Archaeology in Blacksburg:

Who were the earliest inhabitants of the area?

by Michael Pulice
Master of Science in Architecture
College of Architecture and Urban Studies

The Paleolithic Period

The earliest inhabitants of the area were more than likely not permanent residents, but hunters passing through in pursuit of herds of elk or other game. They might have been tracking any of several species of ice age "megafauna" such as the mastodon or wooly mammoth, animals that became extinct thousands of years ago. The hunters may have stayed in the area for a short time, exploiting natural resources such as fish from the streams or stone from outcrops and creek beds.They used the stone to make many types of tools. These early hunters possessed such skill at making stone tools, that tools from this period are generally superior in craftsmanship to those made by later native peoples. They are known to have made the outstanding Clovis and Cumberland spear points, today highly coveted by collectors. Many projectile points of this type have been found in various parts of Montgomery County. Usually, these tools are the only remaining clues that indicate where Paleolithic people have been. Their other possessions were made of bone and wood, and could not be preserved for thousands of years in a climate like Virginia's. However, through archaeology we have learned that "paleo-man" first came to Virginia more than 11,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age. The Thunderbird Site, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, is one of the best documented Paleolithic sites in the country. Although cultural changes occurred according to region, and over long periods of time, 8000 BC is generally considered the terminus of the Paleolithic Period in North America.

The Archaic Period

As the ice retreated and the climate grew warmer, the giant mammals that once roamed North America died out, possibly because they were poorly adapted to the warmer temperatures. It is also possible that they were hunted to extinction. In any case, life began to change for the native people. Harsh temperatures were no longer a major problem. Many useful plants and animals were now flourishing, reducing hardships for people, who survived by hunting and gathering. Human populations grew as a result, yet groups remained fairly small, consisting of extended family clans. Instead of constantly moving, they could now remain in one place long enough to more fully exploit local resources. Eventually, they began to move their encampments less often, perhaps on a seasonal basis. For instance, a clan might have spent much of the summer foraging in the Blacksburg area, and travel east in the autumn months for the peak fishing season on the lower James River. It is known that the site of present-day Richmond was a popular seasonal destination for people from a wide radius of places, the attraction being the excellent fishing at the James River fall line.

The Archaic period ranges from about 10,000 to 3000 years ago, and is commonly divided into early, middle and late Archaic periods. These divisions are based primarily on changes in material technology. For example, many new styles of projectile points originated in the early period. These styles continually evolved, with variations becoming common, and eventually phased out in favor of new variations. By identifying which styles were used during a given time period, archaeologists can roughly approximate a date for a site. Carbon 14 dating helps to substantiate this relative dating method by providing more exact dates, but is not possible if charred materials are not found. Also useful for dating purposes are steatite (soapstone) vessels such as cups and bowls, which became widely used in this part of the country during the Late Archaic period.

Hundreds of Archaic sites exist in Montgomery County, many of which have been identified in and around Blacksburg. In fact, Archaic period artifacts have been found on the Virginia Tech campus. In a VPI Bulletin, published in 1915, a Professor Otto Burkhart wrote a segment in which he described in detail many of the artifacts that he had collected from a site in the Ellet Valley (possibly the later-known Shannon Site). He also mentioned a site "where VPI gets its water." This is the site of present-day Lane Stadium. A projectile point that he collected there would today be recognized as a Guilford lanceolate point, a type of Middle Archaic point (Coe, 1964), made of quartzite. This artifact is labeled b in Fig. 1, taken from Professor Burkhart's article in the VPI Bulletin. Burkhart found the other projectile points pictured in the Ellet Valley. The two artifacts to the right of the y are Hardaway-Dalton points, possibly 11,000 years old, from the Late Paleolithic Period (Coe, 1964). The smaller, triangular points are from the more recent Woodland Period, and are actually arrowheads. In 1915, these designations had not yet been inferred. Late Archaic points have been found in excavations at Smithfield Plantation, and in excavations at Solitude, on the VPI campus.

Artifacts from Professor Burkhardt's collection
Figure 1. Photo of projectile points from Professor Burkhart's collection, published in 1915 VPI Bulletin.

