The First Virginians did not arrive empty-handed. They brought small bundles of tools manufactured from rocks, as well as antlers, bones, shells, and sticks.
Their rock tools had a high percentage of quartz (silicon dioxide, SiO). When it crystallizes in various cryptocrystalline forms such as jasper, chert, flint, quartzite, or even silica-rich metarhyolite, quartz fractures to form sharp edges. Modern Virginians who depend upon silicon-based computer chips to perform specialized jobs might not be able to recognize quartz veins in sandstone, or distinguish jasper from basalt - but when "primitive" people wandered across Virginia 10,000 years ago looking for food, they were savvy about silicon.
Native Americans used a variety of techniques for converting various types of quartz-rich rocks into specialized tools. Sharp edges were crafted by different techniques to chip the edges on one or two sides of a cobble or rock, to create axes, knives, chopppers, spearpoints, drills, hammerstones, etc.
For perhaps 15,000 years, Native Americans sought out the best material for their tools, and preferences changed over time. Some groups used jasper, others used quartzite or metarhyolite, but all had a specific mineral structure which created sharp edges when fractured. Modern glass Coca-Cola bottles have a similar structure, and in the 1600's Native Americans manufactured points from glass obtained from colonists.1
Sometimes stone was obtained from many miles away, even though local forms of quartz might have been worked into tools. Volcanic obsidian does not exist naturally east of the Mississippi River, but obsidian from Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and California has been found in New Jersey. The trading patterns in prehistoric America were extensive.2
Changes in toolmaking materials and techniques can provide insight into the population patterns of the past. Native Americans in Virginia never developed writing, so the story of Virginia's people prior to European contact in the 1500's is based on interpretations of the archeological record. Most items made from organic material (baskets, clothing, houses) has decayed, but the stone tools remain largely unchanged in the soil until discovery by farmers after rainstorms in plowed fields, bulldozer operators clearing a site for a new road/house, looters seeking artifacts, or archeologists seeking information.
When archeologists discover a new type of stone tool at a site, debate begins on whether the occupants of that area evolved a new technique, learned a new technique from neighbors - or whether a new group of people moved into the territory. New occupants may have settled in an abandoned area, two communities may have integrated peacefully, or one group could have completely displaced the previous residents by force.
For example, most tools found at a Peaks of Otter site when Abbott Lake was drained in 2008 were made from quartz and argillite found in the Piedmont to the east, not jasper from the Ridge and Valley province to the west. That pattern suggests that, perhaps 5,000 years ago, a band of Native Americans living in the Roanoke River watershed near modern Bedford or Altavista followed the Big Otter River upstream on a hunting expedition. They kept moving uphill, using Stoney Creek as a guide as well as a supply of drinking water, then established a temporary camp near the crest of the Blue Ridge next to a wetland (now dammed and drowned to form Abbott Lake). Some years, the hunters may have traveled further west to the James River near modern-day Buchanan, and traded with one or more bands of hunters who had quarried the jasper outcrops (site 44RB323) in the Arnold Valley near Natural Bridge.3
The earliest stone quarries used by Paleo-Indians in Virginia have been found at Flint Run in Warren County and the Williamson site in Dinwiddie County. At those sites, Native Americans pried chunks of cryptocrystalline quartz away from the less-useful surrounding rock. The quartz had crystallized millions of years ago from silica-rich fluids that had penetrated geologic faults.
The initial chunks were rarely shaped to be useful without further processing. The Native America converted rocks into tools by chipping off edges, starting with a step called "preliminary lithic reduction." The first step of processing raw stone produced cores or blanks, which could be refined by additional chipping into knives, blades, and various forms of "points." Large piles of waste rock chips were left behind at or near the quarries - a clue used thousands of years later to identify the location of ancient quarries.
