Whatever the field under discussion, those who engage in
debate must not only believe in each other’s good faith, but also in
their capacity to arrive at the truth. Intellectual debate is only
possible between those who are equal in learning and intelligence.
Preferably, they should have no audience, but if they do have one, it
should be an audience of their peers. Otherwise, the desire for
applause, the wish, not to arrive at the truth but to vanquish one’s
opponent, becomes irresistible.
THE PROTESTANT MYSTICS
It is an old and majestic forest. The leaves of summer mute the rush
of traffic on Piney Branch Parkway in the District of Columbia. One
thousand years ago this sylvan glade in Piney Branch Park was an active
stone quarry. Much of the ground was a jumble of debris mounds and open
pits. For generations, the Nacotchtanks and allied tribes harvested
boulders of quartzite dug from the hillsides. From that rock they
fashioned knives, arrow points, and tools for domestic use.
Soon after the arrival of European colonists, the quarry was
abandoned by Native Americans and remained dormant until an
archaeological investigation was undertaken by the Smithsonian
Institution in the 1890s. Under the direction of
William Henry Holmes, the Bureau of Ethnology excavated portions of the
quarry. Because it was a quarry, the Bureau’s
archaeologists found and studied workshop artifacts in all stages of the
manufacturing process, adding greatly to the technical knowledge of how
stone tools were made. Importantly, analysis of these artifacts would
put to rest the popular notion of an American Paleolithic, or Old Stone
The earliest inhabitants of the District of Columbia discovered
quartzite boulders exposed at random in stream beds and on foot trails.
Cobbles of a finer grain and a thin cross section were easier to flake,
and in Piney Branch Park ancient geology had set them in place by the
thousands. Carried down from the mountains of antiquity, rounded and
smoothed by tumbling, the quartzite cobbles of Piney Branch were
quarried by the aboriginal explorers from the ancient banks of the
mighty river that shaped them long ago.
The production goals of the quarry worker were thin, leaf-shaped
quartzite blades. These roughed-out quarry blanks were carried home to
village sites, further reduced in size, sharpened by further thinning,
and then styled into a variety of edged tools.
The first official report of worked stone at Piney Branch was
published in the 1880s by the United States
Geological survey. Florida Avenue was then the city boundary, and
Fourteenth Street, extended, was the access route to the quarry.
Fourteenth “Road,” as it was called then, followed the approximate
route of present-day Ogden Street, spanning Piney Branch stream by means
of a narrow bridge. Obtaining permission from the landowner, Thomas
Blagden, Holmes began his archaeological investigation on the bluffs
above Piney Branch Stream northwest of Fourteenth Road extended. (This
rough, narrow road was soon to be straightened, made grand and wide, and
renamed Sixteenth Street.) With the exception of sporadic forays into
the woods by street contractors to obtain gravel, the property was
undeveloped and heavily wooded. Photographs of the era show it looking
much as it does today.
The hill above Piney Branch Stream is very steep. Climbing to the
top, one passes over deer paths that hug the slope horizontally. Gaps in
the tree branches frame a high-rise apartment building and the stone
arch of the Sixteenth Street Bridge. Flakes of stone worked by the
Indians poke from the soil in profusion; quartzite cobbles by the
hundred dot the landscape. These stones are but a clue on the surface to
what lies below in numberless profusion.
Holmes and his crew dug six ribbon-like trenches that began below the
bluff in the narrow but precipitous ravine, ran the hilltop, then
continued down the other side, ending close to present-day Crestwood
Drive. The trenches were transverse to the bluff so that the broadest
view of the quarry workings could be obtained. They did reach their
goal, the quarry face. The stones at the working face were held tightly
in place by compacted riverine gravel and sand. Holmes proposed that the
natives harvested the stone by undermining sections using wooden levers,
pickaxes of deer antler, and tools of bone. Temporary camps to house the
native workers were built on level sections of the hilltop.
