Digging more than a foxhole at Fort Pickett

The Virginia National Guard Cultural Resources Management Program complete the final phase of an archaeology site evaluation March 22, 2017, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Amanda J. Johnson)

The Virginia National Guard Cultural Resources Management Program complete the final phase of an archaeology site evaluation March 22, 2017, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Amanda J. Johnson)

FORT PICKETT, Va. — Atop a green pasture spotted with wandering cattle at the junction of the Nottoway and Little Nottoway rivers, a team of archaeologists studied the soil of four trenches, each one about 12 inches deep. The archaeology site, investigated by a team of archaeologists March 22, 2017, is just one of the hundreds of similar sites undergoing excavation for the Virginia National Guard Cultural Resources Management Program, or CRMP.

“We have between 25-33% of Fort Pickett covered at this point,” said Christopher Parr, the archaeologist and collections manger for the Virginia National Guard, who works at Fort Pickett. According to Parr, an archaeology site is any location that has evidence of previous human occupation or use that is older than 50 years. “Within that, we have around 500 archaeology sites and  100 cemeteries.”

Dr. Elizabeth J. Monroe, project archaeologist from the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, explained some of the basics. In order to determine whether this site, dubbed 44NT0042, was a village or a series of superimposed campsites, WMCAR looked at the numbers and the specific features present at the site. “At a village, we’d expect to find more features, including ones for storage and more permanent structures,” Monroe explained. Features, she said, are identified by discoloration and different soil elements in the excavated earth.

Monroe used the example of camping in comparison for what the team looks for. Long term campers have a pit for trash or for food storage to keep it away from animals. They also would build rigid permanent structures. This is what archaeologists look for in the ground.

“This site was first identified in 1994,” said Monroe. “In 2007, the Conservation Management Institute systematically tested the whole area using shovel tests and a bucket auger. Site 44NT0042 is primarily a Native American site dating as early as the Paleo-Indian period, or about about 10,000 year ago, but mainly to the Middle and Late Woodland periods, from A.D. 300 to around 1600.”

There were many signs of earlier occupations found there, including a fluted point, an arrowhead shaped artifact, which as Monroe described is characteristic of the Paleo-Indian people who lived in the area about 10,000 years ago. This site could be a village or a number of temporary camp sites superimposed over one another through time.

For a site to be declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, integrity and research value are evaluated, said Parr. Integrity refers to the placement of different aged artifacts within the layers of earth, while research value involves the quantity of dateable artifacts or features, such as houses or storage pits. Eligible sites are off-limits for training, development or other  activities that could disturb the ground.

“Finishing up the field work on this project will be an accomplishment,” said Parr. He wants to find a different and effective way to get stories about the archaeological array of Fort Pickett out to the public. “Build up a little bit of pride not just here at Pickett, but out at the armories too,” he said.

Parr described the diversity of archaeology sites across the state from the prehistoric, to preserved Civil War fortifications at Petersburg, to World War II artifacts.

As buckets of dirt were discarded from the trench, the team of archaeologists meticulously scoured the earth in a forgotten corner of Fort Pickett, searching for hidden history and another story to tell.

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