Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department of Anthropology

Mexican Masks in storage


Click on images to enlarge 


Figure 2

Figure 2


Figure 3

Figure 3


Figure 4

Figure 4


Study of District of Columbia prehistory began in the 19th century. In 1889 William H. Holmes turned his attention to local archaeology. His report of investigations in the Piney Branch Quarry in Rock Creek Park is a classic in the history of American archaeology and is still worth reading today (Holmes 1897). Holmes was not the first nor the only one to have an interest in local prehistory (Holmes 1897:7). Early students of local prehistory included W. Hallett Phillips. His collection of artifacts recovered in the 1880s and preserved at the National Museum of Natural History provides a record for many sites that are now extensively damaged or completely lost to urban development. Among the sites is one in the middle of the Mall, at the present location of the Washington Monument, about one kilometer west of the Museum of American Indian.

The artifacts were not recovered by controlled scientific excavation, but rather collected from the ground surface. In this region, sites in some geological contexts may be buried, but most sites are near or at the surface. As a result, superficial disturbances expose artifacts and sites can be easily destroyed by modern construction activities.

The ground surface seen today has been extensively modified, but the original landscape can be imagined with the help of 19th century city plans (see Passonneau 2004) . The Monument location formerly was on the edge of the river which probably had a fringe of tidal marsh (Figure 1, Map). Now the river edge is a full kilometer to the west next to the Lincoln Memorial. A vestige of the original wetland remains as the Tidal Basin southwest of the Monument site. Originally between the Monument and Ellipse was the marshy outlet of Tiber Creek, and even today Constitution Avenue floods in that area during heavy summer downpours. The aquatic environment would have offered attractive food resources such as, mollusks, crabs, fish and migratory water fowl (Dent 1995:93, 192). A convenient and relatively dry campsite was provided at the edge of a terrace rising almost 10 meters above river level. A terrace edge remnant can be seen today as a gentle slope where 14th street crosses the Mall.

Today tidewater extends to Georgetown, but in the perspective of the 10,000 year span of the Holocene, this is a rather recent situation. Since the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers, sea level has risen along the east coast and the Chesapeake and Potomac valleys gradually filled to become the estuaries they are today (Flint 1971: 322). About 7000 years ago tidewater reached the Anacostia (Dent 1995:83- 84). As the sea level continued to rise more slowly approaching the modern level, wetland expanded near the Monument site.

Prehistoric activities at the site are indicated by a collection of 146 chipped stone artifacts and eight potsherds. Chipped stone artifacts made of quartzite, white quartz and gray rhyolite are raw materials typical of chipped stone tools found in the District. A large part of the collection consists of flakes (85) from the manufacture or resharpening of stone tools. The flakes are about equally divided between quartz and quartzite.

There are about two dozen projectile points from the site (Figure 2 and Figure 3). Chipped point forms change through time and styles of the points recovered provide an occupation history for the Monument site. The earliest form present has a bifurcate base, a style that in the region dates before 7000 BP (Dent 1995:156-157). A variety of other stemmed and shallow notched forms date to the last few thousand years of prehistory (Dent 1995:178). The latest occupation is represented by a couple of triangular arrow points that come into use about AD 900 or perhaps slightly earlier (Dent 1995:247). These tools indicate that the site was used as one would expect when the tidewater marsh existed next to the site.

Among the chipped stone artifacts is a slightly flattened cobble, chipped around the edges on one face (Figure 4). Holmes recognized identical ones at the Piney Branch Quarry as an early stage of chipped stone tool manufacture, descriptively called by some as turtleback cores (Holmes 1897:30, 53). Whether the one at the Monument site came from Piney Branch, only about 5 km away, or was made on site from a terrace gravel cobble, is open to conjecture.

The few ceramic sherds present are thin with an admixture of sand and crushed quartz in the paste and have smooth or cord wrapped paddle impressed surfaces. These ceramics fit a type called Potomac Creek ware common in late prehistory after AD 1300 and possibly dating back to AD1150 (Stephenson and Ferguson 1963; Potter 1993:123; Dent and Jirikowic 2001). The ware was originally described by Holmes (1903: 155-156). Ceramics of this type are by no means the earliest in the region. Ceramics date back about 3000 years ago, replacing even earlier steatite vessels (Dent 1995:225-227). Early ceramics were recognized at Marcy Creek, near Little Falls across the river (Manson 1948).

Evidence of occupation in late prehistory after the time that maize cultivation became a significant subsistence activity is rather scant compared to some locations not far away. In the vicinity when John Smith arrived in the Chesapeake in the early 17th century, villages were located across the Potomac river, across the Anacostia and down river at Piscataway Creek (Potter 1993: 11; Stephenson and Ferguson 1963). By about AD 1300, similar large villages became the focus of late prehistoric settlement and were situated on extensive tracts of soil suited to hoe cultivation (Potter 1993:29, 145). Although never apparently a long term occupation, late in prehistory the Monument site would have been only briefly visited as a specialized seasonal camp site.

To find out more about local prehistory readers would do well to begin with an excellent introduction by Humphrey and Chambers (1977). Books by Potter (1993) and Dent (1995) provide more detailed information.

— By James Krakker


References Cited

Dent, Richard J., Jr.
1995 Chesapeake Prehistory, Old Traditions, New Directions. Plenum Press, New York.

Dent, Richard J., Jr. and C A. Jirikowic
2001 Accokeek Creek: Chronology, the Potomac Creek Complex, and Piscataway Origins. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 17:39-58.

Flint, Richard F.
1971 Glacial and Quaternary Geology. Wiley, New York.

Holmes, William H.
1897 Stone Implements of the Potomac-Chesapeake Tidewater Province. Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1893-94.

1903 Aboriginal Pottery of the Eastern United States. Twentieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology for the year, 1898-99.

Humphrey, Robert L. and Mary E. Chambers
1977 Ancient Washington: American Indian Cultures of the Potomac Valley. G W Washington Studies 6. George Washington University.

Manson, Carl
1948 Marcy Creek Site, an Early Manifestation in the Potomac Valley. American Antiquity 13(3):223-227.

Passonneau, Joseph
2004 Washington Through Two Centuries: A History in Maps and Images. Monacelli Press, New York.

Potter, Stephen R.
1993 Commoners, Tribute and Chiefs: The Development of Algonquin Culture in the Potomac Valley. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Stephenson, Robert L. and Alice L. Ferguson
1963 The Accokeek Creek Site: A Middle Atlantic Seaboard Culture Sequence. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Anthropological Papers 20.





[back to Anthropology Collections Management Page]

[ TOP ]