The Archaeological Evidence in Shenandoah Valley
Native American artifacts are frequently found in the Seven Bends area of the Shenandoah River between Woodstock and Strasburg, VA. However, mounds and earthworks are mostly concentrated in the bends near the outlet of Toms Brook at Maurertown, VA. The mounds were fairly prominent when settlers first arrived, but after 250 years of plowing, they generally can only be found in aerial photographs.
During the 1990s, the Thunderbird Archaeological District was surveyed and partially excavated. Thunderbird consists of three sites that were occupied or utilized during the Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic Periods. It was the first archaeological site in Virginia that showed evidence of a Clovis Culture occupation. High quality jasper was mined and worked to produce tools and weapons. Thunderbird is now a residential subdivision.
Archaeologist Jack Hranicky is leading the study of a Paleolithic or Early Archaic Period site which contains a stone circle that apparently functioned as a calendar. He recently discovered petroglyphs on boulders near the stone circle. At this time, it is not known if the petroglyphs are contemporary with the stone circle.
In Skeleton’s Gorge at Luray Caverns, bone fragments (among other artifacts) were found embedded in calcite. Other traces of previous human occupation included pieces of charcoal, flint, and human bone fragments embedded in stalagmite. A skeleton, thought to be that of a Native American girl, found in one of the chasms.
Archaeologists employed by the National Park Service surveyed northern Shenandoah County, VA between 1989 and 1991 in preparation for nominating the Toms Brook Battlefield (October 9, 1864) into the National Park System. Both Adena and Hopewell village sites were identified on the Thornton Farm, which contains an old colonial era stagecoach inn, now used as a residence. Toms Brook runs through the Thornton Farm. It is located between the Old Back Road and Old Middle Road. See Tom’s Brook at the National Park Service website.
In 1992 a large village or town site was discovered on one of the bends of the Shenandoah River between Toms Brook and Woodstock. Work was beginning on the restoration of an early 19th century farm, when the architect and contractors noticed flint and jasper artifacts in the soil. Closer examination of the site and aerial photographs by the architect revealed numerous earthworks and mounds, both on this bend and adjacent areas. There were also earthen ramps and leveled platforms. Earth berms and ancient stone walls defined the edge of most of the bend in the river.
The site was surveyed by a state archaeologist and determined to be a Woodland Period enclosed ceremonial and village site. It is very similar in size and appearance to the Old Stone Fort site in Manchester, TN. Potsherds collected by workers were examined. They represented a variety of Woodland Period pottery styles that included Hopewell and traditions more typical of eastern Tennessee. The village site has never been fully studied by archaeologists.
Clusters of stone cairns have been identified at several locations on terraces over-looking the Shenandoah River in the northern part of the valley. They have been tentatively dated to the Middle Woodland Period. However, it has not been possible to obtain a large sample of carboniferous materials with which to obtain accurate radiocarbon dating. The cairns generally only contain one to three human remains. In 1992, archaeologists recognized the builders of these cairns as a distinct ethnic group, probably related to the builders of similar stone cairns on mountainsides in West Virginia. Such sites are now labeled the Western Virginia Stone Burial Complex. A large complex of stone cairns and stone retaining walls for terraces has recently been discovered in southwestern Virginia. It has not been investigated by archaeologists.
Large complexes containing stone cairns built by Native Americans are fairly common in northern Georgia and northeastern Alabama. They are most prevalent in the Upper Piedmont region, but are also associated with mountainside terrace complexes in some of the highest mountain ranges. The two largest complexes are at Sandy Creek Park near Athens, GA and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Metro Atlanta. These sites have been radiocarbon dated to be in the Archaic, Middle Woodland and Early Mississippian Periods. They seem to be part of a long tradition among certain ethnic groups. The Western Virginia cairn complexes may be connected to this Southeastern culture.
Late Woodland Period or possible Mississippian Culture
The Kerns site was the first archaeological site in Virginia in which radiocarbon dating was utilized. The excavated village was found to be from the Late Woodland Period. Its occupants cultivated several crops, hunted wild game and gathered edible wild foods.
