Five Cool Ancient Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm [Photos]

Fredericksburg is famous for its colonial and Civil War history – but what about before that history?  Decades of archaeological excavations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm have revealed millennia of human development and technology from pre-historic Native American Clovis spearpoints to 18th-century wig curlers and beyond.  While our main focus rests on young George Washington’s story, nearly 25% of all artifacts ever found at Ferry Farm have actually been Native American in origin with many dating thousands of years into the past.  Here are five cool ancient artifacts found at Ferry Farm…

Jasper Drill: The above is the tip of a jasper drill.  It may have been adapted from a spear point, which was not uncommon.  When a spear point broke or became too short from re-sharpening sometimes they were turned into other tools.  This particular drill likely dates to around 8,000 BCE to 6,000 BCE.

Clovis Point: Also, jasper, this spear point (shown above) is our oldest artifact and dates to between 13,500 BCE – 11,000 BCE.  To learn more about it, visit our previous blog post here.

Ground Stone Axes: These two axes (depicted above) were found together.  They’re made of Catoctin metabasalt, which is also often called ‘greenstone’.  They were in use from 3000 BCE – 1000 BCE.

Mystery Bead: This large partial bead (shown in the two photos above) is a bit of a conundrum.  It’s made from non-local sandstone and is heavily weathered.  To further the mystery, it was found with the stone axes discussed above and the chunkey stone discussed below, leaving us to believe these artifacts were part an amateur archaeologist’s collection and may not have been brought here by people indigenous to Virginia.

Chunkey Stone: The doughnut-shaped stone (in the above photo) is made from quartzite and is part of a game called chunkey which was invented around 600 CE.  To learn more about our chunkey stone, check out our recent blog post here.

See these and other artifacts during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Techology at Ferry Farm this Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm.  Enjoy a family-friendly day focused on early human technology! Scheduled demonstrations by members of EXARC, a global network of experimental archaeology professionals and other experts, include flint knapping, throwing spears using atlatls, making Viking glass beads, 18th century stone carving, and much more.  Experimental Archaeology demonstrations begin at 11am.  Dive into hands-on activities like an archaeological dig, see a sampling of the thousands of Native American artifacts excavated at Ferry Farm, and visit with members of the Patawomeck tribe.  Admission is $9 for adults, $4.50 for students,  and free for under age 6.  To learn more, visit ferryfarm.org.

When Games are Serious Business: Chunkey

Sometimes games are just fun but sometimes games can make you or break you. This is the case with chunkey, a Native American game.  Invented around 600 AD by indigenous peoples of the Cahokia region (near modern day St. Louis, Missouri), chunkey was a popular game that spread across much of North America.  There were variations in the rules, depending on the cultures playing it, but the basic premise was that a large ground stone disc (a chunkey) was rolled across a level field by a player. One or multiple players from the opposing side would then throw sticks (also called chunkey) underhanded at the stone, aiming to get as close as possible or to touch the stone once it stopped rolling.  Chunkey stones took time to make, were considered valuable, and were often communal property of a village.

Although the game could be played casually, Chunkey tournaments were a big deal with much pageantry and costumes, often drawing people from far away to participate and watch.  Think of it as an ancient Super Bowl.  Gambling was common at these events with players risking everything, including their honor, on the outcome.  Reportedly some unfortunate defeated players killed themselves after a loss.

Chunkey continued to be played after Europeans arrived in North America and was subsequently documented by some who frequented the events.  However, sometime in the mid-19th century, the game lost favor, likely as a result of the decimation of indigenous cultures by those same Europeans.

“Tchung-kee, a Mandan Game Played with a Ring and Pole” (1832-3) by George Catlin depicts Native Americans playing chunkey. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

This brings us to the chunkey stone excavated at Ferry Farm.  Visitors who see it immediately note that it looks like a stone doughnut.  Personally I believe it to be one of our coolest artifacts.

Chunkey stone excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Oddly enough, this chunkey was found suspiciously close to three other prehistoric artifacts, not all of which belong on an archaeological site in Virginia.  Two stone axes and an odd bead were recovered right next to the chunkey in soils that were plowed which caused the mixing of artifacts from different time periods.  The axes date to the late archaic period (3,000 BCE – 1,000 BC) while the chunkey stone, as stated above is thousands of years younger.  Additionally, the bead, which is still a bit of a mystery, is a type of sandstone not found in Virginia.

So does this mean that indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago were playing chunkey on a site that would eventually be George Washington’s home?  Maybe…but maybe not.  When you add all of these factors together it starts to look more and more like these items were collected in the historic period and did not necessarily belong to any tribes living at Ferry Farm. The English and their colonists were prodigious collectors of natural and Native American artifacts.  Famous colonial collectors include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The chunkey stone and these other Native American artifacts are still very cool finds but definitely a reminder that removing artifacts from their original location without preserving their context greatly limits how archaeologists can interpret them.  And, in this case, may throw archaeologists a bit of a curve ball …er, a curve chunkey!

