Exhibit explores Powhatan's village
This bird¿s-eye view of the site of Werowocomoco, located on the York River in modern-day Gloucester County, shows the shoreline that was once home to Powhatan, paramount chief of 30-some Indian tribes in Virginia¿s coastal region in the 1600s. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation photo. (Handout / May 18, 2010)
But as the years passed, the Gloucester woman turned up so many arrowheads and Native American ceramic shards that she and her husband, Bob, felt compelled to share her carefully cataloged garage of finds with archaeologists.
Nearly 15 years after her original discovery, the first public fruits of Ripley's curiosity - and the couple's sense of stewardship - can be seen in a new Jamestown Settlement exhibit.
Titled "Werowocomoco: Seat of Power," it features more than 60 artifacts from the 10,000-year history of what is now known to have been the home village of Powhatan - the powerful chief who ruled some 30 Indian tribes in coastal Virginia when the first English settlers arrived in 1607.
"Werowocomoco is an interesting project in a number of ways. For one thing, it tells you why you need to do archaeology," curator Tom Davidson says.
"It's turned up a page of Virginia's history that we never would have known about from the historical records. Werowocomoco was important before Powhatan came to power - and he came there to reinforce his authority."
Surveyed for the Department of Historic Resources in 2001 by Gloucester archaeologists David Brown and Thane Harpole, the 50-acre site held so many Native American artifacts that College of William and Mary scientists joined a comprehensive, multi-year dig in 2003.
Their most dramatic find was an extensive series of earthworks that dated to 1,300 A.D. - and which defined the highest part of the site as a ceremonial landscape.
Two parallel trench-and-bank features stretched 600 feet - dividing the rise from the rest of the property - while a smaller U-shaped earthwork enclosed an immense native structure 3 times larger than any other find in coastal Virginia.
"These were not palisades. They had no defensive function," Davidson says. "Instead, they had purely symbolic value - expressing power and authority through monumental architectural features."
Initially thought to be colonial in origin because of their size, the 4-foot wide trenches contained only Indian artifacts - and ultimately were dated to about 1,300 A.D. Their discovery marks the first evidence of such significant Native American earthworks in coastal Virginia.
"We know Powhatan was here - and that Werowocomoco functioned as the capital of his chiefdom. We know John Smith was brought here when he was captured - and that the English settlers came here on at least five different occasions to conduct trade negotiations with Powhatan," Davidson says.
"But this recognizes that there was another story behind the story."