Remains of ancient native village found near Athens, Ohio

Local archaeologists and Ohio University students are excavating the site of a 2,400-year-old Native American tribal village at a site west of Athens. 

Ohio University students collect data from a site of what could be among the earliest Native American settlements in Ohio Wednesday near Athens. The small village probably dates back to 400 BC [Credit: Dustin Franz/Athens News]
Co-director of the dig Paul Patton, who is using the information collected from the site along with other sites throughout the region to complete his doctoral dissertation at Ohio State University, began investigating the site in 2010 when his parents purchased the property. 

Upon discovering artifacts, Patton contacted OU professor of anthropology Elliot Abrams to run his field school on the site. The class soon uncovered "features" — structures that are dug in the ground that reflect past housing, such as hearths and posts. Because features were found during the first field school season, Abrams suggested running a second field school on the site this summer.   

Now Patton and Abrams are busy conducting 20 students from Abrams' Field Study Ohio Archaeology class to further investigate the site. The class gives students the chance to perform real research while gaining an introduction into how to dig a site and learn the fundamental skills of excavation. 

So far, they have uncovered the outline of at least three houses showing interior and exterior hearths and exterior storage facilities. Abrams noted that since the site goes so far into the past, before any historically recognizable tribes, it's too soon to identify the tribe that it belonged to.  

He explained that the formalized configuration of a residential zone, a cooking area and a trash deposit area corresponds to people being settled. 

"We know we have that (structure) at A.D. 1, but now we're pushing it to 400 B.C. and we might even push it further back in time, and that would really be a pretty good contribution," Abrams said. 

He added that the site will provide botanical data to add to the understanding of the historical process of the transition from hunting and gathering to horticulture and then to agriculture. 

"We have a lot villages from all different time periods, so then we can kind of connect, in a sense, what they're doing in one village from another time period in a comparable village," he said. 

Patton, an archaeobotanist from Nelsonville, said that part of the bigger picture of his efforts is to look for when those changes occurred and what those transformations have to do with changes in technology and in the levels of mobility in the native architecture. 

By doing so, he said, he'll be able "to argue that these things co-evolved together, and the big suite of human changes of farming, of residential stability and technological investment are all directly related to one another." 

Recent OU graduate Sarah Karpinski, who studied anthropology at the university, is part of the class investigating the site. She explained that while doing shovel shavings, which involves lightly scraping across the top surface of the soil that's being removed, a feature can be identified by even just a slight difference in the color of the soil. Next, the person will find roughly the middle of the feature and start to dig down while collecting the soil in labeled plastic bags. This creates pockets sometimes more than 20 centimeters deep. 

If this sounds painstaking, it is. 

"It's like a labor of love," Karpinski said. "I got blisters all over my hands but it's worth it; I love it." 

Patton said that after the soil is collected from the features, he pours it into a flotation machine that uses running water to allow the seeds and botanical materials to float to the top while any clay, silt or artifacts settle to the bottom. 

"So from that, we then screen it off, and I analyze it using a microscope to actually try to see what plant materials are present in the different features and reconstruct prehistoric diet from that," he said. 

Patton said he has already found domesticated tobacco and sunflower, again indicating that the tribe was sedentary.  

Abrams said that this site represents the earliest settled formal village that he has seen. 

"I think it's safe to say the Hocking Valley now has comparably, if not more, domestic village sites than any other tributary of the Ohio (River)," he said. "Hocking Valley and Athens County is a very rich archaeological area, and this just reminds people of that." 

Author: Daniella Limoli | Source: The Athens News [June 27, 2012]

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