The cores were portable, but still not a finished product. Cores were processed further at sites away from quarries, perhaps to minimize conflicts with others coming to the quarry to obtain raw stone. Work stations, where cores were converted into useful tools, are often found near water sources. It is possible that everyone in made their own points for a season of hunting - or perhaps a few stoneworking specialists developed advanced skills and supplied the entire group.
Individual points were resharpened after use, to ensure spearpoints would cut through the hides of game animals, or blades would sever plant stalks easily, or drills would create holes for manufacture of clothing and cooking containers. Small scatterings of broken rock chips, where hunters resharpened their stone tools, may be found at many sites far away from the quarries. Once a resharpened point became too small, it was discarded. When too many tools had been broken or dulled, the band would return to the quarry for restocking.
In Virginia, sources of jasper used for prehistoric stone tools include Flint Run (Warren County - site 44WR12), Brook Run (Culpeper County - site 44CU122), Arnold's Valley (Rockbridge County - site 44RB323), Bonifant (Powhatan County - site 44PO132), and sediments with eroded and transported cobbles in Virginia Beach (site 44VB5) and Accomack County (site 44AC136).4 (The Powhatan County site, also called Bonnefont, was discovered after examination of a nearby archeological site revealed such a large amount of debitage, the archeologists realized there could be a local source.)5
The Flint Run complex in Warren County developed around 9,500BC. The jasper was quarried near the mouth of Flint Run, then carried across the South Fork of the Shenandoah River to the Thunderbird and Fifty sites and processed further on the other bank, perhaps during the winter when the river was frozen over. The Fifty site was close to a wetland that may have provided food, while the Thunderbird base camp faced south and was sheltered from the strong winds of that era.6
At the Thunderbird base camp, excess rock was chipped off to produce chunks suitable for later processing into blades and points. The prehistoric stone masons produced cores of good jasper/chert, the stone that flaked in the right pattern to form useful points with sharp edges. Paleo-Indian and Archaic stonesmiths refined those chunks later (at locations away from the Thunderbird site) to create the spearpoints, drills, scrapers, cutting instruments, etc. Since more than one tribal group used the same quarry, there was logic to decision of different groups to grab-'n-go after initial processing to create cores, rather than linger around a place where conflict could occur to produce the complete toolkit.
However, the quarry may have been an intentional place for different family-sized groups to meet. There, they could trade items (such as rare shells that provided status), share information about good hunting/gathering places that year, and choose partners from outside the family. Every Paleo-Indian band needed to resupply their stone tool kit, so gathering at the quarry may have been the most logical place. In the later Archaic Period, when Native Americans used a wider range of rock to make tools, gathering places were areas of rich biological productivity. Food became a stronger attraction than geology. (Further north in Pennsylvania and New York, gathering places may have been associated with hunting camps for caribou, assuming those hunts were more successful when more than one family group participated.)7
Thunderbird was used as a quarry for 4,000 years.8 That makes the site at the mouth of Flint Run the first and longest-used industrial site in Virginia.
The Williamson site in Dinwiddie County is located on Little Cattail Creek, a tributary of the Nottaway River. It is the source of Cattail Creek Chalcedony, a distinctive form of quartz that was used by Paleo-indians for making Clovic points and other tools.
Based on the artifacts found by archeologists, it appears the site was occupied from 11,200-8,500 years ago (from the Paleo-Indian into the early Archaic Period). The high volume and type of "debitage" (waste rock, including edges chipped off cobbles) suggests the stone source was nearby. While no outcrops with evidence of quarrying have been found at the Williamson site itself, outcrops of chert and chalcedony have been found nearby on the Nottoway and Meherrin rivers. Cobbles in the creeks may have provided some of the source material for manufacturing at the Williamson site.9
In 1998, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) identified the Brook Run archaeological site on Route 3 (ten miles east of Culpeper, about 100 yards east of the intersection with Carrico Mills road, Route 669). When VDOT routinely examined the planned route of a 4-laning of the Germanna Highway, the shovel test pits in a dense grove of cedar revealed a surprising concentration of debitage, or waste rock flakes that had been discarded, one foot below the surface.
