Prehistoric Landscapes of the Nation's Capital
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.