Last updated: April 16, 2020
In 1996 and 1997, Parsons Engineering Science conducted archeological excavations of the Whitehurst Freeway Corridor for the DC Department of Public Works. The project was done under an Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) permit issued by the National Park Service. Excavations at the eastern end of the roadway, near the location where Rock Creek drains into the Potomac River, yielded both prehistoric and historical archeological resources.
Three archeological sites were identified as a result of this work: The Peter House, Ramp 3, and Whitehurst West. These sites offered archeologists a number of excavation challenges.
The Peter House
Foundations from 18th and 19th century houses were built directly over intact prehistoric deposits. The gully ran beneath the sidewalk north of the houses. During late prehistory, the drainage was filled. It contained stratified, charcoal-rich deposits with large amounts of fire-cracked rock, flaking debris from stone tool making, and broken bits of pottery, or sherds, in sufficient numbers to indicate that the surface had been stable and open for an extended period of time.
Artifacts ranged in date from Middle Archaic projectile points (6500-3000 B.C.) to Late Woodland points and ceramics (900-1600 A.D.), with the Middle and Late Woodland periods most frequently represented (the time from about 500 B.C. to 1600 A.D.—click here to view prehistoric time chart). Over time, a series of deposits was formed through a combination of trash dumping from a large site located upslope and other activities. Two intact hearths, dating to the early Late Woodland period, contained fire-cracked rock and sherds. Charred organic materials found on the inner surfaces of some sherds were dated to around 1100 A.D.
This exhibit highlights three archeological sites identified as a result of this work: The Peter House, Ramp 3, and Whitehurst West. These sites offered archeologists a number of excavation challenges. For a brief discussion on how these hurdles were overcome, see Excavating the Whitehurst Freeway Sites.
Plant remains from one of the features included bedstraw, pokeweed, and wild grape, all with known prehistoric food and medicinal uses. Dates on samples from the surrounding deposit ranged from 970 to 1090 A.D. Dates from the lowest levels of the deposit ranged from 260 B.C. to 180 A.D., which convincingly places the main occupations within the Middle to early Late Woodland periods.
About 100 meters (328 ft) to the west of the Peter House lay the Ramp 3 site, at the edge of the Rock Creek Parkway. Historic maps show the shoreline approximately 75 meters (246 ft) to the west of the site in the 18th century, as it is today. Beneath the historical remains of Reed Alley was an intact prehistoric deposit that dated to the Late Woodland period.
Below a Late Woodland deposit was a shallow pit capped with large stones, designated as Feature 283. The feature measured 70 cm in width (27.3 in). The fill was a reddish brown to black coarse sandy loam, which contained burned earth and charred, partially burned wood. The artifact assemblage included a large slate pendant and a smaller schist pendant, 14 Great White shark teeth, a large triangular black chert knife blade, a stone phallus, severely burned human and large bird bone, 83 fragments of burned antler which mended into a comb, six antler disks, one wooden bead, and small pieces of preserved textile made from plant fibers. Other plant remains included walnut, pokeweed, and magnolia. The feature radiocarbon dated from 640 to 790 A.D.
On the basis of the evidence at hand, the following hypotheses can be made. The pit, Feature 283, contained the cremated remains and grave goods of a high status individual. Upon death, the body was cremated. Cremation did not occur in Feature 283. Rather, this pit represents the final resting place of the deceased. The cremated remains were removed from the cremation location and placed in the pit with artifacts, including the pendants, phallus, antler comb, and, possibly, plant remains. A ceremonial fire was lighted and then extinguished as the pit was filled. This hypothesis is supported by the presence of large, partially-burned branches and other grave goods. The pit then was capped with large stones.
Feature 283 and its contents are not typical of late Middle Woodland burials in the Middle Atlantic region of the United States. Rather they are similar to burials from archeological sites in the Northeast studied by William Ritchie. Collectively, these sites represent an archeological culture named the Kipp Island phase by Dr. Ritchie. Artifacts from Kipp Island phase burials discovered in Ontario, Canada, and upstate New York are similar to those found at Whitehurst and two other sites in Virginia—the Bowman Mound site in Rockingham County and the Hand site in Southampton County. The assemblages also bear some similarities to examples found at the Island Field site in Delaware.
The Whitehurst West site lay on a terrace adjacent to Rock Creek, west of the Rock Creek Parkway. It is now about 45 meters (148 ft) east of the stream bank and 2 meters (7 ft) above high tide.