In this case, the environmental assessment process to identify unknown cultural resources before altering the landscape worked. The previously unknown location was far away from any recognized sensitive areas (i.e., no nearby wetlands), and its discovery during the cultural resource management survey was a complete surprise. Underneath that cedar grove was a site now designated as 44CU122. "44" stands for the state of Virginia, because the record-keeping system for cultural resources was developed in the days before 51 was assigned as the state's Federal Information Processing Standard or FIPS code. "CU" stands for Culpeper County, and "122" designates the individual site in the county.
Highway engineers and archeologists initially saw no distinctive features at Brook Run, though testing of charcoal from the site revealed that it is one of the oldest known locations of humans in Virginia. VDOT was prepared to abandon research into the mysterious flakes at site, and to procede with widening Route 3, without answering the key question: "why were people stopping here to do this work?" There was no clear reason for Native Americans to carry large chunks of jasper (up to 10 pounds) to the edge of Brook Run, to manufacture tools from the chunks of raw stone there. Just one day before the dump trucks were scheduled to backfill the excavations and seal up the site, archeologists answered the question - they found a jasper quarry at Brook Run.10
Perhaps 200 million years earlier, quartz had been injected by hot fluids into a fault when the bedrock cracked as the Triassic Basin formed. The quartz slowly crystallized to form blocks of jasper. Those jasper blocks was broken into small chunks and mixed with other rocks that decomposed into clay, as multiple earthquakes created a narrow zone of fault gouge.11
Then, about 11,000 years ago, one or more bands of early Virginians discovered and started to extract jasper nodules from the narrow fault zone. It was surrounded by the local red Triassic sandstone of the Culpeper Basin, which was useless for tools. The sandstone would crumble into loose sand grains if hammered. However, the yellowish jasper would crack with a different pattern, creating hard flakes with sharp edges. Such flakes provided the knives, scrapers, spearpoints, and other cutting tools created by miners and stonesmiths at the site.
The Native Americans selectively dug jasper nodules from the fault zone, leaving the clay behind. After 600 years, there was a narrow gash in the ground up to 3 feet wide and about 15 feet deep. Different foraging groups extracted that unique jasper and converted it into the high-tech tools of the time, communicating the value of that site to many generations.
To work the jasper stones free from the muddy matrix at the bottom of the vein, Native American miners dug out the jasper while squeezed into a dark and tiny crack in the ground. The prehistoric miners may have been young children, held upside-down by their ankles as they reached down into the narrow dark crevice. There was still jasper in the hole when the site was abandoned, but excavation may have become too difficult - especially when the hole was filled with water.
The jasper was not processed into tools at the quarry; much was carried away to some other place. The archeologists working with VDOT found 700,000 flakes, but almost all were associated with mining the lumps of jasper rather than chipping those "blanks" into individual tools. Those tools were essential for killing, skinning, and butchering an animal for food. Perhaps the band of Virginians took the chunks away in order to do their detail work in a safer location, where there was less risk of a competing band stealing their hard-earned raw material. That would suggest the quarry workers were not only squeezed into a tight space - they were also working in a hurry.12
Since large chunks of relatively high-value jasper were left behind, it is possible that some prehistoric conflict blocked access to the quarry site. For whatever reason, memory of its location was lost, allowing time for wind and rain to bury the quarry with a foot of sediment until VDOT's archeologists recognized that an unusual concentration of jasper flakes was worth further study.