Play a version of chunkey during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Technology at Ferry Farm on Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm.  For more details, visit kenmore.org.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Ferry Farm’s Oldest Artifact

Many visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm are surprised to learn that about a quarter of the 750,000 artifacts excavated by Ferry Farm’s archaeologists were created by Native Americans. However, given that indigenous people were living in the land we call Virginia for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, it makes perfect sense. The vast majority of these Native American artifacts are stone flakes that are the byproduct of stone tool manufacture (think sawdust or wood shavings from carpentry, but stone) and date to the Archaic period (or 10,000–3,200 years before the present day). A very few are even older. In fact, Ferry Farm’s oldest datable artifact is the basal fragment of an ancient jasper dart point made by a people belonging to what we call the Clovis culture.

Clovis points from Iowa's Rummells-Maske Site

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site in Iowa. These are in the collection of the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist. Credit: Bill Whittaker / Wikipedia

The Clovis culture were some of the earliest inhabitants of North America, and was named after the Clovis “type site” (an archaeological site where a certain culture or artifact type is first recognized) near the town of Clovis, New Mexico. The Clovis people made distinctive projectile points immediately recognizable by their lanceolate or narrow oval shape that tapers to a point at one end and the presence of “flutes” on their bases. These flutes are narrow channels where flakes of stone were carefully removed from both sides of the point to make it thinner. The fluted point could then easily be slid into a notched wooden or bone shaft- a process called hafting- to make a knife or dart (more on darts below). The sides of the point would be ground near the base to dull them so the point could be secured in its haft with sinew or cordage without cutting through these bindings.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point

Base or Proximal end of a Jasper Clovis point recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point diagram

The Clovis people were well known for being picky about their lithic (stone) materials and traveled long distances to procure them. The closest quarry from which they could have obtained jasper to make Ferry Farm’s point is in Culpeper, at least 35 miles away. The people who made this dart point may have manufactured it here as we also have numerous flakes of this same jasper.

Jasper Flakes

Jasper flakes similar to the material of the Clovis point — a byproduct of stone tool manufacture — that were excavated at Ferry Farm.

Clovis points date to a fairly narrow period from roughly 13,500 to about 12,800 years ago, and are found almost everywhere in North America, from the Southwest to New England. One of the interesting things about Clovis culture is that it is so widespread- no later cultures made artifacts that are found across such a vast area. It’s even more interesting to consider that these points got deposited all across North America in such a relatively short time span of maybe 700 years. This begs the question: What moved? Was it the people making the Clovis points? Or was it the technique of making the Clovis points? Was there a particular group of fluted-point-making people sprinting across the North American or were there already enough people on the pre-Clovis landscape that it the idea of making fluted points just spread from group to group? Archaeologists are working to answer these questions.

As mentioned, one use for Clovis points were in darts. These darts were not like you throw at a dartboard in a bar. In this context, a dart is like a spear but with a more flexible and lightweight shaft that can fly farther and with greater velocity. Greater distance and speed are achieved by launching the dart with a spear thrower called an atlatl (pronounced “at-lattle”). The atlatl essentially acts as an extension of the arm, creating a longer lever that pushes the dart farther and faster by applying more force with less energy. Although Clovis points were probably multi-purpose tools used as both knives and projectile points. As projectile points, they were likely used on atlatl darts for hunting. Although the extent to which Clovis people relied on meat from such huge creatures is debatable, they probably used their fluted points to bring down a few mammoths and mastodons, at least in the western United States.

What do you think the owner of the Ferry Farm Clovis point was doing with theirs when they lost it? We may never know, but what we do know is that it gives us evidence that people were living along the Rappahannock River nearly 13,000 years ago. We can still find their tools and those tools piece together the whole story of Ferry Farm’s landscape and people!

Joseph Blondino, Archaeologist
Field Director, Dovetail Cultural Resource Group

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor, The George Washington Foundation

Video – Experimental Archaeology: Stone Tool Making

Archaeologists at Ferry Farm regularly find evidence of ‘expedient’ tool making by Native Americans. These quickly-made tools were created for a single, immediate job and, once used, just discarded. In this video, we break off a flake of obsidian and use it to fillet a fish.

See the other videos in our Experimental Archaeology series: glue-making, stoneboiling, and earth oven cooking.

Video: The Science of History – Experimental Archaeology & Stoneboiling

Archaeologists sometimes recreate technology from the past to understand how people lived. This is called experimental archaeology. Native American occupation of Ferry Farm left behind many artifacts including fire-cracked rocks. This video shows how those rock artifacts were made through a cooking technique known as stoneboiling.

See the first video in our Science of History series here.