The Woodland Period

About 3000 years ago, natives of the Eastern U.S. began to cultivate plants, such as maize, squash, and gourds, in addition to hunting and gathering. The advent of agriculture made it possible to feed larger numbers of people living together in communities. It was no longer necessary to roam the country in search of food. Villages began to spring up along streams that had broad floodplains suitable for farming. More permanent, round, thatched houses were built for families to live in. An important, new technology became commonplace--ceramic vessels. Thus began the Woodland Period. Sites from this time period are usually immediately recognized due to the presence of ceramic pottery fragments called sherds, and the small, sometimes tiny triangular arrowheads. Sites are often densely littered with artifacts due to long-term occupations, by fairly large numbers of people. Like the Archaic Period, the Woodland Period is commonly divided into early, middle and late. The bow and arrow appears to have been a Middle Woodland innovation.

The most renowned Woodland Period site in the immediate Blacksburg area is the Shannon Site, mentioned above. The area of the site, in the Ellet Valley, about 5 miles from Blacksburg, has been well known to local people since before the turn of the century. At that time, the Shannon Site and neighboring sites were collectively known as the "Ellet Indian Town." It was a popular site among collectors and looters until 1966, when the property was slated for the construction of the Blacksburg Country Club. On the eve of the site's destruction, it was investigated by archaeologists, directed by Joseph Benthall. Fortunately, a vast amount of valuable information was produced, since the site was excavated in its entirety, and the work was very well executed, including the artifact analysis and documentation.

Posts surrounding a home
Figure 2. Double row of posthole showing reinforcement of palisade (right) and circular pattern of
postholes of house structures (left). The other depressions are various types of pit features.

Rather than a town, Benthall found the site to be a small farming community, containing11 circular houses or similar structures. A palisade, or defensive fortification, made of a double row of wooden posts surrounded the homes (Fig. 2). Palisades are very common to Woodland villages in SW Virginia. Within the confines of the palisade, many pits, or cavities in the ground called features were excavated. These features vary in size and shape based on their functions: fire pits, hearths, storage pits, and refuse pits, called middens (Fig. 2). Post holes and burials are also features. The features were deliberately or inadvertently filled in during the site's occupation, often with refuse material, such as animal bones or broken tools. This fill from the features is typically rich in artifact content and information. Most of the features at the Shannon Site were found undisturbed by looters, with artifacts intact. These artifacts included stone tools: projectile points, hammerstones, axes and celts, awls, knives, scrapers, mortars and pestles, and grinding stones. In addition, there were many bone tools such as awls, chisels, projectile points and fishhooks. Mussel shells and turtle shells were especially numerous, indicating dietary preferences, and were used to make a variety of useful or ornamental items, such as pendants called gorgets. Several types of small seashells had been obtained through trade with coastal peoples. These shells, as well as turkey bones and bear teeth, were made into beads for necklaces and bracelets (Fig. 3). 100 human burials,in oval pits, were recorded and excavated. Many contained offerings, such as shell or stone gorgets, various types of beads or ceramic tobacco pipes (Fig. 4). Unfortunately, three of the burials had been severely disturbed by looters. (Benthall, 1969)

Typical necklaces from the Shannon Site Typical tobacco pipes
Figure 3. Shannon Site artifacts: Broken shell gorget from a burial (A). Tubular, cylindrical, and disc beads from conch columella, also from a burial (B). Figure 4. Clay tobacco pipes from various Shannon Site features.

Benthall's excavations determined that the village was occupied in Late Woodland times, from the early to mid-1600s. The village had been deserted only a short time before the first European explorers wrote accounts of reaching the area. However, the site had seen regular short-term use for many thousands of years, as far back as the Early Archaic period, as evidenced by projectile points found there (Benthall, 1969).

As one might expect, the first large agricultural communities were found on the banks of relatively large rivers. Large rivers have broad, fertile flood plains and terraces that were ideal for crops of maize. Large rivers also made travel by canoe easy. Since Blacksburg has only smaller streams, it makes sense that only small to moderate-sized prehistoric sites have been found in the immediate vicinity. However, very large Late Woodland Period towns, once occupied by many hundreds of people, have been excavated as nearby as Radford and Salem, on the New and Roanoke Rivers respectively. It is possible that these towns were largely wiped-out by European-born epidemics, anticipating the arrival of the Europeans themselves. These sites are known to have been abandoned by the natives sometime during the European contact period of the late 16th through early 17th centuries. The contact period marked the end of the Woodland Period, and the beginning of the Historic Period.