We date Virginia's archeological sites largely through the charcoal remaining from old cooking and warming fires. At Brook Run, the dates are consistently in the range of 11,000-11,5000 years before present (BP). The wood remaining in the ancient hearths is often spruce, suggesting that the climate at that time was much colder than today. One chunk of white oak charcoal at Brook Run was about 2,000 years older, but it may be the wrong date for human ocupation at the site. It could be an old remnant of an ancient forest fire that was disturbed in the mining operation, and ended up in the sediments that washed into the excavation created by the rock miners years later.13
Until 1998, when the Virginia Department of Transportation examined the site prior to widening Route 3, the jasper vein and prehistoric quarry had been covered by recent sediments. The archeologists were the second group of Virginians to look closely at the site. Someone 10,000 years earlier was able to spot a small outcrop of rock, roughly 3 feet wide, that was "different." Maybe a foraging party rested there, before gathering more plant food or hunting more wild animals for dinner, and looked around. Maybe someone found a cobble of jasper in Brook Run, and explored upstream until finding the geologic fault with jasper exposed on the surface... but it is safe to assume that 11,000 years ago, the sensitivity to the geologic setting was far greater than today.
In prehistoric times, the skill of distinguishing different types of rocks was critical to survival. Bands of early hunters and gatherers were savvy about rocks. They lived in the Stone Age, a time when technology was also based on silicon dioxide (SiO2), though it was used in a form different from the silicon base of modern computer chips. Jasper, chert, flint, and other forms of quartz are cryptocrystalline forms of silicon that facture into fragments with sharp edges, useful for crafting knives, scrapers, axes, and points for the tips of hunting spears and arrows.
In addition to using forms of quartz that originally precipitated from aqueous solutions, metamorphosed quartzite and metamorphosed volcanic rocks high in silica (metarhyolite) were chipped and cracked to form tools. Metarhyolite came from quarries in the Blue Ridge, including South Mountain in Maryland/Pennsylvania and the Uwharrie Mountain quarries in North Carolina.14
After perhaps 10,000 years of cracking and chipping rocks into desired shapes with sharp points and edges, Native Americans discovered around 4,000 years ago how to carve bowls and other shapes from a soft rock called soapstone or steatite. Stone bowls spurred a "container revolution" in technology, and may reflect a greater tendency for bands of hunters-gatherers to stay in one place ("sedentism") as wild plants were initially domesticated - and at the end of the Ice Age, after sea levels rose, estuaries rich with shellfish and anadromous fish runs became established.
Soapstone bowls must have been heavier to carry than containers formed from skins, bark, wood, or turtle shells. In addition, soapstone was relatively rare compared to organic sources for containers; for many family groups engaged in foraging, trade for soapstone must have required different expertise than continuing traditional processes for making containers. Native Americans did not start to use soapstone bowls just to leave artifacts for future archeologists to study, so what was the advantage of switching to stone?
One possible answer: soapstone bowls were better technologically. Much of the cooking in the Archaic Period involved preparation of stews and soups, where fragments of meat/bone could be heated (along with raw fruits and vegetables) to extract nutrients. The oil from hickory nuts could be extracted more completely by heating nuts in water, and skimming off the edible oil that floated to the surface. Cooking was done by heating small stones in a fire, then dropping the hot rocks carefully into the soup/stew inside skin/bark/wood/shell containers. Stone pots were more durable for such cooking practices, resisting damage better than traditional materials.
Another possible answer: the soapstone bowls had special symbolic importance. Heavy, hard-to-acquire items may have been used for rituals rather than efficiency. Possession of a rare bowl may have identified a person/family as "elite" with higher status than other Native Americans. If so, then soapstone bowls might have been adopted because they were hard to acquire and replace, the way a Rolls-Royce car or a Picasso painting provides status today.15
Soapstone quarries are located in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge physiographic provinces. Pods of soapstone were formed as the Iapetus Ocean seafloor was shoved west and metamorphosed during the Taconic orogeny.16 Soapstone has a high percentage of talc, the main component of chalk, so Native Americans could use harder stones to carve out bowls directly from the bedrock. However, prehistoric people living in the Coastal Plain, Valley and Ridge, or Appalachian Plateau physiographic provinces had to travel to the Piedmont/Blue Ridge, or trade with groups already living there, to acquire soapstone.