There are several mounds, little known to the public, along Hwy. 15 in Loudon and Fauquier Counties. This ancient Native American trade route is immediately east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but was probably part of a culture also occupying the Shenandoah Valley. Loudon and Clarke Counties are adjacent. Only a few of these mounds have been professionally excavated. Those excavated were platform mounds, not burial mounds, which are typical of coastal Virginia.
Goose Creek Mounds are located near the confluence of Goose Creek and the Potomac River. They have been dated to what is called Late Woodland in Virginia, 1160 AD – 1450 AD. This, of course, corresponds to Middle and Late Mississippian in the Lower Southeast. State archaeologist Howard McCord excavated the largest mound at Goose Creek during the early 1970s. He found no human remains, but did not investigate the bottom center of the mound, where an elite grave was likely to be situated. He did not have funds to fully excavate the village site. Therefore, the site plan or full size of the village is not known. The occupants of the Goose Creek site farmed on a large scale and traded with other regions.
The Goose Creek site was investigated more thoroughly in 1994 by the Alexandria, VA firm of John Milner Associates Inc., which determined it was an Indian hamlet of the Woodland and Late Woodland Periods. The firm , which dated its occupation from about A.D. 500 to the early 1600s. During the time of its occupation, Native Americans replaced atlatls with bows & arrows. Beginning around 1100 AD the occupants planted corn and beans. Their villages of wood and thatched huts were used until soil wore thin or they were threatened by predator Indians. The carbon-14 dating of charred nut and shell fragments from the Goose Creek site dated them to 1160 to 1400, with a margin of error of 70 years.
Virginia archaeologists have never recognized the cluster of “Mississippian Period” platform mounds in Loudon and Fauquier Counties as a distinct, advanced culture. These large villages with mounds do not appear to be related to the transient Siouans (Manahoacs) who occupied the region in the early 1600s.
Lee is on the extreme southwestern end of Virginia. It is not part of the Shenandoah Valley, but was adjacent to the heavily traveled trade route, which connected the Shenandoah to eastern Tennessee. Virginia Indian Mound K3 (or the Ely Mound) is the best preserved Native American earthwork in the Commonwealth. It is part of a cluster of at least three mounds in a mountain valley. A historical marker on the rural road near Rose Hill, VA states that the mounds may be part of a “city.” Part of the mound was excavated in 1877 by Lucien Carr, assistant curator at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. This work was in a time when archaeology was in its infancy. Carr was able to prove that the mound was built by American Indians, but the artifacts he found are apparently scattered among many private and public collections.
In the summer of 2007, Maureen Myers, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Anthropology directed an excavation of a house site near the Ely Mound. She determined that the Ely Mound site was a “Mississippian” town site. Mississippian was a label created by a conference of archaeologists at Harvard in 1947 when it was assumed that the oldest Indian mounds were in Ohio and the first advanced Indian culture was in southern Illinois. Late 20th century archaeological studies discovered that such things as pottery, mounds, agriculture, planned towns, etc. began in the Lower Southeast and worked their way north into western Virginia, but Virginia archaeologists continue to label such sites as being Late Woodland. “Mississippian” is not an official category of Native American culture in Virginia.
Between 2003 and 2007 a village, protected by a timber palisade, was unearthed in Page County, VA on the Keyser Farm. The occupants of this village made shell-tempered pottery like Southeastern Indians. The occupation of the village began around 1400 AD and continued into the late 1600s. The newly identified Keyser Culture is now the shown to have occupied the northern Shenandoah Valley and the Upper Potomac Valley. The territory corresponds exactly to a Native people, who cultivated and exported tobacco during the early Colonial Period known as the Tionontate. The Tionontate later moved north and joined the Wyandot (Huron) Indians.
At the Keyser Farm site along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, archaeologists have found three major types of pottery wares: Shephard wares (crushed quartz–tempered), associated with the Montgomery Complex peoples; Page wares (limestone-tempered), associated with the Mason Island peoples, traditionally thought to have replaced the Montgomery Complex peoples; and Keyser wares (shell-tempered), associated with the Luray Complex peoples, who supposedly supplanted the Mason Island peoples.