Severin Condon

Evidence of Prehistoric Subsistence in the Potomac River Valley


The purpose of this report is show evidence in the archaeological record of anthropogenic use of the Potomac River Basin from c. 10,000 B.C. to 1,400 A.D. This data will then be analyzed for the purpose of constructing a subsistence pattern for the cultures during the specified timeline.

             Research in the area of the Potomac River Basin will extend longitudinally from approximately the area of present day Cumberland, Maryland (Valley and Ridge Province), to approximately the area of present day Frederick, Maryland ( the Great Valley), however; archaeological sites that seem pertinent to this report, and within the Potomac River Basin, yet exceed this parameter, will be included. Northerly and Southerly perimeters will vary in distance from the Potomac River according to the relevant data within a proposed site.    

There are several reasons for selecting this specific area instead of the entire Potomac River Basin, specifically the Coastal Plain and Piedmont region.  First, the Potomac River Basin includes a vast area that would have required either years of research, or a more specified culture and timeline than that of this report in order to achieve an accurate assessment of subsistence patterns.   Secondly, the amount of archaeological data pertaining to the Piedmont and Coastal Plain area is substantially greater than that of areas to the west. Including this data would again have required a significantly larger volume of text, and it also would have increased the possibility of erroneous conclusions through my inexperience in archaeological interpretation and lack of complete data. And finally, the amount of information at each site and how many total sites in this area is important in answering the question of why there is a lack of archaeological data compared to other areas and whether this is due to a lack of discovery or an actual habitual pattern due to physiographical, sociological, or political barriers.

            The order of this study will begin with a description of the environment and topography of the Potomac River Basin. The organization of data will be in chronological order and divided by cultural transitions. For each cultural time period, there will be a brief description of the cultural characteristics, any diagnostic artifacts or features that identify that culture in the archaeological record, followed by a display of evidence.

            The cultures identified in the report, in chronological order, are the Paleo-Indian culture (c. 10,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C.): the early, middle, and late Archaic cultures (collectively dating from 8,000 B.C. to 1,200 B.C.), and the early, middle, and late Woodland cultures (collectively dating from 1,200 B.C. to 1,400 A.D.). The dates given are in respect to the occupation of the Potomac River Basin and do not reflect the time of arrival in North America. In addition, although the Woodland cultures persisted well into the contact period (15th Century), 1,400 A.D. was chosen as an arbitrary cutoff in order to limit the amount of data. It also should be noted that the sites given do not reflect all of the sites that exist within this range, as there are many more published and non  published sites.

             Research includes sources from journal articles, reports, Ph.D. dissertations, and book excerpts. These sources include excavation reports, data analysis, and literature on pre-historical cultures and environments. Conclusion from the data will be a hypothetical reconstruction of subsistence patterns based upon portions of the archaeological record and do not reflect a scientifically proven reconstruction.


Potomac River Basin

            The Potomac River Basin is considered to be part of the Middle Atlantic region and contained within five geological areas: the Alleghany Plateau, the Valley and Ridge Province, the Great Valley, the Piedmont Plateau, and the Coastal Plains. The source of the Potomac River lies in the Alleghany Plateau, formed by the North Branch and South Branch, and flows approximately 192 miles to its headwaters in the Chesapeake Bay (Ebaugh: 26). Its major tributaries include the Anacostia River, Antietam Creek, the Cacapon River, Catoctin Creek, Conocoheague Creek, the Monocacy River, the North Branch, the Occoquen River, the Savage River, Seneca Creek, and the Shenandoah River (Basin).

            The Great Valley is bordered to the East by the Blue Ridge Mountains, which separates the Valley from the Piedmont Plateau. The mountains are considered an anticlinorium formed by Precambrian and Cambrian metavolcanics (, the dominant rock is resistant quartzite and sandstone, and of prehistorical importance, occasional rhyolite outcroppings occur midway up the Blue Ridge Mountains (Stewart 1980: 119), such as the Highland metarhyolite outcropping (Geasey, Ballweber: 75).  To the West of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the valley which contains Antietam Creek, Conocoheague Creek, and the Shenandoah River. The dominant bedrock for this area is comprised of non-resistant shale and limestone (Schmidt. Jr: 51). Elevations for the Blue Ridge Mountains in Maryland to Dans Mountain just West of Cumberland range from 2,895 feet to 200 feet (MGS).

To the West of the Great Valley, beginning approximately around the area of Clear Spring, is the Valley and Ridge Province containing ridges and folds, in a Northeasterly to Southwesterly fashion, comprised of limestone, shale, and dolomite. Of prehistorical importance, chert outcroppings occur in the Clear Spring, Hancock, and Cumberland areas. Significant water bodies in this region include the Cacapon River. To the West of present day Cumberland, Maryland is the Alleghany Plateau region, containing mostly limestone, sandstone, and shale (Schmidt, Jr: 51). The annual average rainfall for the Potomac Region is 40.5 inches a year, and consists of “humid mesothermal climates shading from humid-sub-tropical with warm summer, to humid continental with cool summers (Carbone: 29).

The Potomac region is a very compatible environment for a wide array of flora and fauna that were continuously used by the Indians for food, medicinal, and practical purposes. Some of the animals, in addition to a wide array of game birds, fish, and amphibians, occurring in the region are black bear, deer, opossum, raccoon, otter, and fox.  Trees include walnut, oak, maple, beech, hickory, and poplar (Ebaugh: 45). 


      The environment of the Potomac River Basin at the time of the paleo-Indian cultures (10,000-8,000 B.C.) coincides with the Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs of geologic time, producing a cool and wet climate (McWeeney, Kellog: 194-195).

The Wisconsin ice sheet that once occupied much of the continent (Maxwell, Davis), as far South as Southern Pennsylvania, were slowly receding towards the North, thus rivers and streams were most likely fluent year round from the increase in the water table level, however, winters were probably relatively mild due to the glacier acting as a barrier to the artic air currents (Carbone: 19). The dominant vegetation is believed to be alpine tundra existing in the higher elevations of the Appalachians, open conifer-deciduous woodlands in the foothills, and conifer dominated trees in the forests, such as spruce, pine, fir, oak, and birch. It is believed by Brown and Cleland that a “mosaic type pattern of vegetation existed that supported the subsistence of animals that would not be found together otherwise” (Stewart 1980: 175). Wildlife during this time period included moose, caribou, elk, bison, mastodon, mammoth, camel and horse (Stewart 1980: 175)

            Around 8,080 B.C. the environment began to warm leading to a Pre-boreal/ Boreal type episode, supporting willow, sycamore, elm and ash trees. Through the warming of the environment the amount of precipitation decreased and evaporation increased leading to a decrease in the water table level and subsequently the rivers and streams probably began to recede. By the end of the Boreal episode, most of the large mammals such as the horse, camel, mastodon and mammoth were extinct (Stewart 1980: 175).

            Around 6,540 B.C. the Atlantic Episode began, displaying a continued warming trend. The Atlantic Episode is believed to have gone through a warm/ humid climate in its beginning to a warm/ dry climate near its climax c. 2,290 B.C. (Carbone: 16). The dominant forest at this time period is considered to have gone from an oak/ hickory period to an oak/ chestnut period (Stewart 1980: 175).

            Following these climatic periods the climate is believed to have become stable with warm summers and cold winters. With the exception of the Little Ice Age occurring during the 14th to 18th Centuries, the environment has changed little regarding climate.


            The time period of the paleo-Indian for the Potomac River Basin area extends from approximately 10,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. Due to the environment and population density at this time, it is believed the Indians were of the hunter gatherer groups, with very little continued habitation or territorialism of land. Interaction, trade, and warfare between different bands were minimal, as land and game can be assumed to be plentiful. Mega fauna such as the mammoth and mastodon were key targets for their food source as well as nuts and berries (Hulse).

The Paleo-Indian can be identified in the archaeological record by the fluted projectile point. Based upon the styles of the fluted point, the Paleo-Indian can be furthermore dissected into an early, middle, and late phase, each categorized by a distinct difference in the style and shape of the projectile point. The early Paleo-Indian phase is identifiable by the classic Clovis fluted lanceolate projectile point, the middle phase by projectiles such as the Simpson and Cumberland types, and the late phase by projectiles such as the Dalton / Plano, Hardaway, and Big Sandy types (Anderson: 4).

      A study conducted by Anderson on settlement patterns throughout Eastern North America clearly indicates a lack of Paleo-Indian diagnostics in this region compared to other regions of Mid-Atlantic. Based upon maps showing incidence of Paleo-Indian projectile points by county (completed in the 1990’s), West Virginia shows a complete lack of data, and surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties indicate only 1-24 points, with the most concentrated areas being that of the Ohio Valley region

(Anderson: 6). Anderson does indicate through an ‘interaction corridor’ simulation that a migration of Paleo-Indian people ranging from the Ohio Valley region Northeast to middle Pennsylvania and also throughout the Virginia Coastal Piedmont region (Anderson

            The Catoctin Creek Site, located on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River, is reported by Dent to be the only Paleo-Indian site known in the Potomac River Valley. Identifiable artifacts include two fluted bifaces in association with several other artifacts (Dent: 24-25).


            The archaic culture began in the Potomac River Basin around 8,000 B.C. to 1,200 B.C., with the identifiable trademarks of increased tool technology. During this time period, hunting was still the major focus for the food source; however, the mega fauna had become extinct and rivers and streams were vanishing, leading to a shift in the general foraging pattern (Gardner: 2, 50). Diagnostically, the archaic is identifiable by a spear throwing device called an atlatl and the change from a fluted projectile points to a notched projectile point. The notched projectile point clearly demonstrates the technological transition; unlike the lanceolate projectile, the notched projectile points have notches towards the bottom of the point to help secure the spear, line, and point.  A ‘tool bag’ also seemed to have become common, including stone drills, hammer stones, and stone axes (Gardner: 49).

The middle archaic, beginning around 6,500 B.C., is distinguishable by diagnostic projectile points, such as the LeCroy, Stanly, Morrow Mountain 1 and Morrow Mountain 2 styles (Gardner: 53).

            The late Archaic, beginning around 2,500 B.C. and ending around 1,200 B.C., is characterized culturally by more stabilized subsistence patterns and a projectile points such as the Savannah River Broadspear, appearing throughout the east coast from Maine to Georgia (Gardner: 59), and Susquehanna Broadspear types.

            Among the sites to reveal Late Archaic evidence is the Wolfe Site, the Mullinix Site, the Miller Site, and also the Chase Site; all located in close proximity to the Little Catoctin Creek, and all are noted by Geaser and Ballweber as rhyolite processing sites, believed to have been reliant on the Highland outcropping, and campsites (75).

Some of the diagnostic artifacts retrieved from these sites include the Susquehanna Broadspear, Bare Island, and Levanna point types (Geasey, Ballweber: 89).  Within close proximity to these sites is the Highland Site, believed to be the primary quarry workshop in the area. This site revealed 304 ‘blanks’ (unfinished products or discarded pieces) and 142 hammerstones, which 91 percent did not originate from that area (Geasey, Ballweber: 79), indicating the traveling that took place to reach the quarry.



            The transition from the Archaic culture to the Woodland Culture, around 1,200 B.C., is characterized by the increase in prolonged settlements and subsistence patterns (partly due to the climatic stabilization and the also the arrival of horticulture, and later on, agriculture) and the introduction of pottery (Fiedel: 101.

            The early woodland time period is largely characterized by the Adena culture, which occupied much of the Ohio Valley region, and is recognized for the ceremonial mounds that were used for ceremonial burials, which have been discovered throughout the middle Atlantic. Ceramic pottery became apparent at this time period. The pottery was for the most part shell tempered and with little or no decoration, compared to the pottery from the middle and late woodland, which is characterized by a more diverse style of tempering and decoration. The early woodland pottery types include the Marcey Creek and Seldom Island cord marked styles.

In the Great Valley Region, multiple rock shelter sites have been recorded. These sites are generally believed to be used for overnight purposes on hunting trips or expeditions to and from quarry sites. Some of these sites include the Stevens Rock Shelter, located near present day New Market in Frederick County, Maryland, containing evidence of early woodland diagnostics and late Woodland diagnostics; interestingly, no evidence of the middle Woodland period was discovered. The earliest use of this site is thought to have been during the Archaic-Woodland transitional period, with the identification of the Perkiomen broadpoint, dating around 1,700 B.C.

The late Woodland period is represented at this location by many more artifacts, including pottery types of the Albemarle series, than the early Woodland, indicating more use (Geasey: 27). Also mentioned by Geasey is the Boyers Mill Rock Shelter, located a short distance away from the Stevens Rock Shelter. He describes this site as “containing a rater large inventory of cultural materials” dating from the Archaic period and continuing thru the late Woodland period (Geasey: 27)

            One of the few sites researched in the western portion of the study include the Barton Complex, located South of Cumberland, Maryland. Although 732 artifacts, indicating an Archaic period base camp (Wall, Curry: 11) were collected from this site, a basin-shaped feature containing twenty eight pottery sherds indicates and Early Woodland occupation. These sherds have been related to the Half Moon ware type found in Garrett County Maryland. Also discovered in the feature were two projectile points associated with the Adena people (Wall: 13).

Middle Woodland

            The middle Woodland time period is characterized by the Hopewell culture. This time period also shows ceremonial mounds, however; with an increase in stone mounds versus the earthen mounds made by the Adena cultures. It is during this time period that horticultural practices occur, leading inevitably to the full blown agriculture occurring during the late Woodland phase.

            The late Woodland phase is arguably where the most significant changes occurred, including the invention of the bow and arrow, agriculture, and stockaded villages due to the increase in territorialism and furthermore, warfare.

            The first site containing evidence of Late Woodland is the Bushey’s Cavern site, located near present day Cavetown, Washington County Maryland. Among the artifacts collected at this site is a rimsherd of Riggins Ware pottery type. This pottery type is well known throughout the Coastal Plain region of Maryland and into the Northern coastal regions of the Mid-Atlantic. It typically shows crushed quartz as a tempering agent, although shell tempered sherds have also been discovered (Barse: 14-15). It is noted by Barse that the occurrence of Riggins Ware pottery in this region in addition to other pottery types typically found in the Coastal region indicate a possible exploitation of this region, instead of settlement patterns, by the Coastal Piedmont and Tidewater region inhabitants (Barse: 18). This evidence coincides with a theory by MacCord that there was a Late Woodland migration from the piedmont into the Tidewater region (MacCord: 7). According to Rountree and Davidson, the Late Woodland people were probably the ancestors of the chiefdom tribes that the Europeans made contact with during the 16th century, such as the Accomacs, Nanticokes and Piscataway’s (Rountree, Davidson: 27). 


            Subsistence patterns for the Paleo-Indian period is perhaps best displayed by Anderson’s study of fluted projectile points throughout Eastern North America, since the lack of abundant artifacts in this region in particular makes it difficult to assimilate an accurate pattern. His reports indicate the Paleo-Indian people migrated to this region from a Southwesterly direction, and in another report, suggests this occurred due to “demographic pressures and avoid redundant land use” (Anderson 2:19)

As can be derived from the reported data, extensive studies have been conducted in the Great Valley Region, in comparison to the Valley and Ridge region, for its abundance of quarry sites, manufacturing sites, and habitual sites. Coincidentally, the rise of rhyolite use during the middle Archaic into the Woodland periods appears at the same time as the climate was stabilizing. It is perhaps the colder climates, increased alpine tundra, and higher water levels during the Paleo-Indian period that little evidence of these peoples exists in the Valley and Ridge and Great Valley regions. As the climate warms, water levels decrease, and alpine tundra is replaced by Boreal and later deciduous forests, the migration of tribes and bands into this region leads to the discovery of new sources for technological needs. As rhyolite became more useful to the Indians for tools and weaponry, extensive trips were made into this region for exploitation of its rhyolite outcroppings and other resources. It can also be speculated that the Coastal Regions during the Woodland periods demonstrated a pristine environment for subsistence during the warmer months, and during the late middle and late Woodland phase, prime agricultural land; leading to a higher population concentration in that region. It is hypothesized by Fiedel, however, that there was an actual decrease in population during the Early Woodland period, based upon the lack of “sites and components that can be assigned to the Early Woodland” (107).  

In order to create an accurate subsistence pattern for all cultural time periods in this region, an extensive calculation of all sites located in the Middle Atlantic should be reviewed in order to assess the inevitable fluctuation of data from one region to another, and from each site, calculate and compare cultural features and diagnostic artifacts in order to assess the type of site and relevance of data quantity (i.e. rock shelter vs. winter camp would prove abundance of data irrelevant).

Once this is completed, it should then become apparent where there should be an abundance of data and where a lack of data would be justified. If there is a lack of data in one region, encircled by rock shelters and small camps, then a lack of data would be an indication of no settlements occurring in that region, and a possible migratory route. However; if there is a region with minimal data encompassed by an extensive settlement site, then a plausible research design for excavation could be introduce for that region.




















Works Cited


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1989. Additional Sites with Riggins Ware Pottery in Maryland. Maryland Archaeology. Vol. 25 (1):14-20

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