Shedding Light on Early History

Shedding Light on Early History

Archaeologist uses finds to learn about Fairfax County's native inhabitants.

Beneath the townhouses and roads of Fairfax County, beneath the soil and creek beds, lies the area's earliest history. Using underground artifacts, Fairfax County Park Authority archaeologist Mike Johnson pieced together information about the native history of the county, presenting the history at the Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center Sunday, Jan. 8.

"History is all around us," said museum curator Susan Gray. "It's still being found today." But because the last group of American Indians left the Fairfax County area in the 17th century, the native history of the area is nowhere near as familiar as the history of George Washington or George Mason, said Johnson.

About 20,000 years ago, said Johnson, Paleo-Americans hunted mammoths, bison and large horses. The mammoths died out around 13,000 years ago, he said, likely because of a dramatic climate drop and over-hunting by humans.

One of the weapons used at the time was the Clovis point, an oblong arrowhead shape which is found across Fairfax County.

The differences among Clovis points show the technological ability of prehistoric people in the area, said Johnson. "People think Clovis is a monolith, but it isn't," he said. "There are differences."

INNOVATION AROUND 3,000 years ago led native people to begin carving bowls out of soapstone. Fairfax County has a few soapstone quarries that may have been used by area natives, said Johnson, such as one recently found near Kamp Washington. About 1,500 years ago, native people started using bows and arrows rather than spears to hunt, said Johnson. They began growing things, adopting an agricultural farming method and becoming more sedentary.

The years around A.D. 1250 saw the settling of the Moyumpse people in the Fairfax County area. Moyumpse villages congregated around Mason Neck, said Johnson, but because of resources and quarry locations, individual camps dispersed farther north into Fairfax County.

Soapstone bowls led to clay pots, which provide a wealth of information about the people who made them. "We can look at pottery motifs to date and identify Moyumpse heritage," said Johnson.

Moyumpse pottery suggests that they had a sophisticated knowledge of their environment. "They weren't really just surviving," said Johnson. "They had mastered this."

They were also known as the Dogues, although the term was probably pejorative, given by their Powhatan neighbors. The Moyumpse were the victims of raids by the Powhatans to the south and Susquehannocs to the north, he said. Around 1675, they moved out of the area, possibly ending up in Fredericksburg.

Today, archeological sites dating from tens of thousands of years ago to the Moyumpse days are scattered across the Fairfax area. Clovis arrowheads and pottery pieces have turned up in Accotink Creek, and in 2002 researchers found a quartz arrowhead in a site off Pickett Road. Other artifacts have been found in Difficult Run and Popes Head Creek, Johnson said.

— Lea Mae Rice