Roughly 4,500 years ago, Native Americans along the Georgia/South Carolina coast learned how to make new "rock" in desired shapes, by heating clay in a fire to metamorphose the soft material into hard pottery. The technique of making pottery was then introduced into Virginia, either by sharing the new technology between neighboring groups or by migration of pottery-makers into Virginia.17
Clay is readily available throughout Virginia. Unlike soapstone, clay pots could be manufactured quickly as needed from local sources. The shift to pottery dramatically reduced the demand for soapstone, and may reflect a social shift to democratize access to what had been high-status items. One of the earliest forms of pottery in Virginia, the Marcey Creek ceramics, used soapstone as a temper, or addition to the clay. Temper can make clay easier to knead. Some materials used as temper allow moisture and air to escape pottery as it heats, minimizing breakage.
For thousands of years, Native Americans understood how different types of rock were suitable for tool making, and how different soils were suitable for agriculture. When the English arrived in the Woodland Period, the villages were located on floodplains where alluvial soils were relatively rich in nutrients for growing corn. When a village erred and chose less-appropriate soils... it moved.
For example, around 1500AD about 100 people settled on Wolf Creek in Bland County. The soils there are derived from Devonian shale, so productivity was low. Despite the investment in infrastructure (clearing fields, building 11 houses and constructing a palisade around them), the village was abandoned after just five years.18
After the Industrial Revolution, we have become disconnected from the natural sources of tools and grown dependent upon items we can buy at the hardware store. Most modern Virginians might know the difference between a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and a cell phone, but few modern Virginians have the geological expertise of the First Virginians.
If you walked from Colonial Beach to Harrisonburg, would you know when you were no longer walking on the Coastal Plain and had crossed the Fall Line? Would you be able to say "I'm walking on the metamorphosed sediments underlying the Piedmont" or "Hey, I'm in the sandstone of a Triassic Basin"? Would you recognize when you have crossed onto the greenstone of the Blue Ridge (near Route 29) or the limestone in the Shenandoah Valley (before you reached Route 340)?
Centuries years ago, the residents in the area would have use far different terminology to distinguish the rock formations, but the ability to distinguish different rock types would have been common. Some of the earliest Virginians spotted a tiny seam of jasper in Culpeper County, and extracted the valuable resource without having any metal tools. Who is technologically challenged - the modern resident of Virginia with fancy computers but minimal expertise in understanding the surrounding landscape, or the Stone Age residents who lived in Virginia long long ago?
1. Howard A. MacCord, "A Glass Arrowhead From Essex County, Virginia," Quarterly Bulletin of the archeological Society of Virginia, March 1973, p. 162
2. Carolyn D. Dillian, Charles A. Bello and M. Steven Shackley, "Crossing The Delaware: Documenting Super-Long Distance Obsidian Exchange In the Mid-Atlantic," Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 35 (2007), http://www.jstor.org/stable/40914512 (last checked July 1, 2012)
3. Dr. Michael B. Barber and Richard J. Guercin, "Peaks of Otter/Abbott Lake Site (44BE0259), Bedford County, Virginia: New Insight into Blue Ridge Settlement Patterning," Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia, June 2012, p. 74
4. Christopher M. Stevenson, Michael D. Glascock, Robert J. Speakman, Michelle McCartney, "Expanding the Geochemical Database for Virginia Jasper Sources," Virginia Department of Historic Resources, presented in poster session for the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/arch_DHR/resources/VirginiaJasperSources-final.pdf (last checked July 3, 2012)
