City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Jul 22, 2011 8:50 PM
13,200 years ago to ca.1675 AD
Human occupation of Alexandria began thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Despite the past 250 years of construction and development, remnants of this prehistoric past still remain buried within the City. To date, archaeologists have identified more than 30 sites containing prehistoric materials and have registered them with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The types of artifacts discovered indicate that Native Americans visited the area beginning about 13,000 years ago, and historical documents suggest that they remained in the vicinity until about 1675.
Traditionally, archaeologists in the region have divided Native American prehistory into three major periods of occupation: Paleo-Indian (ca. 11,000 BC - 7,500 BC), Archaic (ca. 7,500 BC - 1,000 BC) and Woodland (ca. 1,000 BC - 1600 AD). The arrival of Europeans in large numbers during the 17th century marks the beginning of what is called the Contact Period. Recent discoveries (including a site near Petersburg, Virginia, called Cactus Hill) may help to establish that people spread into North America by 12,000 BC or even earlier.Back to Top
In the Paleo-Indian period, small bands of Native Americans moved frequently within territories throughout the area, hunting game and collecting plant resources in the spruce/pine forests and grassland environments which predominated as the Ice Age ended.
The earliest evidence of human occupation in Alexandria found to date is a broken spear point dropped by a hunter on a bluff overlooking Hunting Creek at the southern edge of the City. The characteristic shape of this find, with a flute removed from each of its faces, identifies it as a Clovis point--the earliest Paleo Indian type, named after a site in New Mexico where it was first discovered.
The hunting and foraging lifestyle of the Paleo-Indians persisted into the Early Archaic period, as the climate warmed and oaks and other deciduous trees began to invade the evergreen forests. By the Middle Archaic, sea level rise caused by the melting of the glaciers created ponds and inland marshes which became focal points for settlement. New tools were developed for exploiting the changing environments, such as ground stone axes for woodworking, mortars and pestles for grinding nuts, and weighted spear throwers called atlatls, which provided hunters with added power. A more sedentary lifestyle emerged in the Late Archaic, as Native Americans began to settle in seasonal camps to exploit the shellfish and spawning fish resources which became abundant at this time.
Excavations on Jones Point at the confluence of Great Hunting Creek with the Potomac River have provided insight into the long period of Native American occupation of the area. Investigated prior to the reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the site was covered by about 4 feet of fill during the early twentieth century. The underlying soil levels yielded an Early Archaic spear point with serrated edges probably dropped by a hunter in the expanding deciduous forests about 9000 years ago. At this time, the shorelines of the creek and river were much farther to the south and east, and the landscape continued to change as the water level rose and the banks were eroded. By about 4000 years ago, Native Americans began to visit the site on a regular basis. They collected cobbles from the nearby river and stream beds and created stone tools, leaving behind thousands of quartz and quartzite flakes, the byproducts of tool-manufacturing. They also used the stones to form hearths for fires, as evidenced by the many fragments of fire-cracked rock found at the site. Artifacts recovered include spear points, knives and fragments of stone bowls made of steatite (soapstone) left by the site’s inhabitants during the Late Archaic period from about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago.
The first manufacture and use of pottery ushered in the Early Woodland period, and by the Middle Woodland, Native Americans began to gather in more permanent settlements on the shores of the larger rivers. The beginnings of agriculture brought maize, squash and beans into the Late Woodland diet and resulted in permanent year-round settlements near the fertile soils of these riverine floodplains. When Captain John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and into the Potomac River from Jamestown in 1608, he visited the villages and hamlets along the shoreline, inculding Tauxenent on Mason Neck and Namoraughquend on the grounds of what is now Reagan National Airport.
At the Jones Point site, archaeologists found pottery sherds and other diagnostic stone projectile points from Woodland occupations. Several small triangular arrow points provide evidence that Indians were still visiting the site just prior to European settlement of the area.
While most of the Jones Point artifacts were recovered from a layer of soil that had been plowed during historic times, a number of archaeological features extended down into the underlying natural soil layers. The features appeared as dark soil stains which resulted from human activity on the site. Some were pits that could have been used for food storage. Perhaps the most exciting were small circular stains, which represented the remnants of decayed wooden posts. The stains form oval patterns, each measuring about 9 by 12 feet, and are thought to represent one or more 1,000-year old houses dating to the Late Woodland period. The structures, significant as Alexandria’s first houses, were probably erected by bending saplings to form arches and covering the posts with bark or mats. Other larger features, depressions dug for storage or trash, were uncovered outside of the house patterns.
Archaeologists have hypothesized that the structures represent the remnants of a small seasonally occupied village or camp site. Geomorphological studies indicate that by this time, the erosional processes had molded the landscape into a long narrow peninsula extending out into the Potomac River. The peninsula was separated from the mainland by an extensive swamp or pocosin, which was drained by a small creek. In fact, the edge of this marshland could be seen as a dark organic area near the western and southern borders of the excavation. The cluster of houses with the associated storage or trash pits adjacent to the swamp was situated on a small rise or terrace overlooking the marsh. Given this environment, archaeologists have speculated that Native Americans visited the site to exploit the marsh resources, perhaps in the early spring to harvest tubers at a time when other food resources were scarce. In the spring and early summer months, they may have also settled on the site to take advantage of the seasonal fish runs, as the shad and other species headed into the small streams to spawn.
One additional group of prehistoric sites was intensively studied in Alexandria prior to construction associated with a townhouse development project known as Stonegate. Three of the Stonegate sites were located on bluffs overlooking a small stream near the intersection of Braddock Road and I-95. Projectile points found at the sites provide evidence that Native American hunters passed through the area in as early as 8,500 years ago and during the Late Woodland period which began about 1,100 years ago. The main occupations, however, occurred between about 3600 and 2500 B.C. and between 1800 and 1200 B.C. During these periods, Native Americans went to the bluff tops to manufacture stone projectile points. In the earlier period, they usually brought quartz cobbles to the bluff top, undoubtedly collected from the nearby stream bed, to use as the raw material for tool manufacture, while in the latter period, they carried partially made quartzite tools to the bluff, where they finished the process of manufacturing. While on the bluff, they built camp fires, possibly for warmth or for cooking their meals. They left behind the remnants of their hearths as fire-cracked rock along with thousands flakes from this tool-making activity as well as numerous points that were broken or discarded during the manufacturing process. Test excavations also discovered a fourth Stonegate site situated below the bluff on a terrace overlooking the creek. This site contained projectile points and Accokeek pottery and may have been a temporary or seasonal camp site dating to the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods. Since the developers pledged not to disturb this site, it was not intensively investigated. Instead, it became Alexandria’s first legally designated Archaeological Perserve, and it remains protected as part of a park on the Stonegate property.Back to Top
Archaeologists recovered evidence of prehistoric tool-making on the following Alexandria sites: