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Werowocomoco field work increases understanding of European-Indian contact

Martin Gallivan

Martin Gallivan


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The nation's media has discovered  this story.  See Washington Post report; also see online Washington Post  discussion with Gallivan on Aug. 22 at 2 p.m.

Another excavation season at Werowocomoco has ended, yielding more insight into the earliest days of interaction of the Powhatan Indians with European colonists. Archaeologist Martin Gallivan of William and Mary’s anthropology department led a summer field school that concentrated on a pair of D-shaped ditches that he believes delineates what he calls the “ceremonial core” of Werowocomoco, best known as being the capital city of Powhatan, father of Pocahontas. Werowocomoco is the site of several historic encounters between English colonists such as John Smith and Christopher Newport with Powhatan and his people. It’s also the location of the legendary—but unverified—incident in which Pocahontas saved Smith from execution at her father’s hand.

The artifacts discovered this past summer include a European pipe and an earth-filled case bottle, a square-sided vessel made to fit in a wooden carrying case. Gallivan said that such bottles were used for a wide variety of uses by Jamestown-era Europeans and might have held medicine. The bottle was found unbroken, filled with earth in one of the ditches, a context that Gallivan says requires a bit of explaining to lay people.

“First of all, these ditches should be viewed as monumental works,” he said. “In the Western mind, we think of monuments as being above-ground works, like the Washington Monument or the pyramids. The ditches or trenches at Werowocomoco have that same monumental significance, even though the word ‘ditch’ sounds utilitarian. We really don’t have a better word to describe these features, which were constructed over several centuries, up to and including the Colonial Era.”


Gallivan speculated that the case bottle uncovered this summer possibly could have been interred purposefully, rather than casually discarded. His team intends to have the soil inside analyzed to try to determine what the bottle originally held. The bottle was found near the European pipe as well as glass beads and copper fragments associated with the Powhatan people.

“This allows us to infer that we’re seeing evidence of early 17th-century interaction at Werowocomoco, the events that involved Powhatan, John Smith, Christopher Newport and other colonists who visited the site and left behind this English material,” Gallivan explained. “We can begin to understand more about these interactions by looking closely at these artifacts.”

He likened the discovery of the European artifacts to finding a needle in a haystack. Werowocomoco, and its network of ditches, are centuries older than Jamestown; Gallivan says that the ditches were first constructed around 1200 A.D.

“There’s this brief window of contact in the early 1600s that we’ve been looking for and we’re very excited to have these finds,” he said.

The site, located on private land on Purtan Bay along the York River in Gloucester County, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1609, seeking to gain distance from the English settlement of Jamestown, Powhatan abandoned Werowocomoco and moved further west. Thereafter the village largely disappeared from the historical record until the twentieth century when scholars reexamined its location based on archaeology, narrative accounts of Jamestown settlers and references to geographic features, and historic maps such as Smith’s own 1612 “Map of Virginia.”

Following the leads of historians, cultural anthropologists, and archaeologists placing Werowocomoco at Purtan Bay, a comprehensive archaeological survey was conducted in 2002 that clearly confirmed the site’s identity as the village of Powhatan.

Since 2003 archaeological excavations at the site have been conducted by the Werowocomoco Research Group, based at William and Mary. The which was formed through a partnership of the College, the property owners, Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources and an advisory board of Virginia Indians.

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