The lowest level is a natural gravel bar lying on Ice Age river deposits. This level may have been exposed during the latter part of the Late Archaic, as evidenced by a radiocarbon date of 2650 B.C. Later, the surface was open and occupied in the middle of the Woodland period, based upon the ceramics and stone artifacts found with fire-cracked rock, cobbles, charcoal, and gravel. This thick deposit was named Feature 502.
Radiocarbon dates taken from charcoal samples and residues adhering to sherds from Feature 502 ranged from 770 to 990 A.D. Dates for the deposit overlying Feature 502 ranged from 1210 to 1260 A.D. The uppermost layer dated to 1640 A.D. More than 4.25 meters (14 ft) of historic fill overlaid the prehistoric deposits in this location.
The presence and distribution of artifacts and animal bone in this feature suggested that the spatial arrangement of the deposit had been preserved to some degree. Many small pieces of burned animal bone were recovered, along with plant remains from pokeweed, hickory nut, walnut, raspberry, and blackberry. Organic remains adhering to some sherds provided evidence of the processing of grass seed and a tuber related to the potato.
The three Whitehurst sites, located near the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River, are in a prime location below the Great Falls of the Potomac. The fall line was important to prehistoric peoples for three reasons: (1) it was a point of contact between different groups or cultures; (2) it was a point where people could control access to critical seasonal resources; and, (3) it was a point of constriction where people could control a regional trade artery.
During the late winter and early spring anadromous fish, like herring, leave the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay to spawn in fresh water. The late winter and early spring fish runs below the Great Falls of the Potomac provided the area's Woodland populations with an ample source of protein during the leanest months of the year. Deposits dating to 970 to 1090 A.D., at the Peter House site, point to a large settlement upslope on the high terrace. At Whitehurst West, Feature 502 may represent the refuse from an early Late Woodland village strategically located to take advantage of the fish runs.
Feature 283 is a burial that contained the cremated remains of a person, probably a 30 to 40 year old woman, who was reburied in a pit with a collection of ceremonial goods. The assemblage, dating from 640 to 790 A.D., dates to the same period as Dr. William Ritchie's Kipp Island phase. Similar artifact groupings have been found with burials and cremations from Ontario, Canada, south to the Hand site in southeastern Virginia.
The cremated remains of the person buried at Whitehurst Freeway and the other persons buried with exotic Kipp Island phase artifacts probably represent the heads of lineages engaged in the trade of goods that brought status and power to the recipients. All the prestige goods involved in this exchange had a high value-to-weight ratio—their value as exotic, high-status goods was far greater than their actual weight—making it easier for such valuable objects to be traded over great distances.
At Whitehurst Freeway, the real power behind the lineage head probably was control by that person's lineage over access to the spring fish runs. The elaborate burial ritual was a symbol of the importance of the lineage to the larger culture of which it was a part. More important, the trade network of exotic Kipp Island phase artifacts and attendant burial ritual, extending from Ontario, Canada, to southeastern Virginia, probably represents both the route marker and the time marker for the movement of Algonquian-speaking peoples from their Proto-Algonquian homeland in the vicinity of Lakes Ontario and Erie into the Chesapeake Bay watershed ca. 700-800 A.D.
Excavating the Whitehurst Freeway Sites – Challenges
Archeological testing in the Whitehurst Freeway Corridor revealed that intact archeological resources were buried beneath anywhere from 3 to 17 feet of historic fill. Filling along the banks of Rock Creek began as early as the first quarter of the nineteenth century when the excavation of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal resulted in the availability of fill that was used to reclaim swampy areas near the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River. For example, the nearby Watergate Hotel is located on ground that would have been mudflats in the eighteenth century. The filling continued throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
The area closest to K Street near the Peter House site was capped with the least fill, measuring less than 3 feet in depth. As the ground sloped down toward Rock Creek, the depth of fill increased, with about 8 feet of historic fill above Feature 283 at Ramp 3 and 14 feet of fill over Feature 502 at Whitehurst West. In order to remove the fill to reach undisturbed archeological features and layers, a backhoe was used. Upon encountering intact archeological deposits, hand excavation began.
Archeological excavations complied with OSHA safety standards, either utilizing a 1.5:1 slope or employing benching or shoring. Whitehurst West, located closest to Rock Creek, was excavated in the winter of 1996-1997. Water problems were encountered because of the proximity to Rock Creek and the wetness of the season. Well points were drilled to allow for excavation by lowering the water table. Because of the depth of the excavation (14 feet below ground surface) and limitations in expanding the trench, due to the proximity to the Rock Creek Parkway and a jogging path, shoring was constructed to assure safety. A shelter was built over the excavations to protect the archeologists from the cold and allow research to continue in sub-freezing temperatures.