Archaeologists Gather Around Ancient Hearth

Odenton Dig Reveals Undisturbed Campsites

September 12, 1991|By Donna Weaver | Donna Weaver,Staff writer

The brown and gray stones lying inside the sandy pit looked like an abstract painting, a zigzag pattern that the artist had carefully arranged on his canvas.

But archaeologist Steven A. Gaber saw anotherpicture -- the remnants of an ancient campfire, one in which the stones had been kicked away after the fire had died.

Cracks, which result from the stones being close to heat, led to his conclusion.

Gaber has spent years digging up prehistoric Indian sites across the state. But he has found something unusual at this Odenton site -- campsites not yet destroyed by a developer's bulldozer.

"These kind of sites are rare in Maryland," says Gaber, a staffarchaeologist with John E. Harms Jr. and Associates Inc. of Pasadena. "Most have been destroyed by development. Some haven't been discovered. And some were discovered a long time ago, when archaeologists were just looking at the kinds of artifacts found. They weren't trying to reconstruct (Indians') lives, which is what we're doing now."

Ironically, Gaber found this site because of development. A section ofan Odenton development will be built there. County law requires an archaeological survey of significant sites before construction begins,and the project's developer hired Harms and Associates to perform the survey.

Gaber and his eight-person crew have been working at this site for two weeks, digging 39-inch-square units in their search for remnants of the past. So far, they've hit pay dirt practically everywhere, usually about 1 1/2 feet down.

The crew has found four hearths, but it's also discovered hundreds of small rock flakes -- 1,700in one 39-inch-square area. To an untrained eye, many of these flakes don't look significant. But Gaber knows better.

Many of the rocks represent tools, such as knife points or spear points. Others are the byproducts of tool-making. Most were made between 3000 B.C. and 1900 B.C. and 800 to 1200, Gaber said, judging by their looked and the way they were manufactured.

He pulled a few samples from plastic bags to show visitors. One was a flat, gray, pentagonal stone with a blunted point and serrated edges, about 2 3/4 inches long. Gaber called this rock flint chert, found naturally in Pennsylvania, New York and Western Maryland.

The crew found several other types of rocks that are not found naturally here, including quartz, jasper, argillite and rhyolite.

Gaber believes the Indians either traded for the rocks or brought them from those areas. They shaped the rocks into toolsthrough a process called flint knapping, which involves carefully beating a rock against another to reveal its core. Then they whittled away the core piece, crafting it into a tool like a sculptor chisels astatue.

"It takes a lot of skill to do this," Gable says.

But it also takes a lot of skill to piece together a story about these Indians based solely on stones and flakes.

Gaber has written a good first draft. He believes these Indians spent part of their year fishing along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Then, probably in the fall, they came to the Odenton site to forage for nuts, hunt deer and fish in the Little Patuxent River. The climate then was like Arizona's is now, very dry and hot.

The Indians traveled in bands of two or three families. Many bands would camp near each other. Gaber believes they hauled the stones used for their campfire from a nearby stream. Then they would sit around the fire, eat and make their tools.

After a few months, they'd move on to another site, but return to this one at the same time every year, Gaber says.

In two weeks, Gaber and his team will leave the ancient hearth, handing it over to the developers.

"Once this site is gone, it's gone forever," Gaber said. "That's why it's important to extract as much as information as possible from it."

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