Rock Springs
Native American Camp Site



• Artifacts
• Site

Broaddus Flats
Assassquin Plantation

Dover Steam Mill

18th Century Cellar

19th Century Kitchen Cellar

Summer Hill
Mehixton Plantation



Rock Springs Archaeological Site (44Hn51)
A Native American Camp Site

by Dan Proctor

The Rock Springs archaeological site was located eight miles west of Ashland, Virginia, on the west side of the South Anna River, a small tributary of the Pamunkey River, in the Lower Piedmont section of the state. Archaeological excavations were conducted under the direction of Daniel Proctor in the mid-1980s on this private property in an area only about 50 feet from the river’s edge on a flat flood plain.

Leverette (Lefty) Gregory and Paul Peebles of the Virginia Foundation for Archaeological Research set up a workable grid and shared other technical assistance before excavations commenced. Dr. L. Daniel Mouer and Douglas McCleran of the Virginia Commonwealth University archeological lab later identified artifacts and analyzed seeds from the features. Col. Howard MacCord, senior state archeologist (ret.), and Lyle Browning of Browning and Associates also aided in the identification of artifacts. Harry Jaeger, later president of the Archeological Society of Virginia, lent a hand as well.

Because of modern tilling in this area, the Rock Springs topsoil was a matrix of sand (mostly) and clay, making sifting for artifacts through a “rat wire” (1/8”) mesh screen an easy task. One excavation unit was taken down to bedrock, a depth of about 2.5 feet below surface.

At no place on the site were artifacts found below 1.5 feet from the surface. Artifacts consisted entirely of chipped stone projectile points, both Archaic and Woodland periods, various chipped stone tools, heat-cracked rocks (from the hearths), debitage (from the reduction of rocks into useful tools and weapons), clay pottery shards, and some discarded faunal remains. (See note later on the only Anglo-American artifact recovered.)

Col. MacCord examined the pottery from Rock Springs and suggested that all of it could be placed into two categories, both based on “tempering,” or what materials the potter added to the clay to get a desired effect in the firing stage of the vessel. Using this criteria, twenty to thirty pottery shards were crushed-shell tempered, and another like number contained shell within a distinctly flattened body. Dr. Mouer described this smooth-sided ware as “colonoid-like” but not fully developed into the classic Colonoware so typically found on late 17th century contact sites in Tidewater Virginia. A great number of pottery shards were sand- or crushed-lithic tempered—Col. MacCord’s second category.

Outside decoration on most of the pottery shards was either fabric-impressed or simple-stamped. Col. MacCord classified these as Albermarle ware. By comparison, none of the Rock Springs pottery resembled shards from the (not too distant) Elk Island site. Dr.Mouer, along with Robin L. Ryder and Elizabeth G. Johnson, excavated this Woodland-era site in 1981 on the James River above Richmond.

About eighty-two chipped stone projectile points were recovered, ranging in prehistory from Early Archaic period Kirk spear points (ca. 10,000 B.P.) to triangular-shaped arrowheads from the more recent Middle Woodland period (ended ca. 1400s). Thirty-one, or over one-third, of the projectile points were triangular; none were of the very small type associated with the Late Woodland and Contact (with Anglo-Americans) periods.

Quartz and quartzite were the predominate materials used in the projectile points, representing 67 percent and 18 percent respectively, or 85 percent of the total. Other materials in descending order of use were shale, chert, rhylolite, slate and jasper. Unusual lithic tools recovered included a “thumb-nail” scraper, usually associated with the Early Archaic period, made of a material half jasper and half agate. Mrs. Lucy Stone of The Stone Galleries described this material as “jasagate,” and noted its rarity in Virginia. Another rare jasper tool was found—a well-made 2” x 2” scraper of good quality red jasper and fashioned into an equilateral triangle.

The only Anglo-American artifact found was a colonial or early-American gunflint, identified by Lyle Browning. No metal objects or trade goods were recovered from the excavation units. Features on the Rock Springs site were limited to a hearth, three possible post molds and one trash pit, where approximately half of the triangular (Middle Woodland) projectile points were found. This pit, comprised of a dark, humic loam, additionally yielded many pottery shards and some bone fragments (food remains).

Artifacts and features retrieved from the Rock Springs site gave excavators a fairly clear picture of how this site was used and for how long. Projectile point “types” run nearly the entire span of the Archaic period (minus Clovis) in the Piedmont area: Kirk corner-notched, Guilford, Big Sandy (possibly a Taylor side-notched), possibly a Palmer, Lamoka (or Cornelius), Halifax, Morrow Mountain II, Bare Island, Savannah River and Calvert. These suggest to archeologists that the Rock Springs site was used for hunting and / or camping from perhaps as early as 10,000 B.P. The early pottery and arrowheads tell us that Indians occupied the site from the Early to Middle Woodland periods. Lack of certain evidence, such as very small triangular arrowheads, probably indicates Indians had stopped camping here by the Late Woodland period (ca. A.D. 1500).

As is the case often in archaeology, when an excavation is finished, you end up with more questions than you had when you started. The Rock Springs site was no exception. Who were these bands of people? Were they related to each other through the many centuries? Or were they from a far-off land, attracted to Central Virginia by favorable hunting and fishing ? During which season of the year did these people favor the Rock Springs site? Were the people who made the colonoid-like pottery the inventors of this technique or had they learned it from another band? Who made the unusual jasper side scraper? Was this material found in the nearby river and then worked into a usable tool by a, more or less, indigenous inhabitant, or was this rock brought into the area from the mountains far to the west by a new group passing through? Most interestingly, was the classic “thumb-nail” scraper, made of the exotic material jasagate, brought to Rock Springs during the Early Archaic period or was it, more importantly, from the earlier Paleo period in North American history (ca. 12,000 B.P.)?

But then, pondering these questions is what makes archaeology so interesting and fun.

“Don’t read what we have written; look at what we have done.”
—James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten

Date posted: 4.14.04