- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

RILEYVILLE, Va. (AP) — From as far away as Georgia and Arizona, amateur archaeologists have gathered in the woods of Page County for the thrill of unearthing a piece of pottery or a carved deer bone.

Under the guidance of professionals with the U.S. Forest Service, the group is scraping aside dirt at a 16th-century American Indian settlement, searching for remnants of the civilization.

Researchers think the site could be one of the most important in the state, partly because it bears clues about the first Indian contact with Europeans.

As many as 100 volunteers for the Forest Service and the Archaeological Society of Virginia have worked this month on the excavation site, in the northern part of the county in a clearing just off the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

So far, the effort has turned up mostly 500-year-old trash, which is “the best stuff to find,” said Michael Barber, an archaeologist with the Forest Service in Roanoke.

“Broken pottery and tools, remnants of meals — if you want to know about people, the trash is the best way to get to know them,” he said.

Mr. Barber pieced together two parts of a deer bone that had been cut and sharpened lengthwise into a foot-long tool.

Known as a “beamer,” the tool was used to scrape hair and fat from deer hide. An abundance of them would signify that the settlement, which probably had about 200 residents, was part of a growing eastern trade in deer skin, coveted by the newly arrived European settlers, Mr. Barber said.

The site first was excavated in 1939, when it still was owned by a local farming family. The Forest Service has owned the land for about 30 years, Mr. Barber said.

Although state archaeologists long have been aware of the importance of the area, getting enough hands to explore it has been a challenge, said Joel Hardison, president of the Archaeological Society.

The Forest Service attracted volunteers through its “Passport In Time” heritage program, which allows amateurs to share in archaeological and historic research.

The society brought in volunteers as one of its annual field schools, where ordinary people can hone or apply their skills, Mr. Hardison said.

“We have people who do it year after year,” he said. “This is their passion. They’ve always had an interest in archaeology, but they’ve never had the chance to do it firsthand.”

The excavation in the remote portion of the northern Shenandoah Valley wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers, Mr. Hardison said.

Since July 12, workers young and old have been clearing, scraping and cataloging pieces of cookware and tools.

They also have carefully examined discolorations beneath the surface that might indicate a cooking area or a post that held up a home or a settlement palisade, the workers said.

Bev Barker, a third-grade teacher at Clover Hill Elementary School in Chesterfield County, has trained with the society for several years to be a field technician.

“Just having the chance to get involved in this program has been an amazing experience for me,” Miss Barker said. She is thrilled, she added, “that someone can sort of come off the streets with a desire to learn about it and … learn excavation.”

Her dig square has been the “calamity square,” Miss Barker joked. It has had walls collapse and a local cow prance over the meticulously sectioned depressions.

But she did make a beamer discovery that increased the dig’s count to 12 scrapers, and the site’s overall count to 100.

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