Digging Where Indians Camped Before Columbus

Patuxent River Site Could Be Among Md.'s Most Important

July 02, 2009|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Anne Arundel County archaeologists have uncovered an Algonquian Indian camp on a bluff above a lush bend in the Patuxent River, a find that includes the oldest human structure ever detected in Maryland.

Artifacts show that the campsite - in a location favored by native people for hundreds of years for its bounty of fish, shellfish and game - was in use two centuries and more before Christopher Columbus set sail from Europe.

The dig has uncovered traces of oval Algonquian wigwams; rare tools of stone, bone and antler; fragments of a highly decorated pot; an intact paint pot; and a broken gorget, a dark stone polished and drilled for use as personal decoration.

"It is clearly the most important prehistoric site in the county, and if it keeps going like this we'll be in the running for the most important prehistoric site in the state," said county archaeologist Al Luckenbach.

Carbon 14 dating on charcoal from a hearth found outside the outline of the wigwam suggests that the site was occupied between 1290 and 1300, making it the oldest dwelling ever discovered in the state, Luckenbach said. Outlines of other dwellings at the site might be older.

Dennis Curry, an archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust, calls the Pig Point site "spectacular."

"Finding what certainly look like house patterns up there is astonishing," he said.

Unusual sandy soil at Pig Point has preserved tools that usually would be lost after centuries in the ground, including an arrowhead carved from deer antler, deer-bone needles and awls. There are plant remains, including carbonized nuts and seeds that provide a rare look at the broad spectrum of the Native American diet of the period.

Luckenbach was enthusiastic about the elaborate geometric designs found on fragments of a football-size ceramic pot he's been reassembling.

Prehistoric sites in Maryland more typically turn up pottery shards with simple decoration, much of it made by pressing twisted cords into the soft clay.

With this pot, though, the archaeologists sense that they have turned up the 700-year-old work of an artist. The complex pattern of triangles and intersecting lines pressed into the clay while it was soft extend from the pot's rim to its base.

"This is beyond decoration; this is art," Luckenbach said. "Nobody's seen anything like it. All of us were blown away. ... The pottery gives us a rare glimpse of what they were capable of."

Curry called the decoration unique. He said the fancy pot, along with an intact paint pot and the wealth of other rare tools and artifacts, and their abundance at the site, suggest that Pig Point might have been a distribution point for trade among far-flung Indian groups.

"There's something going on at this site that's a little more than a little habitation site," he said. "I've not had a site pique my interest this quickly in quite a while."

The county's archaeologists were alerted to the Pig Point site last year while Luckenbach and his crews were digging on the site of a 17th-century house at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. A contractor doing unrelated work on the property showed an interest in the archaeology and mentioned that he had found Indian artifacts for years on his property at Bristol Landing.

The contractor, who asked not to be named or quoted directly, said he'd found many arrowheads and much broken pottery. He knew it should be excavated by professionals and finally persuaded Luckenbach to take a look.

After initial shovel tests last year, Luckenbach returned with his crew and student interns in April, and they've been digging there weekly ever since.

The dig is co-funded by the Anne Arundel Trust for Preservation and the Maryland Historical Trust.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said Luckenbach and his staff "are to be commended for the enthusiasm they bring to their job ... and the educational opportunities they provide for young people."

Leopold, who recalled finding arrowheads and Indian pottery in New Mexico as a teenager, visited Pig Point recently for a closer look.

"I just find it exciting to find tangible evidence of former cultures and learn how they lived, and to learn from those cultures," he said.

So far, the dig has focused on two areas of the front yard of a rental home on the property. As they stripped away the topsoil at the first location, the team of diggers began to notice a line of "post molds," dark stains in the subsoil where wooden posts had been inserted and later decayed. The stains soon began to trace out an oval, 20 feet long by 15 feet wide.

The Algonquians, Luckenbach said, built their dwellings by cutting saplings, jamming them into the ground in an oval pattern, and then bending the tops together to form the skeleton of a lodge. They would be strapped together and covered with matting to keep out the weather, making a home for 10 to 12 people.

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