The Historic Period

It is reasonable to consider the earliest period of settlement in the area as the beginning of the Historic Period, although British explorers had reached the New River Valley in 1671, at least seventy years before the first settlers arrived. Trappers and fur traders had infiltrated the area in the meantime. It was not until 1745 that the colony of Virginia began granting tracts of land in what is now Montgomery Co. James Patton settled Draper's Meadow, near present-day Blacksburg, during this period. Therefore, all archaeological sites in Montgomery Co. that were established after 1744 are considered Historic Period sites. In contrast, at Jamestown, Virginia, the Historic Period began in 1607.

Written history provides us with a great deal of information about the Historic Period, but archaeological investigation of historic sites is needed to provide important augmentation. Archaeological data can lead to many insights regarding formerly common ways of life, the lives of specific individuals or groups, or historical events. It can serve to verify historical fact or allay common misconceptions about the past. In general, it helps historians to paint a more accurate, detailed picture, as if filling in pieces of a puzzle.

Mid 19th century
    ceramic fragments and nails from excavations at Solitude.
Mid 19th century ceramic fragments and nails from excavations at Solitude.

Blacksburg and its vicinity possess numerous historic sites. Many of the sites include intact historic homes, some of which have been restored or partially restored. The Montgomery Co. Historic Structures Survey, conducted by local architect-historian Gibson Worsham in the late 1980's, identified a number of structures that were possibly eligible for a listing in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The NRHP is a list of districts, sites, structures, and objects that significantly reflect the past. The Register is an important reference for making planning decisions, such as whether or not an area should be developed. In order to be eligible for the NRHP, a site must meet at least one of a number of criterions. One such criterion concerns the site's potential for archaeological significance (criterion D). Specifically, are there buried cultural deposits present "that have yielded or may be likely to yield information important in prehistory or history?" Archaeologist Cliff Boyd of Radford University, with the help of his students, performed archaeological studies of several historic house sites in the Blacksburg area, as part of the NRHP nomination process. The studies included limited excavations called site testing. These projects are discussed in the following section.

Most of the Blacksburg sites that were eligible for a NRHP listing lie in the old section of downtown, made up of several blocks, known as the Blacksburg Historic District. Therefore, it was not necessary to list each property individually. The entire district could receive NRHP status, which it did finally in 1991. Within the historic district, archaeological investigations were directed toward the Price House, and the location where Lybrook's Row and the Bodell Pottery had once stood.

Price House The Price House, which also has been called the Johnson House, was built before 1840. It is situated on a one-acre lot at the corner of Penn and Wharton Streets. The site testing consisted of eight 1-meter by 1-meter excavation squares (1 m2 units). The units were placed in several areas around the house. Although no mid-19th century features were encountered in the excavations, ceramic artifacts from that time period were recovered. Included types are lead-glazed redwares, salt-glazed stonewares, and whitewares. Wire and cut nails were found in most excavation layers. Bricks, glass fragments, and animal bones were also recovered. Not surprisingly, coal and slag were found in large quantities in the rear of the house. Since no features such as a well, privy, or midden were encountered, no further excavation was conducted. However, it is likely that further excavations would reveal such features, based on the site testing, which found a wide distribution of artifacts in substantial quantities, and the site to be fairly undisturbed. This is enough to satisfy criterion D of the NRHP (Worsham,1988).

Lybrook Row The site of Lybrook's Row, on Church St. at Roanoke St., was site tested "in an effort to locate the remains of the Bodell Pottery, Lybrook's Row (a mid-19th century student housing facility), and a general store on the north corner of the intersection," according to the NRHP registration form. Nine 1 m2 units were excavated on the property. The following description of the findings is quoted directly from the registration form (Worsham, 1988):

...this attempt uncovered lead-glazed pottery and a piece of kiln furniture. Foundation remnants of a store and Lybrook's Row student housing were identified along with associated artifacts relating to 19th century architectural technology, printing, and the production of utilitarian pottery. The site is significant, therefore, in terms of research interests because of the extensive artifact deposits identified which largely relate to the significant period of use in the mid-late 19th century, providing a record of material culture enhancing the historical documentation of the area.

Although no foundations of the Bodell Pottery kiln were identified, the recovery of high frequencies of lead-glazed sherds, along with a piece of kiln furniture provide information on pottery making technology of the mid19th century. Buried artifact-bearing zones were particularly rich in the areas of units 4, 5, and 6, were the store was likely located. A range of architectural artifacts including nails, window glass, and brick were recovered along with coal and a variety of ceramic wares. The stratigraphy of these units suggests that the area was filled with debris produced by the removal of the building. The artifacts and printer's type recovered provide an excellent artifact sample reflecting commercial activities conducted in the building.

