judy McReynolds

Photo of the skeleton found during the dig at Staunton River State Park
He was almost six feet tall, perhaps 30 years old, a healthy member of a robust tribe.

He lived in an established settlement at a crossroads of trade close to the Staunton River.

He wore symbols of respect and status -- copper beads, conch shells and tortoise-shell rattles.

When he died, he was buried wearing ornaments of his status and placed face up with knees bent -- a semi-flexed burial position as the final token of esteem.

That was 700 years ago.

Now, still treated with respect and with more than a little awe, the remains of this prehistoric Native American advance scientific research -- the creation of knowledge that previously did not exist -- the site where he lived a training ground for students of the Longwood Archeological Field School.

For two decades, Longwood has operated the Archeological Field School, usually two, four-week sessions per summer.

In the summer of 1997, students in two sessions excavated a Civil War fortification in the Staunton River Battlefield State Park, just north of South Boston. They examined a powder magazine at the former Civil War fort. A good excavation. But Field School Director Brian Bates (class of '92) was drawn to a grassy knoll on the other side of the river. The darker green area formed a long narrow levee, high enough to be an island in flood waters - a good place for prehistoric people to live.

Staunton River State Park had purchased this land in early 1997. A stack of paperwork, and the state awarded the designation 44CH62, the Randy K. Wade site, recognizing a local resident (and former Longwood student) who knows a lot of stories and helpful information about that part of Virginia. By September '97 it was the site of "Indiana Jones in Halifax County," a joint dig with participants in a Virginia State Parks public outreach program. Students relocated their picks and shovels, dug one meter test pits and painstakingly examined the soil to a depth over one meter.

First summer session '98

For the Field School first summer session in 1998, Nic Smith and Andy Banyasz, student field supervisors, focused the dig on a 10 meter by 15 meter section of the levee. What they found established this area as a midden -- a trash pit -- not a source of inspiration to the layperson, but to the archeologist, a find.

The dig uncovered thousands of artifacts - 35,000 of them - including projectile points (arrowheads), bone and pottery sherds. Projectile points included Hamiltons, Yadkins, Madisons and Clarkesvilles -- all common to the Late Woodland period of 900 to 1500 A.D. Bates sent charcoal samples to Beta Analytic Laboratories in Miami, Florida, for radiocarbon dating. Dates from 1998 finds indicated occupation of the site from 1090 to 1275 A.D. Dates from the 1999 dig suggested 1297 to 1395 A.D., pointing to a long-term occupation of the site.

The top 13 inches of soil was a plow zone where everything had been stirred up. Beneath this layer, cultural deposits were undisturbed. Sections where the soil had been baked over long periods of time were evidence of a special use area where fires had been built again and again.

Students also uncovered human bones - some had been disturbed by flood waters; others lay partially intact. Dr. C. Clifford Boyd, a physical anthropologist at Radford University, was called in for consultation. In all, four individuals were represented - one adult female, two adult males and one child.

The Field School session ended with some big questions unanswered: What sort of area is this? How deep is this site?

Answers were forthcoming.

Owners of NAEVA Geophysics, Inc, a private company specializing in ordinance detection, acted upon a keen interest in history and donated their services including a magnetometry survey and an electrical conductivity survey. NAEVA's instruments identified a large area where a very large fire or many small fires repeatedly had occurred.

First summer Field School 1999

It is mid-May 1999 and Director Brian Bates charges advanced students Mike King, Craig Rose, Mike Bruno, Jason Coffey and Jenny McGinty with deciding the direction of the dig. They select a five meter wide by 15 meter long area, identified in the geophysical survey . This area is marked into grids and the soil scraped away trowel by trowel. Every trowel full of soil is sifted; the contents bagged, labeled and sent back to Longwood for analysis.

Students identify post holes and storage pits five to six feet deep, but narrow. Also mollusk shells, pieces of Dan River ceramics, a large clay pot more than half complete. Then the femur of a large land animal -- elk or bison? Then a large rib cage. The students are excited. Bates is excited. Then a horseshoe. Excitement dwindles. This was the site of a Civil War cavalry raid and also a farm for more than 300 years. They later determine that the animal is a farm horse who died of old age. The dig moves on.

An uncovered Savannah River knife blade indicates this site was occupied as long ago as 3000 to 3500 years.

Then one evening as Bates is taking soil samples, he uncovers a human skull. He covers it back up and then presents the situation to the advanced students, charging them with developing a strategy to investigate this find or leave it alone. The students deliberate: Will proceeding be disrespectful to the dead? Will it detract from the rest of the dig by drawing too much emphasis? Will such research offend some people?

They present a strategy for investigating the find while leaving the remains and all associated finds "in situ" - as they were, undisturbed. Bates considers the pros and cons, gets guidance from the Virginia Department of Historic resources and concludes that the team should proceed as the students recommend.

In a small area off to the side of the main trench, students carefully uncover the skeleton, only 14 inches below the surface, complete and in excellent condition. He wears two necklaces: one of long, cold-hammered copper beads with small shell beads; the other of beads carved from the central column of a conch shell. He wears conch shell bracelets and has two rattles made of water-worn quartz pebbles placed inside turtle shells. He rests in a semi-flexed position -- on his back with knees bent and slightly to one side.

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