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Werowocomoco ditches date back to at least early 1400s

About a year after first announcing they found the site of Werowocomoco – the legendary 17th-century home of Chief Powhatan – researchers now say they’ve discovered evidence that dates the location back to at least the early 1400s.

The new evidence – a pair of “unusual” ditches discovered by archaeologists and students at the College of William and Mary during field work – would date the American Indian settlement to at least 200 years before the arrival of Capt. John Smith.

“We believe these features date back to at least the early 1400s,” said Martin Gallivan, a William and Mary anthropology professor who is leading the annual summer excavation work at the Bob and Lynn Ripley’s property along the York River in Gloucester. “That’s well before John Smith in 1607 so it raises the possibility that there was something remarkable here before the contact period.”

William and Mary anthropology professor Martin Gallivan, left, discusses the “unusual” ditches that run parallel on the Werowocomoco site with Chickahominy Chief Stephen R. Adkins, Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Gloucester, and E. Randolph Turner, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Photo by Brian Whitson.

While much more work remains, Gallivan and his team of researchers and historians say the manmade ditches, which are located several hundred yards off the waterfront and wind in a curve well past 200 feet in length, could possibly relate to the D-shaped feature depicted in the famous 1608 map identifying Werowocomoco.

Using radiocarbon dating, the team determined that two pieces of wood found at the site date back to at least the 1400s -- more than 200 years before Smith arrived.

“The materials we recovered were Native American,” Gallivan said. “The ditches also appear to be Native American in construction.”

Archaeologists and historians announced in May 2003 they had identified the location of the historic village of Werowocomoco -- which was the principal residence of Virginia Algonquian Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, from 1607-1609.

The discovery came as a result of Lynn Ripley’s finding numerous artifacts. Then, the Ripleys invited archaeologists to investigate her property on the Purtan Bay. During Lynn’s daily walks around the property, she would find countless pieces of, in addition to arrowheads dating back 10,000 years or more.

“I just knew what I was finding was old and that I needed to keep it,” said Lynn Ripley, remembering that she initially kept most of the artifacts she discovered in shoeboxes.

“It was a lot of fund collecting,” she added.

A short time later, the Werowocomoco Research Group was formed and includes a team of researchers from William and Mary and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, as well as Gloucester-based archaeologists and members of the Virginia Indian Community. Since then, thousands of artifacts and evidence of structures have been discovered at the site, and the case for Werowocomoco gets stronger with each summer’s field work, Turner said.

Researchers recently gave a tour of the property for the media and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Gloucester. Also present was Stephen R. Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Tribe and a member of the Virginia Indian advisory board.

“When I step on this site folks,” Adkins told those attending the tour, “I just feel different. The spirituality just touches me and I feel it.”

Archaeologists and students focused their work this summer on three specific locations on the Ripley’s property.

In one location close to the waterfront, Gallivan said, the field team found an unusually dense amount of artifacts, including stone tools and pieces of copper, which show evidence of the residential core of a community that existed along the riverfront for thousands of years. Another location closer to the Ripley’s house and a couple hundred feet back from the water, Gallivan said, showed evidence of a large house pattern.

And the third area of interest was the star of the recent tour – the pair of ditches that were discovered about 1,000 feet back from the riverfront. Gallivan said the ditches were partially discovered the ditches in 2003, but they had no idea how big they were.

“I thought they might go on for 100 feet or so,” Gallivan said. “But we have determined these ditches extend well over 200 feet in length. This is something special.”

E. Randolph Turner, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said the parallel ditches could also represent a boundary line on the Indian settlement – dividing the sacred and secular areas of the extensive village.

While there is plenty of more excavating to complete, researchers say the ditches are further evidence for the case that the property was the site of the capital of Chief Powhatan’s Chesapeake Bay chiefdom.

In his books about Virginia, John Smith wrote about being captured and marched through Werowocomoco to the doorstep of Chief Powhatan’s house, Turner said. Smith wrote that Powhatan’s house was “30 score” from the riverfront, he added.

“The problem is he didn’t say 30 score of what,” Turner said. “But if you assume he’s talking about paces, that 30 score takes you right up from the waterfront to these ditches.”

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