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From 400 to 400

Long-lost community was Virginia’s center of power from 1200 until it was abandoned in 1609.

Four hundred years is a long time, certainly a milestone when people can look back at their achievements and also look ahead toward the future. It’s an opportunity for reflection, commemoration and deliberation. It can also be a moment of violent change, at least in Virginia.

Shortly after the residents of the Powhatan chiefdom at Werowocomoco were marking their 400th anniversary, three ships arrived from a distant continent and made their mark on the future.

Today, 400 years later, those buried relics from 1200 to 1609 are emerging from the ground in Gloucester County and telling the story of what Virginia was like before John Smith arrived on the Susan Constant.

"We’re now commemorating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, but this is a community that was already 400 years old when John Smith arrived," said Martin Gallivan, assistant professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary. "There’s a rich and complicated history to this place, and its story tends to get muffled in all the attention to English history."

On May 23, Gallivan will attempt to broaden the conversation about the 400 years of Jamestown by delivering a lecture titled "Archaeological Investigations at Werowocomoco, Political Center of the Powhatan Chiefdom." Gallivan’s lecture will outline his work conducing archaeological research at Werowocomoco under the auspices of the Werowocomoco Research Group, a collaborative entity that combines William and Mary researchers with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and representatives from Virginia tribes descended from the Powhatans.

"This is a site with what archeologists call 'unique evidence,'" said Gallivan. "It was configured differently than other villages, and the evidence suggests that it was a place of ceremony and power."

"POWHATAN" IS A word that can mean different things depending on its context. It can refer to a native leader, his expansive domain and the people undesur his control. A man named Wahunsenacawh assumed the title of Chief Powhatan when he united several Virginia tribes in the 1580s and 1590s. His rise to power at the end of the 16th century created a centralized power structure that surprised the English colonists.

"The English strategy to deal with the native population was based on the Spanish model of divide and conquer," said Randolph Scully, assistant professor of history at George Mason University. "They wanted to exploit divisions, yet they found a centralized power structure that thwarted their strategy."

The center of Powhatan’s chiefdom was a place known as Werowocomoco, a word that can be loosely translated as "the place of the king." Its exact location was unknown until 2001, when a family living in Gloucester County approached the Fairfield Foundation about artifacts they found on their land. The foundation approached the College of William and Mary, who formed a collaborative with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and representatives from Virginia tribes descended from the Powhatans. Archeological digs began in 2003, and now the buried truth is reshaping our modern interpretation of the world John Smith discovered in 1607.

"This is a place that’s been lost to history for hundreds of years," said Alexandria’s City Archeologist Pam Cressy. "And it’s the site of people who have taken an almost mythological status — Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas."

IN THE PAST four years of archeological investigation at the site, a picture of the Powhatan chiefdom has begun to emerge. Gallivan said that the eastern side of the village is unlike any other native village that has been documented, with concentric ditches surrounding a large domestic structure. Rising from the earth, Gallivan suspects he had found the center of power for all Virginia tribes before the Europeans arrived.

France has Paris. America has Washington. And now Powhatan has been reunited with Werowocomoco.

"I am particularly interested in exploring how the colonial process in the Chesapeake was externally induced by the English but was orchestrated internally by native communities using their own cultural logic," said Gallivan. "The Werowocomoco project is innovative for the region in that it has involved members of Virginia's Indian tribes at every step. Danielle Moretti-Langholtz of the William and Mary American Indian Resource Center has been instrumental in shaping this collaborative effort."

Researches believe that the settlement was originally established around 1200. Archeological evidence shows that residents farmed corn, beans and squash in addition to hunting and fishing. About a century later, residents began to expand the settlement, cutting down many trees and constructing an open plaza in the interior of the site surrounded by two large ditch features. Within this space, Gallivan believes, Chief Powhatan received English visitors from 1607 through 1609. His lecture will be an effort to come to terms with what happened there.

"This is one in a series of lectures we have scheduled to mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, and it’s going to be a humdinger," said Cressy. "It’s really amazing that this stuff survived, and it’s even more amazing that it’s now being rediscovered 400 years later."