Olivia Larson- A Spooky Analysis

On an eerie Thursday morning, Dr. McMillan’s class trudged through the still dewy grass, with only clipboards to protect them from the spooky cemetery analysis. Prepared for anything, the students collected data from different gravestones to be analyzed and graphed. Thankfully no ghosts of the townspeople of Fredericksburg past had been spotted, but all our feet did get uncomfortably wet.

It took five class periods in total to complete this in-class project. On days one and two the class collected data from as many gravestones as possible (averaging 20-25 gravestones per student). Students were asked to record names, birth and death years, gender, shape, and treatments of headstones, as well as motifs, epitaphs, and whether they had footstones. We also recorded whether there was a mention of the age of the deceased or if they had a relationship with someone living or dead mentioned was also recorded. While in the field, several patterns began to emerge; gravestones were becoming simpler over time and women were more likely to have a mention of relationship on their headstones. Of course, it is easier to see patterns when all the data are combined.

Day three and four were devoted to cataloging the information that we recorded out in the field. Once all the data were inputted into Excel, we generated percentages for the different categories of information that we recorded. Trends seen in the cemetery were now backed up by actual numbers. Even though individually our sample sizes were small, it was clear that gravestones became more streamlined over time, women were more likely to have mentions of relationships and epitaphs on their headstones and were more likely to have mention of their age as well.

On our last day working on this, the data were pooled together, creating a larger sample size with which to work. Though the trends from the combined data reflected our individual numbers, accuracy was improved by having more information to analyze. Some other patterns that were revealed were that smoother fronts and rusticated sides became very common in the mid-1900s on and that motifs and epitaphs became less frequent over time. These reflect an overall trend in America to move toward simplicity. It is also important to note that cemeteries were once utilized as greenspaces for leisure activities, so gravestones were once multi-purpose: memorializing the dead and decoration to create an attractive park-like atmosphere in an urban setting (Meyer 1992: 261). However, over time this became less popular. This is shown in our data as gravestones became less ornamental; as we move forward through time, gravestone without epitaphs or motifs become increasingly popular. The earliest recorded gravestones (1800-1839) all had epitaphs, which decreases over time to only 8% in the late 1900s. Mentions of Jesus or religious texts also decrease through time, which is correlated with the decrease in religious motifs/imagery; instead, the epitaphs become more personalized focusing on the individual.

Much of these trends were found using seriation, a dating procedure that was originally used in prehistoric archaeology to date ceramics and was developed by James A. Ford (Deetz 1996: 93). Basically, seriation orders the artifacts by time and type, showing how one style will come into and fall out of fashion. Think of it like cell phones: flip-phones come around, and car phones fade away, then smartphones replace flip-phones, and now one model of phone replaces the other and so on. This same method works for gravestones. As one type of gravestone or motif becomes popularized, an earlier style gets replaced. These seriation graphs reflect changing cultural themes in America. Meyer (1992:105), remarks that the gravestones “Take on distinctive flavors relating to regionalism, ethnicity, religious influence, and a whole host of other factors.”

Headstone Seriation from Deetz 1996:97

This exercise in cemetery analysis and seriation graphs helped our class to understand how gravestones specifically are connected to other broad themes in American culture and reflect our cultural identity throughout history. Archaeologists use seriation to measure the length of time that certain styles of gravestones were popular as well as how the gravestones reflect the population’s view of the departed. These concepts of popularity can be applied to many facets of archaeology like transfer prints on ceramics and projectile points for Native Indigenous populations.

Deetz, James
1996    In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Books, New York, NY.

Meyer, Richard
1992    Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Utah State University Press, Logan.

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Abigail Phelps-Life Lessons from Artifact Photography

In my time at the university’s archaeology lab, I’ve learned just how diversified archaeology work can be. While a lot of lab work is computer-based, including research and data entry, some lab work is very hands-on. Although I was familiar with washing, sorting, and storing artifacts, photographing them was entirely new territory for me. At first I was not too concerned about attempting this photography. After all, I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures on vacations and in my backyard. And in the case of photographing in the lab, I wouldn’t have to worry about harsh sunlight or moving subjects. So I could simply point the camera and shoot, right?

That would be the first of several life lessons I’ve learned from taking photos in lab: avoid foolish first assumptions! Over the last month or so, and with the help of Dr. McMillan, I’ve picked up several skills related to artifact photography, while also reminding myself of some important skills and values I can transfer to everyday life: patience, focus, and attention to detail.

While one can often get satisfactory results from point-and-shoot photography for scrapbooks and family albums, photographing artifacts is a more involved process. The purpose of taking these photos are to record in precise detail the appearance of an artifact, and to share them with other archaeologists, researchers, or the public, who cannot necessarily access the physical objects. Photographing artifacts also acts as a recording measure taken in case the original artifacts are destroyed. In order to get a high-quality photograph, we use a dark room with various backdrops, small adjustable lights, filters, and a DSLR camera with a tripod.

Getting the photo station set up is quite a process in itself. Setting up the tripod, attaching the camera, remembering to put the batteries in the camera and taking the lens cover off are all important. Then it’s lights (off), camera (on), action!  The next steps all depend on the kind of artifact that is photographed. Most artifacts, unless they are very dark, are placed against a black background to make them stand out, and to absorb extra light, avoiding a washed-out look. After the camera is level in relation to the artifact, it must be adjusted to the right zoom and focus. Choosing the shutter speed (how long the camera gathers light when taking a picture) and aperture (how large the light-gathering area of the lens is) determines how bright the picture will be. Of course, the lights themselves are a crucial factor in taking close-up shots of artifacts. How brightly they shine and the angle at which light hits the object can be the difference between a dull, shadowy photograph, or one that brings out the depth and detail in an object better than the human eye.

I could go on and on about the endless back-and-forth adjustments that are made between the artifact, the camera, and the lighting before even a single picture is made. But suffice it to say that a lot of finesse is required to make a good photo. As a beginner, I still have to take a dozen pictures with slight modifications to get one or two photos that make the cut. When I was first learning the whole camera setup and all the moving parts involved, I couldn’t understand how anyone could have the patience to spend over ten minutes getting one good picture of an inanimate object. It tested my patience, and even frustrated me at times, but as I got more practice, I learned to enjoy (to some extent) the subtle factors that make a successful photo.

Along with the increased patience required for this task, I also noticed how important a strong focus is, and not just for the camera. The camera needed exactly the right amount of light to focus well on its subject. It needed to be balanced stable, and in order to focus on the artifact, the background needed to be distraction-free. Sounds a lot like someone I know: me. I also discovered how important it is to consider all the details involved in each artifact and its background before taking the picture. Our minds might be wired to ignore the few pieces of fuzz on the black background, or minimize the shadows around an object, but the camera picks up on these details as readily as minor grooves and scratches on the artifact itself. Learning to recognize the need for minor adjustments turns a decent photo into a great one. The same could be said for countless daily situations.

I may not have mastered the use of a good camera yet, nor the art of taking photos of artifacts. But I’ve enjoyed applying and improving what I have learned from artifact photography, both in and out of the lab.


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Lilly Salamone- That Looks Like A Job for the Lab!

Although field work is the most visible part of archaeology, most of the work actually goes on inside the archaeology lab. As a general estimation, one day in the field equals roughly 3-7 days in the lab, depending on the amount of artifacts found and the experience of the lab techs. All the artifacts collected in the field must be washed, cataloged, analyzed, and interpreted. Lab work is extremely important, because if the artifacts are excavated just to sit in storage, it is both a waste of time and highly unethical.

Lab work can be broken up into several steps.

Step one is artifact processing and cleaning. In the field, artifacts are placed in bags labeled with the provenience (exact location the artifact was located). The number one commandment is to ensure the artifacts are properly labeled with the provenience (in this screen, it is written on the little white card) to ensure that the data is accurate. The artifacts are then separated by how they can be cleaned. Bone, iron, ceramics with decoration over the glaze, brick and anything to delicate to wash with water will be dry brushed with a toothbrush. Ceramic, plastic, glass and more durable materials will be wet washed with water and a toothbrush. After being cleaned the artifacts are set into a screen to dry for at least 24-48 hours before being rebagged. Cleaning and processing reveals details about the artifacts which dirt obscures.

Step two is cataloguing.  Using UMW’s  cataloging procedures, the artifacts are listed into a digital database by their type (ceramic, metal, organic material, glass), use (projectile, bowl, vase), material (shell, quartz, cement, iron), appearance (colorless, painted, raise decoration), decoration (cobalt glazed porcelain, tortoiseshell ceramics, etc.) and measurements (weight, thickness, length). The catalogue can get very exact, especially for ceramics. All of the information about the artifact’s provenience is also transferred into the database. Cataloguing allows you to examine the artifacts’ information without having to examine all of the artifacts together. If the database where the cataloguing information goes is public, it also allows other people access to your information. Such open source data websites include www.daacs.org and www.chesapeakearchaeology.org.


Step three is analyze. Once the data has been gathering into once place, you can begin to examine the information you have. Doing this makes patterns clear.  You can find areas which higher concentrations of artifacts, predict locations of sites and begin to explain the patterns. Additionally, it allows you to examine both within the site and between other sites.

Step four is interpretation. In this stage, you use the information and patterns noticed in step three and draw formal conclusions. At the end of this stage, the research is published.

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Shannon Bremer- One Man’s Trash…

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Well, that can certainly be said for archaeologists who spend endless days digging at archaeological sites looking for the things that were left behind by people of the past. But there is a lot more to archaeology that just digging. Beyond the field, there are important steps archaeologists must take both before and after digging. In our Archaeology Lab Methods Class, my classmates and I have had the opportunity to learn the necessary steps and events that happen before the dig can begin as well as what happens once the dig has been completed and artifacts have made their way back to the lab for processing and analysis.

Before a dig can begin, we learned that it’s important to create a research design. This includes your project goals, questions the project is meant to answer, background research, data collection, analysis, interpretations, and publication of the project’s findings. Once project goals and background research are completed, archaeologists can begin excavations. According to our textbook Archaeological Lab Methods: An Introduction by Mark Sutton and Brooke Arkush, there are two types of excavations: small-scale and large-scale (Sutton and Arkush 2014:14). Small-scale excavations are usually several shovel test pits (STPs) which are used to determine if an area is a site or not, while large-scale excavations generally occur after testing when an area has been determined as a possible site (Sutton and Arkush 2014:14-15).

While there is some important work accomplished in the field, such as the discovery of artifacts, various features, and building foundations, some of the most crucial work occurs in the lab. For every day of field work, three to seven days are usually spent in the lab washing, cataloging, labeling, rebagging, and analyzing artifacts found during excavations. When processing artifacts, it is very important to include the field context with the artifacts at all times. The field context includes the horizontal and vertical provenience information which helps identify where the artifact came from in relation to the site. In the words of Silas Hurry, Laboratory Director and Curator of Collections at Historic St. Mary’s City, artifacts without their locational information “are what they were when originally discarded, trash,” because the provenience information tells us everything we need to know about the context in which an artifact was found in relation to the site as well as other artifacts found there (Hurry nd:1).

For a class activity, half of the class learned how to both wet brush and dry brush artifacts, while the other half began learning how to catalog artifacts; we then switched the next class period so that we could experience both parts of lab work. Not only were these activities a hands-on way to better understand how time consuming and important processing artifacts can be, we also were able to help our lab at UMW make further progress in cataloging artifacts from Sherwood Forest, the site of the 2015-2017 field school. Just as other labs around the United States, such as Historic St. Mary’s City, the lab at the University of Mary Washington processes artifacts in a similar fashion. Artifacts are cleaned, labeled, and rebagged according to their unit, level, and artifact group. This method of bagging and labeling keeps the artifacts organized so that if they need to be pulled out for examination, analysis, or photography they are easy to locate. The process of cataloging the artifacts helps archaeologists better understand the site since it allows us to create important distribution analyses based on artifact type and other types of studies, such as site function analysis and site dating. For that reason, sometimes the laboratory work done after digs is even more important and insightful than the dig itself. I guess there’s a lot you can learn from another man’s trash!


Works Cited

Hurry, Silas
n.d. After the Dig. Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland. <https://www.hsmcdigshistory.org/pdf/After-The-Dig.pdf>

Sutton, Mark and Brooke Arkush
2014 Archaeological Lab Methods: An Introduction. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, IA.


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Spring 2019 Elective- Worlds Collide: Virginia 1619

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Abigail Phelps-If at First You Don’t Succeed: Type, Type Again!

An archaeological lab can be a fascinating place to work. Much of my time in lab has been spent taking heaps of dirty, unidentified artifacts from an excavation and making them clean, labeled, and carefully stored. In the midst of all the glass sherds and metal flakes are intricate pipe stems, beautiful porcelain, and complete pairs of scissors. These are interesting pieces to handle, and make processing the less exciting objects bearable.

But then there’s cataloging.

Cataloging artifacts is crucial to their usefulness and existence in a lab. Categorizing and officially recording all artifacts in a consistent and exhaustive list allows them to be studied, compared, and accounted for. Putting objects into the catalog, while tedious, can still be interesting when it comes to small finds or other unique pieces, but it becomes rather challenging when it comes to more common rubble.

A pile of plaster, perhaps?

This is precisely what I came across last week, and I had no idea where to begin! I briefly supposed I could catalog all fifty-some pieces under one entry as “plaster”, but that would not be very helpful. When cataloging artifacts, we want to be as precise and descriptive as possible so that each artifact is easier to locate and research. It would seem that “white, crumbly building material” would suffice for a description, but there is much more to plaster than what meets the untrained eye!

When an archaeologist is confronted with any number of artifacts, one of the best ways to sort and describe them is through a process called typology. Much like a tree diagram, typology splits artifacts into smaller and smaller groups until a pile of architectural debris becomes small sets of useful information.

When it came to plaster, the first type I sorted them into was whitewash, plaster, and whitewash and plaster. As you can see in the picture below, plaster is made with a thick, rough layer, and covered in a thinner coat of whitewash that is visible on the walls it covers. There are often a few more layers in between, but they’re trickier to clearly identify.

The next type is lath marks vs no lath marks. Lath is the term used for thin strips of wood that serves as the base for a plaster wall. While plaster is still wet, it is shoved through the lath, which anchors it in place. Though wooden lath itself doesn’t survive in the archaeological record, its imprint in the plaster does. Most larger pieces of plaster in the pile had lath marks on it, either in the form of wood graining, or a sharp right angle where the plaster molded over the edge of some lath.

After lath marks, the next visual distinction is (purposeful) scratches in the plaster. These scratches are often done to help another coat of plaster stick to the previous layer. This can be kind of tricky to pick out, but if I saw a deep groove on any of the pieces, I set them aside.

As you may have noticed, while typology is a great method to make sense of a seemingly mundane group of artifacts, it’s not a perfect system. In order to make typology work, you have to choose a hierarchy of types. While this works pretty well for the major categories, like whitewash and plaster base, it’s more difficult to prioritize sub-categories, like lath and scratch marks. For example, I now have scratched pieces of plaster in four different categories: both lath-marked and non-lath-marked under the categories “plaster” and “plaster and whitewash”. A bit confusing, right?

Even with its disadvantages, though, typology got those pieces cataloged for me. Several dozen bits of seemingly identical plaster took on a whole new appearance in my eyes. Plaster “says” a lot more to me, now that I know what to look for. By forcing one to sort and categorize, typology gives information and detail to every artifact subjected to it. Cataloging may not be the most exciting part of lab work, but thanks to typology, it’s made a whole lot more sense.


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Olivia Larson- “Find Me a Village with a View”

In a land far, far away two genius professors joined forces to bring us the UMW 2018 Archaeological Field School; Dr. King of St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Dr. McMillan of the University of Mary Washington.

In all seriousness though, this research project was significant because of the collaboration that occurred with the Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia. Dr. King worked closely with leaders of the Rappahannock Indians, who shared significant oral histories and records to identify possible areas of excavation. Maps created by Captain John Smith during his explorations in the early 1600’s and GIS models created by Scott Strickland in the mid-2010’s were also used. After areas of interest were identified, we excavated and investigated several locations along both sides of the Rappahannock River to find sites associated with the tribe, from about 2,000 years ago to the present.


Unlike previous archaeological field schools that have been sponsored by the Center for Historic Preservation at Mary Washington, this particular project focused on pre-colonial, contact period, and colonial sites rather than solely historical sites. Additionally, we were afforded fabulous waterfront views. This was my second summer in the working on an archaeological site. Because I was a Teaching Assistant/Field Tech rather than a student this summer, I was on site longer and more often than the students. The students spent two days in a lab setting and the other three on site. The lab was set up at Stratford Hall, and the students would take a van to the site.

We conducted Phase I and II surveys this past summer, which mainly consisted of walking several miles a day digging about 800 shovel test pits (including a lot of empty holes!) and excavating select test units. Phase I is great for getting the “lay of the land.” The STPs are dug in 25-foot to 50-foot increments. This can show where there are higher and lower densities of artifacts and soil types distributed across the site. This is a very informative process, so many archaeologists chose to stop after this. Test units dug during Phase II allow for additional evaluation of the site.

In the summer of 2017, Sherwood Forest Plantation was in Phase III while I was a field school student there. Phase III includes digging test units and features. This is great, in that is allows for an in-depth analysis of a site. But, it also generates a lot of artifacts that have to be cleaned, cataloged, and stored. This, some believe, is creating a curation crisis in many archaeological laboratories which can no longer support the massive inflow of artifacts from Phase III projects.

In the 2017 Field School, I was a student; a student that was very spoiled. On-site we had shade (quite the luxury) and a port-a-john. We also had a bench and table to have lunch, and we stayed at one site that was near the university. This summer, we had to move around to various locations (along the river and Route 17) which had very little shade, no outhouses, and no benches. However, moving from site to site and working in more demanding environments taught me what it was like to experience archaeology for a boss rather than a professor; giving me a little taste of what it will be like in the real world after May. These types of projects that cover a lot of area also allow for a greater understanding and appreciation of the landscape of an area and contribute to studies of settlement patterns.

The education I received from this experience has already worked to my benefit at my current internship at Dovetail Cultural Group in Fredericksburg, where I am currently processing a multi-component site from New Jersey, which includes stone tools and debitage. The experience of working on several Native sites this summer has also re-affirmed my interest in pre-colonial archaeology. I would like to focus my attention on marginalized groups, whose story has often been left out of history.



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Guest Lecture on September 27, 2018

Please join the UMW Historic Preservation Department for a special Guest Lecture. On Thursday, September 27th, Dr. Julie King will be discussing her recent archaeological project investigating Rappahannock Indian History. She will be focusing on her collaborative efforts with the Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia.

The lecture will take place in Combs Hall 139 at 5:30pm

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Lizzie O’Meara- Field School 2018: A Retrospective

This summer, I had the opportunity to join the University of Mary Washington on my very first field school under the guidance of Dr. Lauren McMillan. We partnered up with St. Mary’s College of Maryland working on the Rappahannock Indigenous Cultural Landscapes project with Dr. Julie King. During the 5 weeks, we learned practical field methods that taught us all of the procedures and practices that are required in order to conduct a professional excavation. In addition, we were able to work with Stratford Hall Plantation, who provided our housing for the entirety of our field school, to catalogue and clean their collection of artifacts from previous years of field schools that had been conducted on the property.

During our time in the field, we went to three separate sites all located along the Rappahannock River that had artifacts spanning from the Archaic period to European contact. The main goal of the project was to create an understanding of the settlement patterns along the Rappahannock River before, during, and after European colonization.

Prior to this field school, I had never encountered prehistoric artifacts during my experiences in the lab. This made identifying objects in the field at the beginning of the 5 weeks quite a challenge because many of the prehistoric artifacts simply look like rocks. After the first week, however, it became much easier to tell an ordinary rock from a stone that had been modified by a human being. The majority of the prehistoric artifacts we found were flakes and shatter, which are both byproducts of stone tool making. We also found a few completed projectile points, which were able to give us a better understanding as to the date of the sites we were working with. Another common artifact that we were 

finding across all three sites were pieces of prehistoric pottery. Some fragments were very large and easy to identify, while others were much harder to distinguish amongst the other debris that we were sifting through our screens. At some of the sites, we encountered European artifacts mixed with historic period Native materials- an indication of cross-cultural contact and the exchange of goods.

