A partnership between the College of William & Mary and the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station is illuminating the existence of a tribe of Native Americans whose lives intersected with the Jamestown settlers in the earliest years of colonization.
Capt. John Smith spent Christmas of 1608 among the Kiskiak people, years before they were driven across the York River by the expansion of the English colony.
Smith’s diary entry about that journey and subsequent visits indicated the Kiskiak village was likely located at what is now the site of the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station.
Bruce Larson, the Cultural Resources director for Naval Facilities Engineering Command, estimates that, based on the description in Smith’s diaries, archaeologists and historians have suspected the village was located near the Weapons Station for at least 50 years.
In compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Navy completed an archaeological survey in the late 1990s that would inform future decisions about where not to build on the property.
Unfortunately, the timing of the completion of the survey was not ideal; the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened shortly after it was finished, and resources that may have gone toward further exploration of the site were diverted to defense spending.
Between 2001 and 2002, Larson developed an initiative that identified around 150 sites on the property that are considered “scientifically interesting.” Though these sites were safe from further development, progress slowed due to lack of resources.
In 2010, Larson approached Dr. Martin Gallivan at William & Mary about the possibility of starting a field school during the summer months that would provide student archaeologists with the opportunity to work on digs in the area, as well as restart progress on sites like the Naval Weapons Station dig.
This past June marked the third year at Kiskiak for the field study. Students at the site unearthed more evidence of the Kiskiaks’ rich life along the York River, including clam and oyster shells, animal bones and evidence of abundant crops being grown in the village.
Perhaps most interesting is the exploration that began this summer of a unique architectural feature, the remnants of what appears to be a palisade, or a shallow ditch with vertical poles positioned at intervals along its length.
The palisade, if that is what it in fact turns out to be, may have been used to enclose a number of different things, ranging from marking the perimeter of the village to distinguishing a ceremonial space.
“There’s nothing quite like this on this side of the York River,” Larson said of the find.
In addition to the discovery of the palisade, a wealth of artifacts and evidence of other architectural features turned up in the monthlong excavation.
Part of the appeal of the Weapon Station’s dig site is the unprecedented level of preservation that has been able to occur there.
“What’s really key is the level of integrity of the site,” Larson said. “Just a few centimeters down it becomes a time capsule of sorts.”
This is due to the fact that the site of the Weapons Station is virtually unplowed, an anomaly in a region where most land has at one point or another been used for agricultural purposes. Because the earth has not been turned, the layer of artifacts, some of which can be carbon-dated back to the 1300s, is just below the surface and largely undisturbed.
This summer, the field school worked on an area of about 36 square meters. With so much left to discover, the partnership between William & Mary and the Naval Weapons Station is expected to be extended for more years.
“The work that William and Mary did was really exemplary,” Larson said. “This has been an extremely successful collaboration.”
Larson expects future finds to continue to verify the oral and written tradition that alerted researchers to the likely presence of the village in the first place, and possibly even add new information to what is already known about the powerful Kiskiak tribe.
“This project allows us to dive into the true and tangible history of early American history as well as Native American history, and the combining of those cultures,” Larson said. “It is truly a unique site.”