A clay foundation and associated artifacts were identified in an area where Lybrook's Row was located (units 1, 2 and 3) and reflect domestic activities conducted here. These however, were never classroom facilities, they formed VPI's first off-campus student housing.

Other Blacksburg sites tested by Professor Boyd are located outside of the historic district. These include the Michael Kinzer House, the Phillips-Ronald House, and Solitude, on the VPI campus.

Mid 19th century
     ceramic fragments from excavations at Solitude.
Mid 19th century ceramic fragments from excavations at Solitude.

Kinzer House and Kiln

The Michael Kinzer House, located off of Rt. 655 in Blacksburg, is a two-room plan dwelling that was built in the mid-19th century. Three 1 m2 units were excavated on the property around the house, and one unit was excavated in the area of a recently dismantled 19th century smokehouse. The findings indicated that landscaping had disturbed the grounds, and that the smokehouse had recently been used as a trash heap. The Kinzer property also includes a locally important brick kiln site. The kiln is situated about 400 feet south of the house. At the time of the investigation, all that could be seen of this facility was a mound of brick rubble. Eleven 1 m2 test units were excavated in the area of the kiln attempting to locate any intact remains of the brickmaking operation. Eight units on the north side of the mound produced only a few artifacts, mostly coal and poorly fired brick fragments. In units 4, 7, and 8, dark feature stains with concentrations of coal and brick fragments were encountered. These features were interpreted to be "remains of fire channels for a clamp or stove kiln." The report continues:

"This type of temporary kiln was common until the mid-19th century, and by 1850 many brickmakers were using coal instead of wood in the firing process. Hand-molded, impressed-center bricks, several of which were excavated from the mound, were also commonly produced until the late 1800s (Guymon,1986). This information strongly suggests that this brick kiln was used in the second quarter of the 19th century to produce brick for the construction of the Kinzer House, and still contains many artifacts and intact features relating to this activity....The kiln contains information about the historic occupation of the Kinzer House and its construction, and about a common short-term industrial production facility from the period of significance....The fact that it is the only systematically investigated kiln in Montgomery Co. also underscores its significance." (Worsham, 1988)

The Kinzer House and kiln site received NRHP status in November 1989.

Phillips-Ronald House The Phillips-Ronald House, another mid-19th century dwelling, is located at the intersection of Draper Rd. and Washington St., in Blacksburg. Five 1 m2 test units were excavated on the property. According to the NRHP registration form, "Two units were placed to the rear of the house, behind the kitchen location , in order to find any artifacts associated with food preparation and kitchen use. Unit 3 was located near the front porch, in an unsuccessful attempt to find an intact builder's trench from the original house construction. Units 4 and 5 were excavated in the backyard of the house in an effort to locate the foundation of the former stables. These last two (units) did not produce any distinctive features or stratigraphy, but contained a great deal of poor quality coal." Ceramics, such as lead-glazed redware, and cut nails from the mid 1800s were found in with the coal deposits, but it could not be determined if the materials had been redeposited from another location at a later date. In unit 1, a surface "paved" with brick fragments and limestone flakes was encountered at about 18 centimeters below the ground surface. Artifacts from the level above date to the mid 1800s, so it was apparent that the brick and limestone feature was associated with the original occupation or construction of the main house. The feature was interpreted as having "likely served as a walkway from the kitchen to the various outbuildings in the back yard." This was considered especially interesting because the walkway was constructed from the byproducts of other architecture-related activities. Moreover, fact that this feature still exists intact from the period of significance suggests that further excavations could potentially locate many other features. Under a number of criteria, the Phillips-Ronald House was granted NRHP status in November 1989.

SolitudeThe historic property of Solitude is situated on the Virginia Tech campus overlooking what is now the duck pond. The large main house, which was constructed around 1807, received National Register status in May 1989, without the need for archaeological investigations. However, a log outbuilding to the northeast of the main house had been scheduled for restorations to begin that same year. The restoration was intended to be carefully executed so as to preserve all the original properties of the building. One of the problems confronted in achieving this goal was that little was known about the building. Its original function was unknown. Some suggested it might have been a slave dwelling, washhouse or kitchen. Learning the age of the structure, as well as the original function would be important for an accurate restoration. Gibson Worsham's historic structure report on the outbuilding, completed in 1988, revealed some important information. He was able to establish an approximate date of 1870 for its construction, based on archival research and architectural clues. Archaeological evidence supports this date, based on the analysis of almost 10,000 artifacts collected from test units around the outbuilding.

