Archaeology is a fun subject, but there’s a decent amount of unsubstantiated claims in the field. For example, we know a lot about the people living in New England in the 18th century, because they left lots of written records and physical evidence. A lot has been lost over time, but science has gotten better so we can look at old bones and old artifacts and learn things missing from the written.
The people in 8th century New England are a different story. They left little evidence, far fewer bones and not much of a record, written or otherwise. The further you go back, they less evidence we have to go on and that means lots of speculation. There’s nothing wrong with speculation as it can lead to discovery. A good narrative that incorporates the available evidence can lead researchers to troves of new evidence, but it can also be complete nonsense. Here’s an example.
Concentric stone circles near rocks weighing more than a ton — apparently aligned to mark solar events — are believed to be part of a Paleo-Indian site in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Clarke County that an expert has dated to about 10,000 B.C.
The complex along Spout Run has 15 above-ground stone features. Though still under study, it could be one of the oldest man-made structures in North America still in existence and twice as old as England’s Stonehenge.
Christ and Rene White, who own the property near Bluemont and made the initial discovery, credit their Native American heritage for the finding.
When Chris White, who is of Cherokee descent, was building a home for himself and his wife — who is a Lumbee Indian — on the wooded land, he said he often took a break to walk by Spout Run, which tumbles downhill in its rocky bed across his land.
Something told him that the area was important, and he decided to create a stone medicine wheel on the 20-acre property below Bears Den Trail Center — a lodge owned by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
To his surprise, he realized the area across the stream already had a stone circle. In fact, it had several concentric stone circles.
The first red flag is the Indian heritage stuff. We’re supposed to believe that Indians just know how to recognize Indian stuff. He is Cherokee, of course. They always pick the cool tribes. The Fake Indian from Massachusetts, who is really a WASP, claims to be Cherokee. I bet if we learn that the Cherokee were cannibals the number of people claiming to be Cherokee would suddenly plummet. Anyway, the medicine wheel nonsense is a nice touch.
For a professional opinion, the Whites contacted retired archaeologist Jack Hranicky of Alexandria, who had investigated five other Paleo-Indian sites in Virginia.
It was Hranicky who realized that the rocks in and outside the circles aligned with special features on the Blue Ridge.
A line from a center rock, over a specific boundary rock, intersects the feature called Bears Den Rocks on the mountain. Standing on that center rock, looking northeast, a viewer can see the sun rise over Bears Den on the day of the summer solstice in June.
Moving around the circle, another set of rocks points to Eagle Rock on the Blue Ridge, and also to sunrise on the day of the spring and fall equinox in March and September.
Yet a third points to a saddle in the mountain, where the sun rises at the winter solstice in December.
This could be true or it could be nonsense. Almost everything we “know” about Amerind people is speculative. We take what we know about Native Americans and work backward, trying to explain the fossil record and archaeological evidence. Genetic evidence confirms the very broad outlines of how and when people entered North America from Eurasia. The mass of knowledge that is confirmed is a drop in the ocean of what is speculative. Again, nothing wrong with it, but this news story makes it sound like we know that these people had a high level of sophistication.
To date the age of the site, Hranicky excavated an area of five square feet, carefully numbering every rock and setting it aside, to be replaced later. He wanted to create as little disturbance as possible in hopes that future technology will have better methods of studying the site. His digging exposed three artifacts — a thin blade of quartzite, a small piece of jasper and another piece of the rock that had been shaped to be used as a small scraper.
Hranicky believes the jasper ties the Spout Run site to the Thunderbird Archaeological District, an intensely excavated Paleo-Indian site on the Shenandoah River in Warren County.
There, 9,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians — who Hranicky calls Virginia’s first engineers — quarried jasper from the river’s west bank to make tools.
Hranicky suggests that after quarrying jasper for tools at Thunderbird, Native Americans walked down the Shenandoah River and held some sort of cultural ceremonies at the Spout Run site. Rock engravings in the shape of footprints could be intended to mark where to stand to observe an equinox.
To get some idea of the site’s age, a section of jasper from the Spout Run site was sent to James Feathers, who runs the Luminescence Dating Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle.
This, said Feathers, is a dating method based on solid-state physics. Materials absorb energy from natural processes and can store that energy for indefinite periods of time. Exposure to heat can release energy.
According to Feathers, the piece of jasper found along Spout Run was heated, perhaps in a campfire, and it’s possible to determine by the proportion of luminescence when that occurred.
“The method has been in use for more than 30 years,” Feathers explained, “and has been shown to be accurate against independent dating evidence. Precision is usually 10 percent or better.”
The date when that piece of jasper was burned on the Blue Ridge, Chris White said, is about 10,470 B.C.
This is consistent with other evidence. Humans entered North America roughly 10,000 years ago. The dating method is reliable and the types of tools would be consistent with hunter-gatherer populations. There are still some big holes, as genetics is revealing some populations in South America who are closer related to pacific islanders than the rest of the native people. How that happened is a mystery.
This is interesting stuff, but the desire to deify the Native Americans gets the better of the people reporting on it. The truth is the Amerind people were not very advanced, even by the standards of the world 10,000 years ago. These stones could very well just be cool looking stones. Anyone who has spent time in the wild has run across some amazing looking stuff created by Mother Nature.