‘Virginia’s First Peoples’: VCU professor co-edits book about Virginia’s pre-European contact past

The book provides a scholarly but accessible overview of American Indian archaeology before Europeans colonized Virginia.

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A new book, “The Archaeology of Virginia’s First Peoples,” explores Virginia’s pre-European contact past, stretching back more than 15,000 years, and is authored by archaeologists from Virginia universities and state agencies and published with funding from the Department of Historic Resources, the Archeological Society of Virginia and the Council of Virginia Archaeologists.

The book was co-edited by Elizabeth Moore, Ph.D., Virginia’s state archaeologist in the Department of Historic Resources, and Bernard Means, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anthropology in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Means, who also directs VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, which creates 3D digital models of historical, archaeological and paleontological objects used for teaching, research and public outreach, recently discussed the book with VCU News.

How did this project, which involves archaeologists from across Virginia, come about?

This volume was originally the brainchild of recently retired Virginia state archaeologist Dr. Michael Barber who, back in October 2008, assembled experts in Martinsville, Virginia, to basically give a state of the state (well, commonwealth) for all of Virginia archaeology. In a daylong symposium, archaeologists from diverse backgrounds covered the commonwealth from its earliest American Indian inhabitants thousands of years ago, through the period that began with European colonization through the 20th century. The post-European colonization periods were covered in a volume on historical archaeology that was published three years ago. The overall goal was to update a series of volumes on American Indian archaeology between 1989 and 1992 and only briefly update in a series of articles in 2003.

The book cover of “The Archaeology of Virginia’s First Peoples" with a listing of the editors and section authors.
“The Archaeology of Virginia’s First Peoples.”

What do you hope readers of “The Archaeology of Virginia’s First Peoples” get from the book?

Archaeology of Virginia’s American Indians has been and continues to be dynamic, but this research tends to be scattered in unpublished archaeological reports or articles in journals that are not readily accessible to the public. The basic goal of the contributors to this volume is to place in a central location a scholarly but accessible overview of American Indian archaeology before Europeans colonized Virginia. American Indians, of course, continued and continue to contribute to the story of Virginia but that was covered in the historical archaeology volume. We hope that we might revitalize student interest in Virginia archaeology with one source that covers the current archaeological understanding of “Virginia’s First Peoples.”

You co-authored a chapter specifically about the Late Woodland period in what is now Northern Virginia. Who were the people living there in that era? What do we know about them?

I was invited to the 2008 meeting to talk about the Late Woodland period of Northern Virginia, which includes areas along and adjacent to the Potomac River and spans the last five or six centuries of American Indian history up to the first European settlers. My research at that time (and continuing through today) focused on American Indians living in southwestern Pennsylvania, called by archaeologists the Monongahela Tradition. Since this area is close to the headwaters of the Potomac River, and, of course, modern state boundaries had no meaning to American Indians before European colonization, I also studied the American Indians who lived along the Potomac River in Virginia and Maryland. So in the original presentation and in this chapter I summarized Late Woodland research in Northern Virginia. Dr. Elizabeth Moore, the current Virginia state archaeologist, contributed her zooarchaeological knowledge as co-author.

Much as I had seen in Pennsylvania, archaeologists working in Northern Virginia defined various archaeological groupings of sites, but their connection to modern American Indian groups is not as clear as we would like. Northern Virginia along the Potomac River was very dynamic, especially during the Late Woodland, and multiple American Indian groups moved through this area. There’s quite a bit of research that needs to be done on all aspects of American Indian archaeology in Northern Virginia and across the state.

Last year, the U.S. government officially recognized six of Virginia’s tribes: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond tribes, following the 2015 recognition of the Pamunkey tribe. What do you hope this book adds to that conversation?

The long overdue official recognition of these tribes reinforces that American Indians have been an important part of, and continue to be an important part of, Virginia’s past and its present. This book contributes to exploring and asking questions about the centuries upon centuries of American Indian heritage that are not in history books that focus only on the last few centuries since Europeans settled these shores.