Solitude ExcavationsThe excavations at the Solitude outbuilding, carried out by Dr. Cilff Boyd and his students, consisted of thirty-one 1 m2 test units, strategically located around the building, using a grid system. Units were placed abruptly adjacent to the side of the structure in hopes of revealing a builder's trench. Artifacts from builder's trenches can confirm the time period of construction because they are deposited and buried during the construction process, often by the builders themselves. Shallow trenches were encountered, and did indeed produce important artifacts. Test units were also concentrated around the "back" door of the building. A common method of household garbage disposal in the 19th century was to simply throw or sweep it out the back door. This is referred to by archaeologists as the Brunswick Disposal Pattern. As expected, this location was especially rich with artifacts. Those that were found strongly supported the notion that the building originally served as a kitchen. It was common long ago to prepare food outside of the main house in the summer, to avoid heating the house. Plate fragments, bottle and drinking glass fragments, and animal bones were recovered in large quantities behind the building. Ceramic types included porcelain, redwares, whitewares, stonewares, yellow wares, and pearlware. Analysis of the ceramics provided a mean date of mid 1860s. Architectural artifacts such as foundation stones, brick fragments and nails also made up a large percentage of the artifact assemblage.

Also recovered from the test units were 341 prehistoric artifacts, of which 325 were lithic, or stone flakes (byproducts of stone tool manufacture). Five pottery sherds and eleven projectile points were also found. Collectively, these prehistoric artifacts indicate that the site was occupied by more than one group between 2000 BC and 1000AD, as a rough estimate. Unfortunately, due most likely to landscaping, there was no intact stratigraphy around the building (Boyd, 1989). This has somewhat limited the chronological data that could be obtained through the excavations thus far. Therefore, more investigations in other areas around Solitude are imperative in order to recover any remaining data, before it is lost forever. Lack of funding has been a continuous setback in this endeavor.

Federal Protection of Historic and Archaeological Resources

In 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act. This legislation provided for the establishment of the National Register of Historic Places, and the establishment of a State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), in each state. These measures took a necessary step beyond the important Antiquities Act of 1906, and the 1935 Historic Sites Act toward protecting our historic resources. In 1969, congress took another approach by passing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It included cultural resources among the environmental resources to be protected by the federal government, and it stipulated that the need for protection must be assessed before a project is undertaken. The assessment involves preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS dictates that that for all federally funded construction projects, an archaeologist will be consulted early enough in the project planning to efficiently protect any sites found in the construction zone. The archaeologist will conduct a survey to determine if and where sites exist in the construction zone. If sites are found, decisions must be made about how to minimize the impact of construction. Options include modifying plans to avoid the site, or conducting archaeological excavations prior to construction, with funds from the project budget. This investigation process is referred to as the Section 106 Review. The vast majority of all archaeological work being done today in the U.S. is initiated when a site is found to be in the path of development and is therefore threatened. The work is done in compliance with federal legislation and funded with public money. This approach is generally referred to as cultural resource management (CRM).

For more information about pertinent legislation, visit the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Website.

* Shannon Site photographs courtesy of Virginia State Library.
* Solitude Site photographs courtesy of Dr. Cliff Boyd.


Benthall, Joseph. Archeological Investigation of the Shannon Site, Montgomery County, Virginia. Richmond: The Virginia State Library, 1969.

Boyd, Cliff. Archaeology Report on Solitude Outbuilding. 1989.

Burkhart, O.C. "Indian Relics in Montgomery County." VPI Bulletin, No. VIII, 1915.

Coe, Joffrey Lanning. "The Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont." Transactions of the Philadelphia Philosophical Society, 1964.

National Register of Historic Places. National Register of Historic Places Registration Forms. Washington, DC: GPO, 1988.

Worsham, Gibson. Montgomery Co. Historic Sites Survey, Vols. 1 and 2. 1986.
     Rotenizer, Dan - Contributing Author.

Worsham, Gibson. Historic Structure Report on Solitude Outbuilding. 1988.

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Michael Pulice
Last Updated: September 16, 1998