Prehistoric Archeology in the Park

archological photo
Archeologists use soil to determine when events occured in history.

NPS Photo

Discovering deeply buried archeological sites requires careful planning and special techniques. Archaeologists have succeeded in finding 16 sites in the C & O Canal National Historical Park. Archeologists selected 2 sites for further exploration and made some exciting and significant discoveries.

In the many shallow plow zone sites in piedmont uplands in the Middle Atlantic region, cultural remains from the past 13,000 years jumbled together. Intact sites along the Potomac that are not damaged by erosion contain protected remains of early camps and villages from disturbance either by later prehistoric inhabitants or by historic and recent farmers. Based upon degree of soil weathering the deepest A-horizons in four floodplains date from the Early to Middle Holocene.

Through testing and surveys, archaiologists identify sites within the park. Knowing the location of these sites helps park staff protect against looting or destruction from proposed developments. However, the same erosional processes that have exposed the bank cuts and allowed access to the deepest occupation zones threaten to destroy these sites in the not too distant future. The National Historic Preservation Act and the 1916 Organic Act mandate that the park take steps to preserve these sites.
Photo of arrowheads
Arrowheads are commonly found throughout the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

NPS Photo


Excavations at 18MO572 revealed two A-horizons, the lower one lying about 7 ft below surface. Several typical diagnostic artifacts of the Savannah River Broadspear complex were found within this deposit. Stone tools from this zone were associated with abundant, well preserved charcoal, including carbonized nutshells. Charcoal from this zone has been dated to about 4200 cal BP (3800±40 rcbp, 4290 to 4080 cal BP [Beta-187616]), confirming that the lower horizon dates to the Late Archaic. The upper A-horizon, about 1.5-2 ft below surface, yielded Late Woodland artifacts such as potsherds (ca. AD 1200-1500).

Excavations at 18FR798 revealed a four-horizon cultural sequence: Late Woodland at the top, Early Woodland about 3 ft below surface, a very faint late Middle to Late Archaic horizon at about 5.7 ft, and an Early Archaic and/or Paleoindian zone at ca. 7 to 8 ft below surface. The cultural sequence terminated at a cobble lens. The Early Woodland zone can be dated to about 3000-2500 rcbp, based upon the ceramic sherds recovered: sand- and quartz-tempered Accokeek sherds, steatite-tempered and cord-marked SeldenIsland sherds, and Marcey Creek ware, steatite-tempered, flat-bottomed, and lacking cord-marks. The Middle Archaic zone produced almost no artifacts, but a distinct feature with charcoal, fire-cracked-rock, and calcined bone flecks dated to about 5800 cal BP (5110±40 rcbp, 5740-5930 cal BP [Beta-187613]).

The lowest cultural layer lacked unambiguously diagnostic artifacts, but the lithic assemblage appears mainly to represent an Early Archaic occupation. A stone point fragment from Level D23 (7.7-8 feet below surface), made of black chert, is one corner of a corner-notched, convex-based point with a ground basal margin. Although it was too small to be definitive, the point resembled the Kirk-like points found in one of the deepest cultural zones (Zone 36), radiocarbon-dated to 9850±500 rcbp, at the St. Albans site (Broyles 1971). A pebble chopper was also found. Pebble choppers have not been found in Paleoindian assemblages, but they occur in association with Kirk Corner-notched points at several sites in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, with dates of about 9500 rcbp. In addition, a spokeshave on a red jasper blade-like flake was also recovered.

The lithic debitage was comprised of materials rarely seen in typical Archaic and Woodland assemblages. A tan or amber, translucent chalcedony or jasper appears to be the same stone that was used to make a spurred endscraper (probably Paleoindian), found on the surface of 18MO10, located in the same watershed. The deep zone assemblage at 18FR798 included yellow and red jasper, translucent chalcedony, grey and black chert, quartz, and a considerable amount of rhyolite.

Although the lithic assemblage exhibited both Paleoindian and Early Archaic characteristics, two AMS radiocarbon ages on charcoal fragments of 9290±40 rcbp (10,280-10,570 cal BP) and (from two inches deeper) 8360±40 rcbp (9270-9470 cal BP) (Beta-187614 and 187615) indicate that the occupation dates to the Early Archaic. The lowest zone at 18FR798 is probably a single-component Early Archaic campsite, dating from 10,500 cal BP. We propose that the cobble lens below the lowest cultural level is the result of an Early Holocene scouring episode by the Potomac, the same regional climate-induced event that Al Goodyear (1999) has documented in other river valleys in the southeastern US. It may be a marker of the end of the Younger Dryas at 11,550 cal BP, when there was an abrupt increase in temperature and probably also in rainfall, and consequent erosion of denuded landscapes. If correct, this scouring event provides the earliest possible date for this occupation.


Geoarchaeological testing and archaeological surveys resulted in identification of 16 new sites and relocation of 14 previously known sites. Having been identified and, to some degree, delimited, the sites can be protected by park personnel against looting or destruction by proposed development. However, the same erosional processes that have exposed the bank cuts, allowing access to the deepest occupation zones, also threaten to destroy these sites in the not too distant future. Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act, as amended [P. L. 102-575], states that each Federal agency shall ensure that historic properties under its jurisdiction and which “may be eligible for the National Register are managed and maintained in a way that considers the preservation of their … archaeological …values … and gives special consideration to the preservation of such values in the case of properties designated as having National significance.” Clearly, the deeply stratified sites we have discussed are potentially eligible for listing on the National Register, certainly at the regional level and perhaps at the national. It is equally clear that the NPS, as part of its legal obligation under NHPA and the 1916 Organic Act [P. L. 64-235] that established the agency, must develop and implement a plan to stabilize these archaeological sites in order to “conserve [them] … for the enjoyment of future generations.”

NOTE: One reason for the dearth of investigations of deeply buried sites is that they are not only hard to find but are also difficult to adequately and safely expose. OSHA standards for trenching require very extensive lateral excavation to open holes more than 5 feet in depth.

For more information: Stratified Prehistoric Sites Along the C&O Canal, MAAC March 11, 2005 (.doc) and SAA 2004 (.doc)

Stuart J. Fiedel, Louis Berger Group, and Stephen R. Potter, National Park Service


Broyles, Bettye J.
1971 Second Preliminary Report: the
St. Albans Site, Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1964 1968. Report of Archaeological Investigations 3. West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, Morgantown.

Coe, Joffre L.
1964 The Formative Cultures of the
CarolinaPiedmont. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 54(5). Philadelphia.

Goodyear, Albert C.
1999 The Early Holocene Occupation of the
Southeastern United States: A Geoarchaeological Summary. In Ice Age People of North America, Environments, Origins, and Adaptations, edited by R. Bonnichsen and K. L. Turnmire, pp. 432-481. OregonStateUniversity Press, Corvallis.

Stewart, R. Michael
1991 Archaeology and Environment in the
UpperDelawareValley. In The People of Minisink, Papers from the 1989 DelawareWater Gap Symposium, edited by David G. Orr and Douglas V. Campana, pp. 79-116. National Park Service, Philadelphia.

Last updated: March 17, 2019

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