5.Howard A. Macord, Sr., James A. Livesay, Sr., "The Hertzler Site, Powhatan County, Virginia," Quarterly Bulletin, Archeological Society of Virginia, Vol. 37 No. 3 (September 1982), p. 91; "Bonnefont Jasper," Virginia Department of Historic Resources, http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/arch_DHR/Lithics/Bonnefont%20Jasper.xml (last checked July 3, 2012)
6. Gardner, William M., "An Examination of Cultural Change in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene (circa 9200 to 6800 B.C.)," in Paleoindian Research in Virginia: A Synthesis, edited by J. Mark Wittkofski and Theodore R. Reinhart, Archaeological Society of Virginia Special Publication 19, p.26
7. Gardner, William M., "An Examination of Cultural Change in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene (circa 9200 to 6800 B.C.)," in Paleoindian Research in Virginia: A Synthesis, p.29-30, p.33
8. "National Zoological Park Comprehensive Facilities Master Plan, Front Royal Campus, Warren County, Virginia - Cultural Resources Assessment," Smithsonian Institution, September 20, 2007, p.6, http://www.si.edu/oahp/Front%20Royal%20Historic%20Preservation%20Report.pdf; Guy E. Gibbon, Kenneth M. Ames, Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia, 1998, p.278-9, http://books.google.com/books?id=_0u2y_SVnmoC (last checked July 2, 2012)
9. Phillip J. Hill, "A Re-Examination Of The Williamson Site In Dinwiddie County, Virginia: Aninterpretation Of Intrasite Variation," Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 25 (1997), p.163 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40914422; "Distribution of Cherts suggesting the movements of Clovis Hunter Microbands," Stone's Archaeology Pages, http://www.angelfire.com/va/mobjackrelics/Nomenclature3.html (last checked July 2, 2012)
10. "Discovering the First Virginians," video produced by the Virginia Department of Transportation, 2003
11. G. William Monaghana, Daniel R. Hayes, S.I. Dworkin, Eric Voigt, "Geoarchaeology of the Brook Run site (44CU122): an Early Archaic jasper quarry in Virginia, USA," Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 31 Issue 8 (2004), pp.1086-1087
12. G. William Monaghana, Daniel R. Hayes, S.I. Dworkin, Eric Voigt, "Geoarchaeology of the Brook Run site (44CU122): an Early Archaic jasper quarry in Virginia, USA," p.1090
13. G. William Monaghana, Daniel R. Hayes, S.I. Dworkin, Eric Voigt, "Geoarchaeology of the Brook Run site (44CU122): an Early Archaic jasper quarry in Virginia, USA," p.1087
14. Vincas P. Steponaitis, Jeffrey D. Irwin, Theresa E. McReynolds, Christopher R. Moore (ed.), "Stone Quarries And Sourcing In The Carolina Slate Belt," Research Report No. 25, Research Laboratories of Archaeology - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2006 http://rla.unc.edu/Publications/pdf/ResRep25.pdf (last checked July 2, 2012)
15. Michael J. Klein, "The Transition From Soapstone Bowls To Marcey Creek Ceramics In The Middle Atlantic Region: Vessel Technology, Ethnographic Data, And Regional Exchange," Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 25 (1997), http://www.jstor.org/stable/40914421 (last checked July 1, 2012)
16. Rachel J. Burks, Steven M. Lev, and Wayne Clark, "Origin Of Soapstone Within The Wissahickon Formation: Anyalses Of Native American Quarries Along The Lower Patuxent River, Maryland," Geological Society of America 2006 Philadelphia Annual Meeting, Abstracts with Programs, Vol. 38, No. 7, p. 234, https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2006AM/finalprogram/abstract_111461.htm (last checked July 1, 2012)
17. "Early Woodland 1,200500 B.C.," from First People: The Early Indians of Virginia, University Press of Virginia, http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/arch_NET/timeline/early_wood.htm (last checked July 2, 2012)
18. Dan Kegley, "Brown Johnston Site revisited: Interpreting a brief occupation of a Late Woodland village," Quarterly Bulleting, Archeological Society of Virginia, Volume 67 No.2 (June 2012), p.60
19. Michael B. Barber, "Virginia Projectile Point Typology," The ASV, newsletter of the Archeological Society of Virginia, April 2016, http://www.archeologyva.org/Pub/Newsletter.html (last checked April 20, 2016)