NAVAL WEAPONS STATION YORKTOWN, Va. — In the backyards of some of the Navy's top officers at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, archaeologists have uncovered evidence that a long-lost Indian tribe's leaders called the same space home.
The Kiskiak Indian Tribe was once part of the powerful Powhatan chiefdom in southeastern Virginia, but the tribe disappeared from the historical record by the 1630s after English colonists attacked their village on the York River and eventually settled there themselves. The tribe's location was well documented by Capt. John Smith in his 1612 Map of Virginia and in other documents, but nobody's sure what happened to the tribe after it crossed the York River and settled in an area known locally as the Middle Peninsula. The tribe's disappearance isn't uncommon in Virginia.
"There are a number of other groups in Tidewater Virginia that have a similar sequence in which they're described, their location is mapped, there's trade, interaction, warfare and hostilities with the English colonists," said Martin Gallivan, an archaeology professor at the College of William and Mary who is leading the site's excavation. "Eventually, they get displaced by the English and they either merge with other groups or move out of the region."
Archaeologists from the College of William and Mary have dug up artifacts that indicate the heart of the Kiskiak Indian Tribe's village sits on the same bluff that is now occupied by two-story homes with well-manicured lawns that are reserved for the military base's leaders. The officers' housing was originally built in 1920, leaving the area relatively undisturbed by modern farming practices that ordinarily can destroy historical artifacts.
"In many ways, the weapons station having being locked down, if you will, for almost a 100 years now, has really created an archaeological park that is unparalleled on the East Coast," said Bruce Larson, cultural resources branch manager for Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic.
Naval Weapons Station Yorktown is where missiles and torpedoes are assembled and loaded onto Navy warships. Unlike most Navy bases, its 13,000 acres has a relatively rural feel to it and is heavily forested as part of an effort to protect against potential blasts in its storage sites.
The Navy is required to document and preserve historical and cultural artifacts before moving forward with any developments, and previous surveys have indicated there are plenty of artifacts on the base dating back centuries.
"We're between Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg. This is the beginning of America," Naval Weapons Station Yorktown spokesman Mark Piggott said while standing by the dig site that overlooks the National Park Service's scenic Colonial Parkway that connects the three cities.
Larson, who oversees archaeology projects for the Navy and Marines from the Pacific Coast to the middle of the Indian Ocean, said Naval Weapons Station Yorktown is one of the most well-preserved archaeology sites in the military's inventory.
"The intact nature of it is really unprecedented," Larson said. "They're in a quite remarkable, almost untouched position."
This summer, students from the College of William and Mary excavated the site behind the officers' housing and found broken pottery, stone tools, arrowheads, smoking pipe fragments and animal bones and charred plant materials that indicate what the tribe was eating when it lived there.
"Combining all that together, we can begin to tell the story of what's going on on a daily basis in this Indian town," Gallivan said. "We found evidence of a palisade in a boundary ditch, which we think are signaling a really important part of this Indian town."
Gallivan said the palisades indicate that the tribe's ceremonial spaces and leaders were protected there. Early analysis of the artifacts indicates the tribe had a diverse diet, eating corn, beans, squash, fish, oysters, clams, deer, raccoon and turtles. Gallivan said his students will continue examining the artifacts this school year and that another class will continue excavations at the site next summer. He said less than one percent of the tribe's village has been excavated so far, and that excavating the entire village would probably take about 100 years. Larson said work would continue in five year intervals and that the artifacts, which belong to the Navy, would likely be placed on long-term loan at the College of William and Mary.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis