BENEATH THE SURFACE
by Betty Burchell
It was all John Thomson's fault. He asked me to ask my husband, Bob, in preparation for an encampment of Boy Scouts, to spray the area around the mounds on Ruppert Island for poison ivy. Nobody had ever called them mounds to my knowledge. It turned out they were not man-made mounds, but they looked pretty unusual to me and when the right time came along they started my imagination to work. This was 1964.
My family can take some credit too. One summer afternoon Bob was fishing in a rowboat near Ruppert, Kenny and I had dropped off on the shore nearby and proceeded to explore the center of the unspoiled isle. We sat down near the mounds, which were long, low humps. Arrowheads had often been found on Ruppert, so I felt fairly confident in telling Kenny that Indians once lived here. He was five years old at the time. It was mostly a question of amusing him. But there were the humps! In went my fingers, hand, and arm through the loose river sand. Ooops! I felt sharp edges and started hauling out little pieces of thin rock, most unlike the water-worn stuff usually found in river beds.
In the weeks that followed I interested my friend Joan Thal-Larsen, who had two little boys. We took our little ones on many occasions, found more sharp rocks and even bits of crude pottery. It was most exciting and time-consuming. We brought the stuff home to save it.
But I realized this would never do. If it were important we were destroying it. We didn't know anything about archaelogy. So one day we took our artifacts and our children to the Smithsonian. It wasn't all that easy to get an interview. Dr. Carl Miller helped us with advice. We got started measuring and recording. Due to illness he could not come to the site until much later. But through him we enlisted members of the Maryland Archaeological Society. They came, worked, and taught us quite a bit. They got us a site number, 18 MO 26.
Spear points had begun to show up. It was probably the next summer before we found pieces of soapstone bowls and beside them thin spearpoints made of a black rock. We were told that this combination is found in sites near the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania.
In the first two years we thought we began to see patterns. There were circles of rock with an artifact in each. We went to great lengths to leave long rows of small rock that looked to us like pavement. The professionals never acknowledged that they were, but we have many measured drawings and photos. Incidentally, many Island members dropped by, I guided them and let them dig a little, following the method we had set up. By this time we had a legal agreement with the club to allow the digging.
But I realized that none of this was really professional. I won't waste space here on the struggle to get someone to do a proper job. Dr. Charles McNett of American University was the answer. It had been four years in coming. He organized a six week (1968) summer school excavation with the agreement from the club. He and his graduate assistant carefully supervised a manageable number of students. I was allowed to act as a student, which I did every day for the full time. Kenny watched and sometimes ran errands between the squares.
A sample patchwork of squares was dug, level by level, with careful notation of the artifacts, measured in reference to a solid base point constructed by Bob. Incidentally, the base point, though it becomes covered by floods, is the only thing left standing at the site.
The artifacts (and a myriad of notes) are at American University. They were laid out on an enormous table, square by square, and analyzed. Only then did the various levels of human occupation become apparent. This is because the strata undulate. A spear point found two feet deep in one square may not correspond in time to one found at the same depth in another. Materials from earlier eras were always found below those from later ones, but sometimes the dirt levels in between varied greatly from square to square.
This brings up the question of age or time period. Archaic is a term applied specifically to those thousand years just preceding the Christian era. In nearby states human occupation has been dated scientifically, with strata belonging to those years. At Ruppert Island no carbon was left so carbon-dating was impossible. However, spear points exactly like those found on dated sites appeared in our various levels. They appeared in the same order. No newer point types were found in deeper levels than the one later declared to be appropriate for the particular point. This is a long-winded way of saying the site was stratified.
Ruppert Island turned out to be the first stratified archaic site found in the Potomac River basin. On the strength of this, the National Science Foundation issued a grant to three colleges, American University included, to do a series of digs, a survey of the river basin, in the years that followed. This is the value of our dig, not the particular points, which have been found all over the Atlantic region, not even the soapstone accompanied by rhyolite points, known as Susquehanna, but the fact they were excavated in an orderly manner and found to be in order. Joan and I could not have done this. It took the know-how of professionals. Dr. McNett's graduate assistant, Ellis E. McDowell has written a site report on the Ruppert project as a part of her M.A. thesis. The manuscript is at A.U. I also have a copy which members are free to borrow.
This may seem like an unglamorous account. Please note that artifacts from the archaic in this area do not appear in glamorous arrangements, nor do they bewitch the eye with their beauty, ever. The real importance of this dig is that to this date only one other stratified archaic site has been identified or excavated in the Potomac River basin. And I have not doubt that ours was significant.