Archaeological dig draws volunteers

September 29, 2002|By Isak Howell | Isak Howell,THE ROANOKE TIMES

WARM SPRINGS, Va. - Only two persistent sounds echoed in this quiet mountain valley on a recent day - bird song and a steady scraping noise.

Over by a line of tents, where it smelled like wet grass and peanut butter sandwiches, a crew of muddy-kneed scrapers gathered and saved every speck of dirt from the open pits they dug. They were archaeologists, some professional and some novice, excavating the evidence of Virginia's pre-European history - arrowheads, hearths, deer bones, even human remains.

In a valley northwest of Warm Springs, George Washington and Jefferson National Forest archaeologists are leading a two-week dig at an 800-year-old Indian hamlet by the Jackson River. Volunteers scrape, dig, sort and scoop. They discover homemade drills, dinner leftovers from early in the last millennium and a new appreciation for another Virginia culture.

"This is like Christmas every day, isn't it, Mario?" said Richmond teacher Marsha Summerson as she sat above one of roughly a half-dozen sites in the corner of a large hayfield. She spoke to Mario Viens, a Canadian parole officer, as he carefully scraped around a deer bone.

The volunteers are part of the second year of excavations at this site. The dig, near the Hidden Valley campground in Bath County, is in an area of Virginia dotted with Indian history. Along the river are a burial mound and a rock shelter. There are also nearby caves with Indian markings (closed to the public), and Indian villages sit at the bottom of Lake Moomaw.

It's rare, however, for an Indian village to be on national forest land, since villages were often on flood plains, while federal forests typically occupy higher ground. This village dates from about 1200 to 1400, before contact with Europeans.

Research suggests that the people hunted deer and turkey, planted corn and beans and harvested periwinkles from the river - small shellfish, not the flowers with the same name - to boil into soup stock. Forest Service archaeologist Mike Barber said they probably moved to another site when they exhausted the firewood around this village.

Poring through the remnants of another people's daily life attracts an array of buffs - a retired pharmacist, a parole officer, a power plant worker. They appreciate that this is not for spectators; it's dirt under the fingernails and violent mountain thunderstorms and bona fide pottery shards and burnt corn kernels. They even cook up periwinkle soup.

Human remains aren't exhumed, but other finds are mapped, collected and analyzed.

Viens, the parole officer, said he comes to learn about simpler ways of life.

"I think this brings us back to the philosophy of these people, which was a lot less destructive. I think we've got a lot to learn from them in that respect," he said.

Barber said the village here will take several more years to study fully. After this dig, the professionals will write a report that will put the discoveries into perspective.

In the meantime, the volunteers have digging to do.

"It's public archaeology; that's what it should be about," Barber said. "Congress and the president didn't pass these [cultural preservation] laws so a bunch of esoteric archaeologists could sit around and talk."

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