Two days out of our week were spent at Stratford Hall Plantation in a make-shift lab that we had set up in their library. There were two stations: a washing station, and a cataloguing station. A few students at a time would be sent outside in order to wash the artifacts, while a few other students would stay in and catalogue those artifacts that had


already been washed. I had taken classes previously that had given me some experience with how to catalogue objects. However, at Stratford Hall Plantation, they used a different cataloguing system than the one at Mary Washington, and I had previously only worked with 17th and 19th-century artifacts; at Stratford Hall, we were identifying 18th-century materials. It took a week or so in order for me to adjust to the new software, but once we all got used to it, things progressed very quickly. In total, we were able to catalog over 1,400 artifacts for the Plantation.

While this experience was a lot of hard work, it was by far the best experience I have ever had while taking a course at UMW. Many inside jokes were made and funny moments were shared as we all endured the heat, bugs, and poison ivy that we encountered in the field. All of the girls shared a residence on the Plantation, which involved many movie nights and family dinners over the span of the 5 weeks.

The experiences and skills I gained over the course of field school are ones that I know will prove invaluable as I continue pursuing a career in archaeology. Being able to apply the skills that we were taught in the classroom to a real archaeological project exponentially helped me understand the reasons behind certain practices and how to run an organized project. I will carry these instrumental experiences with me as I move on to grad school and eventually into the real world of archaeology.

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Jessica Roberts – Past, Present, and A Shark’s tooth

Over the past five weeks, the UMW archaeology field school, under the direction of Professor McMillan, has been conducting Phase I and II survey work with Dr. Julia King and her crew from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. While we have dug up many interesting items over the past few weeks, I found something most intriguing while excavating my first unit along the Rappahannock River. We were digging test units at what was once a contact-period Virginia Indian village. The artifact that spiked my interest was a halved shark’s tooth, maybe from an ancient Megalodon, due to its size. It is half the size of my hand and was broken by an unknown cause. As for the other half of the tooth, we did not find it in the unit. Some hypotheses as to why this shark’s tooth was discarded is that it could have been damaged if used for hunting, fishing, or protection purposes.

Photo by Scott Strickland, courtesy of SMCM

We may never know the true usage of this shark’s tooth. However, one thing that should be noted is what was also found with the shark’s tooth. Along with the shark’s tooth, we found red clay pipe fragments, many Native clay ceramic fragments and pieces of European wares. On some of these red clay pipe fragments there were small dotted markings on the bowls of the pipes. Using the Law of Association, I can assume that the shark’s tooth may have had a purpose related to the red clay pipes with the dotted marks. One interpretation is that this shark’s tooth may have been used as a decorative tool for the pipes, as evident by them both being found in the same context and based on pipe examples pound elsewhere in this region. This again is just one possible use, so it is still open for interpretation.

Another hypothesis for this damaged shark’s tooth is that it was more than just a tool for the Virginia Indians who possessed it. First thing that should be mentioned is how the shark’s tooth made it to this site. It was not likely that this tooth was found along the Rappahannock River near site that this Indian group lived at. No, most likely this tooth came from further up the Rappahannock River or from Westmoreland County along the Potomac River; this is the closest location where an abundance of shark’s teeth wash-up on the shores from the cliffs. It is possible that this was obtained through trade with Virginia Indians living near the Potomac River, or someone brought it with them after visiting the Potomac River. My point in mentioning this is that it seems like a lot of trouble and effort to get this shark’s tooth for tool purposes alone. We found tons of flakes and shatter at the site that give evidence that there were other tools being used and made already. So why would the Virginia Indians go through all the effort to get a more fragile object for just a basic tool?

One possible answer is in the present, drawing on the concept of Uniformitarianism. You can see people today scouring the beaches in Westmoreland County and all along the Potomac River. These people, like myself, are looking for sharks’ teeth. We don’t look for them for logical or basic tool purposes, but because they are so fascinating. I believe the Virginia Indians were just like us. Fascinated by the teeth and whose mouths they came from. Like us today, there may have been Indians who were amazed by sharks’ teeth and collecting these teeth just as a hobby. The shark’s tooth found in this unit could have been a great story telling device, or maybe from somebody’s private collection, in addition to possible tool use. It’s hard to say, but to be honest, I like this interpretation more, because it shows that no matter how much the times change, human curiosity and the desire to collect what fascinates us is something that will never die, unlike the sharks these teeth came from.


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