The attributes that designate a stone quarry became apparent
immediately. Cobbles with chunks knocked off to determine quality, waste
flakes, blades broken in the manufacturing process, partially formed and
unfinished rejects cast away as unsuitable were found by the bushel. It
was these rude implements that were of importance to Holmes. Notable
scholars of American antiquity were convinced that implements of such
primitive form were analogous to European artifacts dating to the Old
Stone Age. Perhaps, thought some, the owners of these so-called tools
lived on this continent tens of thousands of years before the “modern
Indian” appeared. W.J. McGee, writing in The
American Anthropologist of July 1889, asserts:
“It seems probable indeed that the quartzite paleoliths of Rock creek
were made long before the days of the arrow-makers whose relics skirt
the shores of the Potomac and Anacostia.”
In the same issue, Thomas Wilson elaborates by accompanying his
article with photographs and sketches of these “Paleolithic
implements.” Confidently, he states: “Paleolithic implements from
the District of Columbia, indeed from all over the United States, are
always chipped, never polished; are almond-shaped, oval, or sometimes
approaching a circle; the cutting edge is at or towards the smaller end
and not, as during the Neolithic period, towards the broad end. They are
frequently made of pebbles, the original surface being sometimes left
unworked in places, sometimes at the butt for a grip, sometimes on the
flat or bottom side, and sometimes, in the cases of these pebbles, on
Wilson’s paragraph is an apt description of much of the quarry
debris scattered on the hillside at Piney Branch, but – this was
important – he was off by about one hundred thousand years in
suggesting they belonged to the Old Stone Age, and he was wrong in
assuming that they were actual tools. He overlooked that fact that
reducing a cantaloupe-sized boulder to a practical spear point requires
great skill. Quartzite chips with difficulty. Once an initial leaf-shape
is roughed out, this lens-shaped form (picture an almond enlarged by a
factor of ten) is further reduced by striking off long, thinning flakes
with a rock or a baton of deer antler. The minimum acceptable
width-to-thickness ratio for an effective projectile point of quartzite
is about four to one. Much thicker than that and it will not fly, and it
will not slice. Thousands of ungainly “pre-tools” litter the
hillside at Piney Branch, and many of them do indeed have the attributes
of the chopping, smashing, hand-ax tools carried by our early ancestors.
The Smithsonian was intrigued by the possibility of an American
Paleolithic. It issued a “Circular Concerning the Department of
Antiquities” querying readers for information on “rude or unfinished
implements of the paleolithic type.” This circular (No. 36)
contained drawings of sample “Paleolithic” artifacts, and was mailed
to professionals, learned societies, amateur archaeologists, and
artifact collectors. The inquiries in Circular 36
netted hundreds of replies, and many correspondents sent the Smithsonian
their “Paleolithic artifacts” for further study. Now we know that
archaeologists have pushed back the time line of the aboriginal
settlement of the Americas, but they have found no evidence that even
the earliest inhabitants devised their tools on these continents. The
earliest Americans arrived with tools in hand, and these tools were of
the Neolithic type.
Today those who replicate the stone tools of the past are called
flintknappers, and there are trade journals, conventions, and Internet
sites devoted to the avocation. In Victorian America, the knowledge of
stone tool technology was in its infancy, despite the fact that in that
age of exploration, stone-age societies were being observed and
documented. Observing and documenting is always one step behind the
practice of doing, and the mechanics behind fracturing stone did not
become widely known until archaeologists began experimenting on their
Piney Branch Quarry was a grand laboratory. It was accessible and
very large, and the stone supply was abundant quartzite. The malformed,
rejected, and broken implements were so numerous that Holmes, director
of the Bureau of Ethnology’s dig, could establish a chronology of the
reduction process. He experimented, by following the step-by-step
process evidenced by quarry finds, and then reported: “I have found
that in reaching one final form I have left many failures by the way,
and that these failures duplicate, and in proper proportions, all the
forms found on the quarry site.” In a testament to enthusiasm, he
wrote further: “I was unfortunately prevented from carrying out these
experiments as full as desirable by permanently disabling my left arm in
attempting to flake a bowlder of very large size.”
In 1897 the Smithsonian published the “Fifteenth
Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology.” Contained within was a
lengthy, superbly-illustrated work titled “Stone Implements of the
Potomac-Chesapeake Tidewater Province,” by William Henry Holmes. This
master work of quarry-site investigation and lithic analysis won the
Loubat Prize as the most important work in American Archaeology of the
preceding three years.
But his work did not end with excavating Piney Branch Quarry. A
quarter-mile north of the Naval Observatory, now the location of the
Vice-President’s house, Holmes investigated another Native quartzite
quarry. “Although hardly beyond the city limits [he wrote], this site
still retains the extreme wildness of a primitive forest and is
penetrated by obscure trails only. The sound of the hammer is now
constantly heard, however, even in the wildest spots, and suburban
avenues threaten it on all sides.”
Surely Holmes was pleased when Rock Creek Park was established in 1890.
It is now a grand city park of almost eighteen hundred acres. Piney
Branch Park is a stone’s throw from the bustle of the city. There, the
handwork of the original inhabitants of the District of Columbia still
covers the ground in abundance: it is our museum in the woods.
Getting there: The quartzite quarries are a few hundred feet west
of the Sixteenth Street Bridge, on the north side. If you drive west on
Piney Branch Parkway, you come to a traffic turnout just beyond the
bridge. You can park there and walk directly into the woods. Good places
to spot the quarry debris are in the roots of upturned trees and in the
deep ravine where stone has eroded out the sides. Remember, however,
that it is illegal to remove archaeological materials from public lands.
Photos from Piney Creek Park
| A roughly-shaped cobble typical of many quarry
rejects at the site. Because of its similarity to early stone-age
artifacts found in Europe, it helped give rise to the belief that “ancient
man” lived in the Americas before American Indians. This tool could
not be reduced by thinning. It was already far too thick for its width
and was therefore thrown away. The photo was taken on site against a
| On the left are two quarry rejects; on the right, two
projectile point parts, a tip and a base, broken in the process of
manufacturing. They were photographed on site against a white backdrop.
| On the ground in Piney Creek Park lie exposed cobbles,
flakes, and rejects.
Holmes, William Henry, “Stone Implements of the Potomac-Chesapeake
Tidewater Province.” THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF WILLIAM HENRY
HOLMES, David J. Meltzer and Robert C.
Dunnell, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1992).
W.J. McGee, “The Geologic Antecedents of Man in the Potomac
Valley,” The American Anthropologist, Vol. 2,
No. 3 July 1889, pp. 227-235.
Thomas Wilson, “Results of an Inquiry as to the Existence of Man in
North America During the Paleolithic Period of the Stone Age,” Annual
Report of the National Museum, 1888, pp.
___________, “Paleolithic Period in the District of Columbia,” The
American Anthropologist, Vol. 2, No. 3
July 1889, pp. 235-241.
“Circular (No. 36) Concerning the Department of Antiquities,” cited
in Wilson, “Results of an Inquiry as to the Existence of Man in
North America…,” op. cit.
Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary
of the Smithsonian Institution, 1893-94.
Washington, D. C.: Gov’t Printing Office, 1897.
Note: The original Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of
Ethnology is a handsome, splendid book, but it is long out of print. You
can order one through an out-of-print book service but will have to
spent $150.00 for a decent
copy. I would buy THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES,
cited above. The article “Stone Implements of the Potomac-Chesapeake
Tidewater Province” – first published in the Fifteenth Annual Report
of the Bureau of Ethnology – appears in this volume in its entirety.
(Anthony Baker lives in
Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a builder and the owner of a
bookstore on-line specializing in volumes on American Indians. His “Flintknapping”
appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 4, No. 4.)