By Ben R. Williams
It may look like a push mower, but don’t let that fool you; ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is changing the way archaeologists excavate the past by allowing more speed and accuracy than has ever before been possible.
Virginia Museum of Natural History Assistant Curator of Archaeology Dr. Hayden Bassett is currently conducting the Smith River Survey, a two-year survey of seven Native American archaeological sites in Henry County located along the Smith River.
That may seem like a big project to undertake in just two years, but GPR allows archaeologists to create a map of the soil beneath their feet before they even touch a shovel.
Bob Chartrand, an archaeologist and GPR specialist based in Williamsburg, VA, has been assisting Bassett with the survey. According to Chartrand, the GPR device is pushed along the ground in a grid pattern, and it sends radar waves into the earth. These waves pass through the soil and bounce back to the unit, picking up any abnormalities along the way.
By pushing the GPR device along in a grid pattern, the unit collects data and sends it to a computer. The computer can then take the data and render a three-dimensional map of what lies below the surface of the soil, including places where the soil has been disturbed by humans hundreds of years ago.
Prior to this technology, Bassett said, archaeologists would have to solely rely on digging test pits every five to fifteen meters at a site in the hope of finding archaeological features.
“With this, we can shave off days and in some cases weeks and months,” he said. “It saves a ton of time.”
The area that Bassett is currently studying is located near the Smith River in Henry County, and it was first excavated by Richard P. Gravely Jr. between 1974 and 1976. A second site, located in the same general area, was accidentally uncovered by the property owners in 1985 while digging a drainage ditch.
The first, Bassett said, is a terminal Late Woodland (1200-1450 A.D.) village, while the second is perhaps a couple hundred years more recent.
The village, Bassett said, is unusual in that it is palisaded, meaning the entire village was surrounded by a wall. During Gravely’s 1970s excavations, 20 burials were found within the village, and all of the material was excavated and later analyzed by UNC Chapel Hill.
When the village was occupied, it would have been occupied by the ancestors of the Saura, Bassett said, which moved down to North and South Carolina in the 18th century and joined with the Catawba.
The second site, located just a couple hundred feet away, was discovered in 1986.
“They were putting in a drainage ditch and they hit two burials,” Bassett said. “That’s not unexpected given the number of burials they found in the village, but what differentiates them is that (in the village), people were buried with shell and bone jewelry. In those two graves, they were buried with copper jewelry and European glass beads. Those are both well-known trade items within the Piedmont’s contact period (1620-1670).”
Contact with Europeans?
Does this mean that Native Americans in Henry County had direct contact with European settlers in the mid-1600s? According to Bassett, the answer is a bit more complicated.
“Is this evidence for direct interactions with Europeans,” Bassett said, “or is this evidence for indirect interactions by way of inter-tribal trade? Our team’s hypothesis right now is that it’s probably the latter. We have very few records of Europeans making their way this far west — particularly in this part of Virginia — at that time period.”
It has never been quite clear why some Native American village sites in Henry County were built with walls around them, Bassett said, but the VMNH Archaeology Department has a theory. The palisaded village is very close to several well-established trading paths, and if it was a popular site for trading valuables, it would have been prudent for the inhabitants to build some defenses to secure their resources.
“You have different groups coming into the area along these trading paths,” Bassett said. “One of the paths being the Great Warrior Path, which sits underneath the Great Wagon Road, which actually runs just on the other side of this hill. You have the Occoneechee Path, which runs across Virginia and into North Carolina, and then the Saura-Saponi trail, which runs straight through Henry County going south. There are a lot of different trading paths coming near here, so we think that’s the reason we have so many villages with palisades around them.”
In all likelihood, Bassett said, the copper jewelry and glass beads found at the second site were probably English in origin and were traded to someone who then traded them again at the Smith River village.
In addition to its proximity to several trade routes, Bassett said, the Smith River site presents a perfect location to establish a village. It’s a wide-open floodplain surrounded on all sides by water, including not only the Smith River and a tributary, but also a spring-fed pond. There is plenty of room for agriculture. It is also easy to defend, given that the floodplain allows for a long line-of-sight and is surrounded by hills on all sides.
“It’s probably the best floodplain for it,” Bassett said. “In terms of how they’re subsisting out here, it’s called mixed-subsistence. So a little bit of agriculture accounts for 50 percent or less of their subsistence needs — primarily beans, squash, and corn. Otherwise, they’re doing a ton of hunting and likely a lot of fishing during this period.”
The future of the Smith River Survey
The data collected from the GPR is still being analyzed, but it has already highlighted some promising areas. Bassett hopes to use the data from the GPR to excavate specific areas of the site, such as any trash pits, with a precision that simply wasn’t possible prior to this new technology.
“Prior to doing any type of excavation, we’re going to use GPR so that we can immediately identify the best places to sample,” he said. “Today in archaeology, we don’t usually do these big open-area excavations like you’ve seen in the past or on television. Today, we take deliberate, high-quality samples of individual spots of a site.”
Bassett said that he already has a wealth of data from Gravely’s 1970s excavations at the site, but GPR will allow him to look at that data in new ways.
“Our objective is to augment that data with new information that has only been made possible by new technology like this, new methods in archaeology that allow us to find things like fish scales and fish bones,” Bassett said. “40 or 50 years ago, that’s not something they were finding based on the methods used at the time. We can add to the story, and in some cases maybe even revise the story based on the new methods we can bring to the site.”